How to treat and cure 8 kinds of writer’s block

Image: Leonid Pasternak via Wikimedia Commons

What should you do if you need to write something and you can’t seem to get started? The answer depends on what’s stopping you: lack of ideas, lack of material, or lack of the will to live . . . I mean, will to write.

I thought about this when a participant asked it in a writing workshop I gave yesterday. This applies to writing a non-fiction piece, but is pretty broad — these are the reasons that I’ve encountered in my career of three decades as a writer and editor. I’ve treated this as a doctor or therapist would — look down the list, find the symptoms that apply to you, and treat them accordingly.

You don’t have an idea

Symptoms: When you try to write, you just have no concept of what you’re doing. You not only don’t know where to start, you don’t know where you’re going.

Treatment: Trying to write without an idea is pointless — anything you produce will be vacuous. To get an idea, talk to others, interact with creative people, read on the topic, and find something worth saying.

Cure: If this recurs, you’re not working hard enough on ideas. Develop a discipline to find and develop ideas. Make it into a routine part of your work, and it will fuel your writing.

You don’t have enough material to work with

Symptoms: You get stuck because of lack of arguments, evidence, or points to make.

Treatment: Writing without sufficient research is like running without eating first — you’re going to run out of gas. Stop trying to write and do the research.

Cure: Allot sufficient time to the research phase of a piece, and spend the research time actually doing research, not procrastinating. In my writer survey, people on a writing project spent an average of 45% of their time on research.

You don’t know how to start

Symptoms: You have many possible paths forward, but can’t seem to pick one.

Treatment: You should have a roadmap for your piece before writing. Make a fat outline to organize the ideas first. Then write to the outline.

Cure: For anything longer than 750 words, block out the structure before writing.

You’ve written yourself into an impasse

Symptoms: You’re in the middle of a piece but have reached a dead end with no way forward.

Treatment: Skip over the sketchy part and write a different part of the piece. Then go back and rearrange pieces when you see how it fits together.

Cure: This happens to everyone. Remember that you can always rearrange things or delete pieces that don’t fit. You’re using a word processor, not a quill pen on a parchment scroll.

You put off writing until later

Symptoms:  You keep doing other things even though you ought to be writing.

Treatment: You need a deadline to motivate you. Promise the piece to someone by a given date. Then use fear to get yourself going.

Cure: Always write on a deadline, with a reward for hitting the deadline and a penalty for missing it.

You hate what you’re writing

Symptoms: You are suffused with feelings of boredom or disgust about the topic.

Treatment: Find new ways to enliven the topic. Talk to inspiring people, find a new spin, or just take a break.

Cure: Change beats or change jobs.

Nothing can motivate you

Symptoms: You hate the thought of writing so much that deadlines make no difference.

Treatment: This is not a writing problem, it’s an emotional problem. Talk to a therapist about why you’re depressed.

Cure: If something else is depressing you, take care of it. If writing is what’s depressing you, take a long break and do something else.

You seem to have no talent

Symptoms: No matter what you do, you produce crap, and you always have.

Treatment: Find a sympathetic editor and work with them to improve.

Cure: Are you sure you are actually a writer? Consider that maybe you’re not.

Here’s a chart to keep handy when you’re blocked.

writers block 3


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  1. This article has helped me a lot. I have been so depressed about Trump that I haven’t been able to snap out of it for the past week. Thanks!