Columns > Published on January 16th, 2013

7 Strategies to Outsmart Writer's Block

Header by Rob Young

A writer who has never experienced writer's block probably hasn't written very much. Overcoming writer's block isn't as simple as "just writing" or "willing through" the difficulty. However, by understanding writer's block, you can employ strategies that let you maneuver around the problem, effectively outsmarting this common adversary of writers around the world.

Why do we get writer's block?

Here's a grossly oversimplified version of where writer's block comes from:

The human brain has three major systems: The reptilian brain, which covers our intuitive and survival responses; the mammalian brain, which houses our emotional systems and many core mental processes; and the neo-mammalian brain, which gives us the ability to communicate, understand complex thoughts, and imagine realities that aren't physically present.

The left and right sides of the brain also function differently, with (broadly speaking) the left hemisphere working in a linear fashion that compresses and organizes the world and the right hemisphere working in an associative fashion that expands and explores the world.

As writers, our creative processes happen primarily in the right hemisphere of the neo-mammalian brain. Writer's block happens because many of our emotional responses—especially our reactions to stress and anxiety—lock us out of that part of the brain. The solutions to writer's block are all based on getting back into the part of the brain that's actually capable of writing creatively.

If you're interested in more, check out my blog entry, titled "Write-Brained: The Brain Chemistry of Writing and Writer's Block," which goes into far greater depth on the neuroscience and psychology of writing.

Seven Ways to Outsmart Writer's Block

1) Eat the best brain foods.

By understanding writer's block, you can employ strategies that let you maneuver around the problem, effectively outsmarting this common adversary of writers around the world.

The core dilemma: We're adrenaline junkies. Our minds are accustomed to using stimulants to break through emotional blockages. This can lead to behaviors with self-destructive consequences.

Do you smoke, drink caffeine, or overeat when stressed about a writing project? Those behaviors are responses to an intuitive system that indicates more focus will be required for the task at hand. The chemical outcome of stimulants and binge eating is that your brain gets a shot of dopamine and/or adrenaline. These are the focus drugs that allow us to "push through" the anxiety that underlies writer's block. This is also why being right up against a deadline gives a kick; your increased level of adrenaline is a natural stimulant.

The solution: Eat the right types of food to get a similar chemical response without the self-destructive outcomes.

You can give yourself a healthy dopamine boost by eating foods high in protein and amino fatty acids. This lets you sidestep both the health risks and the negative emotional spiral that can be triggered by stimulants or binge-eating. Supplements specifically designed to give you protein and amino fatty acids are great. Fish, lean poultry, eggs, and beans are also good options.

2) Go for a walk.

The core dilemma: Staring at a screen can trigger an anxiety cycle that keeps you locked out of your writing brain.

Many writers freeze in response to the fear and anxiety that causes writer's block. As they continue to focus on work that isn't moving forward, they become more anxious and thus less able to write.

The solution: Move.

Going for a walk allows you to avoid a major source of your anxiety while giving yourself a boost in mental resources.

While the exact connection between exercise and dopamine is still being studied, regular exercise has been shown as an effective way to decrease levels of stress and increase your overall happiness. Both of these outcomes bolster creativity.

Further, going for a walk can have meditative properties; the focus on movement and breath is similar to meditation, and thus may mirror the dopamine increase that happens when meditating (a phenomenon that has been scientifically observed in numerous studies).

3) Note the next concrete part of your project you could write.

The core dilemma: The scope of a project can create panic.

You don't write a book. You write a word which becomes a sentence, a paragraph, a page, and a chapter. When all the chapters are written, we call that a book—but you've only ever written words.

Ironically, it's often our creative imagination that prevents us from writing. We imagine the book as a whole rather than as a sum of its parts. Our brain, being a problem-solving machine, naturally tries to figure out how to write a book as a whole. The result is often panic, which prevents us from writing anything at all.

The solution: Narrow the definitions of your task to include only the next concrete step.

Instead of writing your goal as the final outcome (e.g., "I want to finish writing this novel by March"), write the next concrete step that's visible from your current vantage point. This allows you to move into the work without facing the emotional weight of the project as a whole.

Writer's block can sometimes make it feel impossible to even note the next step. If so, maybe your next step is simply "Open the document," "Do a brainstorming activity," or "Do a Google search for 'stroke statistics.'" That's perfectly fine. It all counts.

4) Write anything.

You don't write a book. You write a word which becomes a sentence, a paragraph, a page, and a chapter. When all the chapters are written, we call that a book—but you've only ever written words.

