Getting past writer’s block

All writers know the awful feeling: stuck, stonewalled, stymied, stumped. You just can’t find that next sentence, you have a terrible suspicion that your last one sucked, and you’ve a sense of existential dread that you’ll never again write coherent text. “Writer’s block,” we call it.

I put “writer’s block” in scare quotes, because the key to getting past it is realizing that it’s terribly misnamed. A writer’s “block” sounds like something external, a barricade put in front of you by some mysterious and malicious agent that wants you to fail with whatever you’re writing. But, of course, that’s not it at all. “Writer’s block” is internal; it’s inside you. It’s a state of mind.

That sounds like bad news, but it’s actually good. It seems to suggest your writer’s block is all your fault. Maybe it is, I guess, but that’s the wrong spin to put on in. Instead, think of it this way: if writer’s block is coming from inside you, then you’re in charge, and you’re all you need to get past it.

How? Well, there are lots of tricks you can try, and I suggest you try tem out to find the ones that work for you.* I’ll mention a few here; you’ll find more in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. You’ll probably notice right away that they have something in common. If “writer’s block” is an inability to write the next sentence, the only possible cure is to write the next sentence anyway. Here are a few ways to do that.

  • Freewrite. Set a timer for 10 minutes, and write anything – the only requirement is that your fingers keep moving. What you see on your desk, complaints about writer’s block, your plans for dinner – it doesn’t matter. When the timer goes, you’ll probably discover that you’ve written your next sentence – but if not, write it then, with the momentum you’ve gained. (Yes, I know this sounds stupid. Try it anyway.)
  • Write something deliberately bad. Often, writer’s block is your inner critic, worried that you haven’t found the perfect next sentence. But you’re writing a first draft – and that’s none of your inner critic’s business. So write something terrible (which can be fun, if you let it be). It will often end up being something you can fix later – but if it isn’t, at least it will make your normal, imperfect, draft writing look better beside it.
  • Write two versions. This is another way to get around your inner critic. If you’re writing two different versions of the next sentence, then of course one of them won’t be perfect. That permission to write something imperfect is exactly what you need. Take your favourite of the two, and run with it.
  • Try talking. Word processors make text look finished, and that can tempt your inner critic to muscle its way in where it doesn’t belong. So try not looking at the page at all. Turn on speech-to-text mode (your word processor almost certainly has it) and talk. Don’t try to dictate a scientific paper; instead, try to explain what you’re (not) writing about to an imaginary friend or colleague.
  • Back up. Sometimes it isn’t the next sentence that’s really bothering you – sometimes it’s a subconscious realization that the last one isn’t going in the right direction. So back up a little – maybe three or four sentences – and write another version with different framing, direction, or structure.
  • Change your environment. If you’re stuck at this desk, before long, the desk itself will smell of stuckness. So get up and go somewhere else – the library, a coffee shop, a treehouse. Only two things matter: that the new place is close (so you don’t waste your writing day getting there), and that you’re resolved to immediately write a sentence when you arrive.
  • Read something you’re proud of. That horrible sinking feeling when you can’t find the next sentence isn’t really just about the next one; it’s a loss of confidence in yourself as a writer. So pull out something you’ve written that was a success – a published paper, an undergraduate essay, a blog post with a nice turn of phrase. Spend five or ten minutes reminding yourself that you can write, and write well, then return to your current project with confidence refreshed.

These are all interventions you make with your own brain; they’re all quick; and they all lead to writing that next sentence you don’t think you can write. Not a perfect version of it, to be sure – but you weren’t going to write a perfect version anyway; and you can fix imperfect far more easily than you can fix a blank page.

We all get stuck. Successful writers – like you – have found ways to get unstuck. Which brings me to my secret reason for writing this post. What’s in your toolbox that I haven’t mentioned? Please use the Replies to share your own writer’s-block tips and tricks.

© Stephen Heard  May 3, 2022

This post is based on material from my guidebook for scientific writers, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. There’s much more there about writer’s block, and many other aspects of writer behaviour. Check it out.

Image: Writer’s block © Drew Coffmann  via CC BY 2.0

*^Every writer is a bit different, and some of these tricks won’t work for you. But try them – even the ones that sound implausible, even the ones that sound stupid. A big part of being successful as a writer is having a toolbox from which you can draw, and understanding which tools work in your own hands. Actually, that’s a big part of being successful at most things.



2 thoughts on “Getting past writer’s block

  1. Bingskee

    Interesting tips. I could add them to what I do when writer’s block attacks – take a break and while you do it, drink coffee or gobble up a plate of spaghetti. 😀


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Agreed – that’s actually in the longer list in my book I think. Except not the spaghetti, which strikes me as a superb idea 🙂 The key, of course, is to make it a short break and promise yourself that when it’s over, you’ll write that next sentence. Glad you have something that works for you!

      Liked by 1 person


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