Part 1: What are writing roadblocks?

We’ve all experienced those times when we need to get some writing done but, for whatever reason, we just can’t seem to make any progress. Or we write and then immediately erase it because it’s embarrassingly bad. Or we give up and put the task off completely, worrying about it non-stop.

These are writing roadblocks: issues that stop us from being able to do an otherwise doable writing task. They are frustrating because, even if you feel motivated to work, if the words aren’t flowing or you can’t seem to say what you want to say, progress can be painfully slow.

Perhaps scariest of all, you never know how long it will last━will you just be blocked for your morning? Will it be 3 weeks of this frustration? A year?!? There’s no time minimum or maximum, unfortunately. That’s why understanding writing roadblocks and how to overcome them is so important.

A comic depticing a woman experiencing writer's block
Never really goes as planned. (Source: PHDComics.com)

The most common and prevalent writing roadblocks are:

  1. Writer’s block
  2. Procrastination
  3. Imposter syndrome

In Part 1 of How to Overcome Common Writing Roadblocks, we’re going to discuss the biggest roadblock of them all: writer’s block. We’ll talk about what it is, how to spot it, and how to move past it to make real progress.

In Part 2 of How to Overcome Common Writing Roadblocks, we’ll discuss the other two most common writing issues: procrastination and imposter syndrome.

So, what is writer’s block?

Writer’s block occurs when you want or need to write, but feel prevented from doing it somehow. It’s a very nebulous feeling, so one of the main issues is often that we will struggle━agonize, even━for hours before we can articulate that what we are experiencing is writer’s block. By then, so much time has passed with so little progress made that the writer’s block issue can morph into other writing roadblocks. We at QuillBot call this the Unproductive Feedback Loop(1).

Description of the term "writer's block."
Very insightful. (Source: Merriam-Webster.com)

The first key to understanding writer’s block is to be able to recognize it as fast as possible. Once you can point out that you're struggling with it, you can take action to get unstuck and refocus. I know this seems like it should be easy, but how many times have you been stuck and spent the whole day worrying about how much you’re not getting done?

What does writer’s block look like?

XX Man meme with the words "I don't always get writer's block / but when I do"
.... (Source: quickmeme.com)

Because writer’s block can be so debilitating, it’s important to catch it as soon as you feel it so that you don’t lose a whole day, week, or more, of progress. Let’s look at some common ways you can spot the issue and call it out.

Writer’s block can manifest itself in small or large ways, such as:

  1. Feeling unmotivated
  2. Losing your ideas, train of thought, or motivation as soon as you sit down to write
  3. Having extreme anxiety over working on or completing a task
  4. Feeling like you don’t know where to start
  5. Fearing your skills are not up to par
  6. Not being able to prioritize the steps needed to complete to the task at hand
  7. Being stuck in a “rabbit hole” or on a tangent, unable to refocus on the actual topic
  8. Fearing you will fail
  9. Lacking ideas and/or creativity

Below are a few examples of writer’s block in action. Do any of them sound familiar?

-You wake up early with the intention of writing in your journal, working on an assignment, or even building out a story idea for fun. However, when you sit down, you suddenly feel blank, like all of your ideas have left you.

-You sit down at a cluttered desk with a list of notes to translate into your writing project. You are very proud of your ideas, but when you go to integrate them into your work, nothing seems to fit together like you thought it would. You begin to wonder if the ideas are actually any good to begin with.

-You have an assignment due that you’ve tried to work on several days during the week, but you never made progress. You pick it back up because the deadline is approaching and feel more and more frustrated that you can’t articulate your thoughts well enough to get anything accomplished. You fear that you might not do well on the assignment because of this, and you struggle harder, for longer.

-You decide to begin writing at a specific time to work on building the habit. You sit at your computer but aren’t feeling “in the zone” to get any writing done. You sit there for the whole hour you’ve allotted for writing practice, not practicing. You begin to think maybe you’re not cut out for writing after all, since if you were, shouldn’t it be easier?

The next time you experience being blocked like this, call it out: it’s writer’s block!

