In the worlds of writing and editing, the term writer’s block rears its ugly head as often as the dreaded show, don’t tell.
In the unlikely event you have never heard of writer’s block, it is the term that refers to anything that prevents you from making progress with your writing. You have become stuck—you’re either not writing at all or you’re writing, hating it, deleting it, and repeating the process.
In nonfiction, the writer might experience a block about how to introduce the subject, how much detail to go into, which points to include and which to exclude, and how to organize their material to be the most clear and useful.
The problem with trying to help someone overcome writer’s block is that there are a million circumstances that can cause it. Well, maybe not a million, but a lot. Here are just a few:
Timing (or “I have too many distractions or other obligations.”)
Fear (or “What if I really suck at this writing thing?”)
Perfectionism (or “I’m trying to write the perfect manuscript with my first draft.”)
The well is dry (or “I’m burned out and have no more ideas.”)
Lost the point (or “I’m second guessing myself about the purpose of my book.”)
I work mostly with memoir. Back in December 2020, I wrote a blog article titled “Don’t Get Mired Down in Your Memoir.” In it, I identified the most common reasons people get stuck while writing a memoir:
The writers are creating book-length prose for the first time and have no formal training or career experience with extensive writing projects, so they are learning how to write as they go. And the struggle is taking time.
The memoir is dealing with traumatic events in their lives, such as disease, abuse (physical and sexual), addiction, suicide attempts, and mental illness, causing the writer to unpack this baggage slowly and painfully.
Other aspects of life are interfering with their writing: full-time jobs, children, school, or family issues such as caring for elderly parents.
They have no support or are facing active resistance (including threats) from ex-partners, spouses, family members, or others who might appear in the memoir.
While these four points are specific to memoir writing, #1 and #3 pertain to any writer. Writing is hard (don’t let anyone tell you it’s not) and writing a full-length manuscript for the first time takes a gargantuan effort. And, even if you overcame writer’s block for a first book, you can slam up against that wall every time you tackle a new project.
Most articles about overcoming writer’s block offer what I consider simple, common-sense solutions, such as:
Take a walk
Take a nap
Listen to soothing music/podcasts
Read an inspiring book
Write in your journal
Move your workspace
Fix up your workspace
Call a friend
Brew coffee (or down an energy drink, if that’s more your style)
Free write (choose a writing prompt and pour your heart into it until you feel satisfied with the results)
Now, there is nothing wrong with any of these suggestions. They make perfect sense—get your heart pumping and your blood flowing, get your mind on a different topic for a little while, enjoy a caffeine pick-me-up, or gift yourself a new workspace and a new attitude. It’s all good. And any one of these might be all you need to bust through that writer’s block, get back on track, and start making progress again.
When a Walk Won’t Cut It
In some cases, writer’s block is profound—it’s deep-seated and all-encompassing, and, worst of all, the writer probably doesn’t know what’s causing it. They’re excited about what they’re writing. They have a clear vision. This project is on their bucket list and is a life-long dream come true. So what the heck is wrong? Sometimes, a writer doesn’t know the answer to this question. And, if I’m their writing coach, I’m unlikely to know either! But from my experience, I would guess it’s one of these:
The writer has lost confidence in herself; she doubts that her manuscript is good enough or important enough for her to keep going.
The writing process has proven to be just too exhausting to reach the goal line.
He has become unsure about what the point is in writing this book.
They reason they’d have a lot more time on their hands for other activities if they would just shelve this darn thing!
To help a writer break through, I have to put on my therapist cap and ask questions to get to the root of the problem. As a long-time instructor for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), I have used a problem-solving technique that looks at problem stacking. Briefly, problem stacking forces someone with a problem they’re wrestling with to look at whether one or more underlying problems are really the culprit. Here is an example, loosely based on a real incident:
A woman says, “My problem is, my adult daughter calls me twenty-five to thirty times each day. I can’t get anything done or have time to myself.” Upon questioning, the class learns that the mother has asked her daughter dozens of times to stop calling so often each day. Mom has pleaded and even demanded that her daughter stop this behavior, but it’s made no difference. So, the class points out that the problem isn’t really that the daughter calls too many times each day—it is that the mother has not set clear, personal boundaries and enforced them consistently. The class has drilled down one level to identify a different problem.
But the woman states that she has not been able to enforce boundaries because her husband, the daughter’s father, does not agree with those boundaries and he will not let his wife enforce them. The class sees that the woman’s husband is not backing her up and giving her the support she desperately needs. We’ve drilled down to another level.
This is a simple example of problem stacking: what the woman thought was the main problem—her daughter calls too often and she can’t get anything done or have down time—drills down to the daughter not respecting her mother’s rules and boundaries, which in turn drills down to learning that the woman’s husband does not have her back in enforcing those boundaries.
What’s Really Eating You?
This problem-solving technique, often used in business settings, can be applied to helping a writer overcome writer’s block. What someone might think the problem is behind their block might be a case of problem stacking. Feeling too tired to write might be a symptom of self-doubt. Not making any significant progress might be a symptom of perfectionism, fear of rejection, or fear of ridicule. If you are stuck, start with the easy-peasy actions. Nine times out of ten, they’ll do the trick. But if they don’t, let’s drill down.
In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.