The core dilemma: Fear of failure and fear of success often lead to either perfectionism or writer's block.

When fears associated with the project lead to perfectionism, the writing functions inefficiently because we're working in the left hemisphere of the brain. Just as often, our fears shut down the writing process completely.

Writing is an intimate task that leaves us vulnerable to rejection. It's hard not to identify with our work to at least some degree, and avoiding completion is an effective way to avoid the subsequent opportunities for rejection.

Further, we live in a world where success is temporary. Every accomplishment means higher expectations and greater responsibility. As psychologist Shawn Achor states in his hilariously insightful TED talk, we are shifting the definition of success so happiness is always just over the cognitive horizon. It makes good sense to embrace inaction when trapped between the pressures of success and the pain of rejection.

Shawn Achor's book, The Happiness Advantage, is one of the best introductions to positive psychology I've encountered; it's well worth a read. Fear of failure and fear of success are also discussed extensively by the psychiatrist Neil Fiore in his books The Now Habit and The Now Habit at Work, both of which I highly recommend.

The solution: Write with the intention of failing.

Everything you write now can be discarded, and much if it will be. The writing process is just that: A process. Write anything at all, even if it's irrelevant to the story or project. If you looked at every word I wrote while drafting my standard chapter, you'd find several references to ducks, at least two or three "your mom" jokes, and usually at least one threat to the Pope (I have yet to figure out why). These things don't get the story anywhere, but they allow my brain to move in a non-linear direction that opens up creative opportunities.

I talk about this topic extensively in my article "Organic Word-Growing: Why You Should Keep the Shit in Your Writing," so check that out if you'd like more on this topic.

5) Talk it out.

The core dilemma: Language is restricted to a relatively small part of the brain, and it can be challenging to communicate when you are the only participant in that communication.

While working from our neo-mammalian, we're wizards of communication. When working from our mammalian brain, our linguistic and intellectual abilities are stunted. When working with our reptilian brain, our communicative skills all but vanish.

The solution: Talk to a friend about the creative dilemmas, talking out "what if" options.

Discussing the project will force your brain to shift back into the mode of the neo-mammalian brain. This allows you to face the anxiety with a stronger array of cognitive tools.

6) Shift into a creative activity.

The core dilemma: When locked in linear-analytical thinking, your mind is less capable of creative thought.

Many writers step away from their project as a coping mechanism. Shifting gears can be a really great way to get unstuck, but we often switch to a left-brained activity. When we get involved in left-brain work as a detour from writing, we exhaust emotional resources while remaining in a mindset that's less functional for our creative tasks.

The solution: Shift into an unstressed creative activity.

Ideally, this will be an activity that isn't embedded with fear and anxiety. I often use flash fiction for this purpose, although any other creative medium—anything that gets you thinking with your creative mind—will work. The key is to shift gears into something that opens up your creative resources.

It's not uncommon to have a eureka moment when making a creative shift of this nature. By stepping away from the anxiety but into the creative mind, you're outmaneuvering the creative block.

7) Re-evaluate your reasons for writing this story.

The core dilemma: A lack of drive is sometimes a simple matter of not caring about the story enough to finish it.

We discover a story and fall in love with it. We have to write it. Then the magic wears off. We stop feeling "in love." Our continued work is based on a sense of obligation or shame rather than actual desire.

However, "in love" and "love" are fundamentally different things. Too often, humans assume that falling out of love makes love pointless. Likewise, falling out of love with a piece can damage our ability to love it appropriately.

Those passionate feelings are great as motivators, but if you felt passionately about a crappy story, it doesn't spontaneously make it a great story. Likewise, if you've lost your fervor for a story that's worth telling, it doesn't suddenly lose its value.

The solution: Re-evaluate your motives for writing the story.

This isn't a matter of talking yourself into wanting something different. It's about really listening to what you do want.

Sometimes we're afraid of listening to our desires. Giving up means admitting defeat, and honest evaluation means "giving up" has to be an option. However, whether you decide the story is worth writing or not, being honest with ourselves moves us forward. Whether we commit to writing or quitting, we're in a stronger emotional and creative position than we were previously.

Everyone works in different ways, so these tips shouldn't be viewed as a magic elixir. However, by understanding some of the basic causes and potential solutions to writer's block you, can give yourself additional resources for outsmarting this common adversary of writers around the world.

About the author

Rob is a writer and educator. He is intensely ADD, obsessive about his passions, and enjoys a good gin and tonic. Check out his website for multiple web fiction projects, author interviews, and various resources for writers.

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