You will get faster and faster at calling it out every time you articulate it, with the goal of catching it ASAP so that you can fix it ASAP. Otherwise, you run the risk of spinning on the problem all day, agonizing over miniscule progress, wishing you’d be more motivated, doubting your ideas and writing skill, and participating in other unhelpful thought patterns.

How to Get Over Writer's Block

Once you’ve articulated that you’re dealing with writer’s block, it’s time to break out of it. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Commit to moving forward. Don’t wait━do! Don’t sit━move!

A cat staring at a keyboard. He has writer's block.
Amen, cat. (Source: memesmonkey.com)

Your remedies for writer’s block will be specific to you, and they might take some time to refine. However, because they are rooted in self-care, most are very enjoyable, so you will feel good that you are working towards a solution and taking care of yourself in the process.

6 Steps to Getting Over Writer’s Block

  1. Articulate the issue. “I’m feeling blocked, and I haven’t made any progress in the last hour. Time for a change.”
  2. Let go of any guilt, frustration, or negative attitude you have towards yourself or your progress. That will only hold you back as you try to move forward.
  3. Do an action option from the list below, and set a finite time for its duration. Note whether it made you feel more centered, distracted, motivated, etc.
  4. Try to get back to work after your action break is over. Note whether or not that action led you to a productive or an unproductive state.
  5. If you still can’t get over the block, try another action option, and then follow it with another work session. Sometimes 3 months of slow progress is too frustrating for one 10 minute walk to solve. And that’s ok.
  6. If, after 2 sets of action options and working sessions, you still cannot move past the block, you have a few options:

a. Consider that you may just need to rest and reset for the remainder of the day. Never underestimate the power of resting and starting fresh.

b. Map out your stressors, labeling which you can control and which you can’t. This is a powerful way to articulate what’s going on in your head and how it might be affecting you and your progress.

c. Move into planning mode. Planning a more detailed outline, jotting down the ideas you have floating around in your head for each section, and working on topic sentences are all great ways to make progress now that can set you up for success when you come back to drafting later.

Action Options to Break Out of Writer’s Block

A comic depicting a man who has found the cure for writer's block
Who would've guessed? (Source: Incidental Comics)

Lean into the action options below that you find enjoyable. Always set a timer, and respect the time you’ve allotted by doing only the task you pick. No texting on your walk. No browsing the internet while you chat with a friend. These actions are meant to ground you, bring you back to center, and focus your mind on one simple and enjoyable thing to refresh and soothe you. Take this opportunity to pour into yourself.

Action Options to Break Out of Writer’s Block

-Change where you’re working

-Go for a short walk

-Take yourself out for, or make, coffee or tea

-Meditate

-Complete some breathing exercises

-Call a friend or family member

-Write someone a letter

-Take a shower

-Do a random act of kindness

-Do a gratitude exercise (Today I am grateful for…)

-Wash your face, do a face mask, or other self-care task

-Read something unrelated to your project

-Complete some bodyweight exercises (air squats, push ups, planks etc.)

-Listen to music

-Sit outside; do nothing but smell the air and feel the sun

-Cook an easy meal

-Stretch or do a short yoga session

-Snuggle a pet

-Clean/fix something that is stressing you (like a cluttered desk)

-Play a game

-Work on a craft or creative project

-Write something for fun, with no agenda

-Check out some hashtag feeds to make you smile, like #inspirational, #funny, or #wholesome

Later, cross-check the actions you enjoyed most with those ones that led to you moving into a writing flow state or helped you feel more productive. That’s your writer’s block remedy list!

We’ll be back soon for Part 2 of How to Overcome Common Writing Roadblocks, where we’ll break down the issues of procrastination and imposter syndrome.

Footnote:

(1)You can check out our Writing Roadblocks infographic at the bottom of the page for more information about this frustrating cycle and the writing problems that feed it. We will be doing a whole discussion on the loop after our series on Writing Roadblocks is concluded.

Graphic of the unproductive feedback loop and writer's block remedies
For our visual learners.