How to overcome writer’s block

I have been writing on this website almost every weekday for the past few months. Sometimes, it comes easy—I feel inspired, the words flow, and everything just clicks. But other times, I stare for a while at a blank page, unable to start writing. Writer’s block is commonly described as a creative slowdown, which is not in any way caused by a lack of writing skills or commitment issues. For some people, it may last for years. Many writers have experienced it throughout history, from Moby Dick’s author Herman Melville to songwriter Adele. It can be incredibly distressing, especially for people who write for a living.

“I needed to write to feel, but without feeling I couldn’t write.”

Phyllis Koestenbaum.

The neuropsychological causes of writer’s block

One common reason why we may experience writer’s block is a lack of inspiration. While the Greeks believed that inspiration came from the muses, recent research unsurprisingly seems to suggest otherwise. In a 2016 study, Japanese researchers asked a group of students to either copy or simply muse upon artwork in order to determine whether these activities would increase their creative output.

The results were extremely interesting, showing a similar increase in creative output whether the students were copying or musing upon the example artworks—but only when the artworks featured a style that was unfamiliar to them. The researchers think these artworks were more effective as they challenged the students’ perspectives. 

Bottom line? If you experience writer’s block because of a lack of inspiration, take a break and go explore work that’s unfamiliar to you. Read something you’ve never read before, by an author you don’t know well. As the researchers put it in their paper: “Imitation is an effective driver of creativity, even for experts.”

But there may be something more than a lack of inspiration to writer’s block. Neurologist Alice W. Flaherty argues that literary creativity is a function of specific areas of the brain. In her book about the topic, she suggests that writer’s block might be the result of brain activity being disrupted in those areas. She gives the example of hypergraphia, a behavioural condition characterised by an intense desire to write, which is associated with damage to the temporal lobe. If damage to this area causes an intense desire to write, one may imagine that writer’s block also emerges from that brain area.

There is very little research on the topic, and we still don’t understand the exact neurobiological mechanisms behind writer’s block, but one thing is for sure: being stressed doesn’t help. When we’re stressed, our brain will shift control from the cerebral cortex to the limbic system. This is the typical “fight or flight” response where we go into automatic mode, with deeply ingrained mechanisms designed to protect ourselves. Not the best for inspiration and creativity.

Now that we understand where writer’s block comes from, what can we do about it?

8 science-based techniques to overcome writer’s block

I asked people on Twitter if they ever experienced writer’s block and what they did about it. 60% said they write and have experienced writer’s block, 13% said they also write but haven’t experienced it, and 27% don’t write so they’ve never experienced writer’s block. In terms of strategies, people mentioned starting a project that forced them to write and publish something everyday, reading new material, pausing for a while, going for a walk, meditating, brainstorming, or pushing through a first draft even if it’s not good.

Research has identified a few ways to overcome writer’s block. Of course, if it’s a long term issue you’re facing, you may want to dig deeper to understand the underlying causes, such as chronic stress. But if you’re just feeling stuck from time to time, these techniques will help you get your creative juices flowing again.

  1. Talking it out. Expressing what’s going on inside your mind is more effective than staring at a blank page. Grab a friend or a fellow writer and explain to them exactly what’s blocking you. Is the story not going in the right direction? Did you lose interest in the work? Are you not sure what to write about next? Are you struggling to figure out an exciting angle? Talk about it and let your friend ask you questions. Very often, you’ll have a “a-ha” moment.
  2. Journaling. If talking with someone is not an option, you can also “talk to yourself” through journaling. Do not write about the topic of the work that’s making you experience writer’s block. Write about your mindset and your emotions. Do not try to find a solution, just describe how you feel, and ask yourself honest questions.
  3. Free writing. It may seem counterintuitive to solve writer’s block through writing, but this technique has been shown to be effective. It involves continuous writing, without any concern for style or content, usually for a predetermined period of time—often five to fifteen minutes. It’s been traditionally used in academic environments to overcome writer’s block, but anyone can do it. It works better with a prompt, which can be a word, a sentence, or a picture.
  4. Brainstorming. A more formal way to generate new ideas is brainstorming. Set your focus, gather new material, generate ideas, and test them. This article walks you through the whole process.
  5. List making. A great way to get your prefrontal cortex working is to make lists. If you’re writing about the history of hats in the UK, make a list of the most famous hatmakers. If you’re writing a coding tutorial, make a list of everything the reader will need first. It may sound like a waste of time, but it will get back into writing mode with something not as daunting as a blank page.
  6. Mindfulness meditation. As I mentioned earlier, stress has a big impact on creativity. If you’re feeling stressed or uninspired, take a few minutes to meditate so you feel more relaxed and in tune with your thoughts and emotions.
  7. Mind mapping. Research shows that mind mapping has a positive impact on creativity. This article walks you through the science behind it and the process to apply the method.
  8. Changing the time of day you write. Sometimes, it’s just not a good time. You may feel tired, not awake enough, hungry. Try to write at a different time of the day to see if it suits you better.

Not mentioned in this particular piece of research are also two options I have found worked for myself—reading and going for a walk. These can even be combined together: if the weather is nice, take a book and go to a nearby park for a nice walk and a read. And whatever happens—don’t be too hard on yourself. Writer’s block is extremely common, and the intention to write is beautiful in and for itself.

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