Writer’s block can be a real dick. You stare at the page, on the screen or in your notebook and the words just don’t seem to come. Those days where you can sit down and blast out a few hundred words with ease seem like a trick of the memory. Today. You. Just. Can’t. Get The. Words. Out. So, what is it and how does it fit into the creative process? In this post I’ll be describing block during the different stages of creativity and giving some ideas of how to overcome writer’s block. 

She felt as though she were falling into a very long, dark hole. Her head began to spin and as she stepped outside into the fog, it was like being lost inside the fug that filled her brain.
She…
Er, what did she do next? Something happens, she makes a pot of tea? The bad thing happens at some point, but how? Work with me here, brain….

Scrabble tiles spelling WORDS

The four-stage creative process

There are apparently four stages of the creative process: Preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification.

What are each of these and how might you experience block differently depending on which stage you’re at?

Stage 1: Preparation

This is the pre-writing thinking time. The bit of time where you sit and stare at the ceiling, or out the window, or at the back of someone’s head on the bus and you just THINK.

Block at stage 1

If you’re blocked at this stage, you don’t know enough to be able to write what you want.

You might be pretty far along with your writing when you suddenly become stuck, you realise that you’re not sure how a character would react to the situation you’ve put them under.

Or, you might not know enough about the subject area to write comfortably about it. If you’re blocked at this stage, it might mean that you need to do some more reading and research (regardless of whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction).

Suggestions for how to overcome it

1. More research

You don’t know how the character would react because you don’t know enough about what’s happened to them previously, or what kind of person they are.

Go back to the drawing board and think about their history and how they’ve become the person that they are now.

2. Write out of order

If you’re finding yourself slogging through scenes that you’re not really into and just writing fluff so that you can get some words on the page, you might want to try writing scenes out of order.

This way, you can write the stuff that you’ve got a better handle on and the things that you enjoy before you can fill in the gaps later.

It can also give you a goal state where you need to get your character to. By doing this, you’re not left with a character that is wandering around in the recesses of your mind.

Stage 2. Incubation

You’ve done some thinking, then the idea needs to sit and incubate until it can be hatched into a fluffy little masterpiece.

Your fluffy little masterpiece. So cute innit.

Block at stage 2

If you’re stuck in your writing, it might be because you need to take a break from your work.

Our brains are not machines and it’s been shown that by taking time away from a problem that needs solving, can be a very effective way of allowing yourself the mental space to work on the problem without consciously thinking about it.

This doesn’t just apply to writing and can be applied to any sort of problem, regardless of the field you’re in.

Bear in mind though that taking an active break is not the same as being interrupted. If you find yourself with interruptions where you can’t work/think, this won’t have the same effect as putting the pen down and deciding to go and make a cup of tea for 50 minutes.

Suggestions for how to overcome it

Take a break

If you are able, go and take a walk or otherwise take some time and space away from the area you are working in.

I always find that by actively doing something, like washing up or cleaning the kitchen, the words and ideas seem to spring into my mind in a way that seemed impossible when I was sitting with a pen in hand.

I also find talking to myself very useful, but that’s not necessarily recommended while you’re out and about.

teapot and teacup on a white wooden surface

Stage 3. Illumination

Ding ding ding. Your Eureka moment, where you jump out the bath in your altogether and run down the street yelling about the fantastic idea you’ve had for this new short story/article/million pound investment opportunity.

Block at stage 3

You’ve had that masterstroke idea and sit down to stare at the blank screen.

Now what?

If the words aren’t coming at this point, it might be thatyou need to go back to stages 1 and 2.

Suggestions for how to overcome it

1. Planning out what you want to say

If the words aren’t coming and the blankness of the screen/page is looming large, you could try planning out what it is that you want to say when the words finally arrive.

This way, you’ve got words written down and can formulate your ideas more easily. Plus, you’ve then got something to work with.

2. Distraction

You’ve got the idea, but not the words. Maybe you need to step away from your writing environment.

The pressure of not being able to write can produce anxiety which can then reduce your thinking capabilities and mental capacity.

Get away from the desk/chair/laptop and see if the words begin to flood in.

3. Work out if you’re actually stuck on point 1 or 2

Do you need to do more research or thinking before you can actually write?

4. Write any old shit

That’s me crudely paraphrasing the great Maya Angelou. Although she didn’t recognise ‘block’ as something she suffered from, in part because by labelling it as such would give it a greater power. However, she did say that she would sometimes go through phases where the words were harder to find. To overcome this she would just write anything, any phrases, and words until the words came back to her.

Stage 4. Verification

So, you’ve got the ideas and now they need turning into actual words that other people want to read.

Block at stage 4

This is where self-doubt can creep in. You start to second guess your ideas and your writing as too predictable, or just not very good.

If you’re blocked at this stage, it might be because you’re worried about being wrong, or just rubbish.

Suggestions for how to overcome it

This is likely one of the harder aspects to overcome, but you might consider:

Writing for yourself

Easier said than done. But at this stage, it might be better to imagine there isn’t an audience for your writing and instead you’re writing just for you.

Getting something down is better than the anxiety of an empty page. Then, while you’re basking in the glow of having accomplished something by completing what you set out to, you can then tear yourself to pieces in the editing process.

So, there we have it. A whistle-stop tour of how to overcome writer’s block.

As with everything, this is a very individual issue where different things might work for you.

Have you got any suggestions on how to overcome block that I haven’t mentioned? Let me know in the comments below or over on Twitter or Instagram.


Want to read more?

If you’re interested in reading more about psychology and writing, you can read about developing writing habits and making them stick. 

Or, if you fancy reading some fiction. An urban fantasy romance about a werewolf and water-nymph. Or a flash fiction about a guy realising the meaning of life is the game of tiddlywinksA short story including a murder, a picnic, and a wannabe future pirate.