When you’re learning how to overcome writer’s block, it can be helpful to keep in mind that there are approximately 86 billion neurons in the human brain, give or take a few million.
Our next closest competitors in the animal kingdom are gorillas, who have around 33 billion. Then there are elephants, with a far more generous 257 billion.
To put all of those numbers into perspective, our Milky Way galaxy has somewhere between 200–400 billion stars. That’s a lot of zeroes (and gas).
Although other animals do have artistic tendencies, sadly, neither gorillas nor elephants have been able to write a bestselling novel or any inspirational quotes for writers.
Neurons are responsible for how our brains process information and define creativity, thus giving humans the ability to write.
Where to begin when overcoming writer’s block
So, what is writer’s block? What happens when we feel like we can’t write?
“I don’t believe in writer’s block. Think about it — when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands.” – Jodi Picoult
After interviewing neuroscientist Michael Grybko for The Writer Files podcast about the dreaded writer’s block, I started to understand just how important our brains and emotional health are to staying prolific.
To put it simply, when we feel like we can’t tap into our creativity to write a good blog post, the neurons in our brains aren’t firing the way we’d like them to.
Training your brain for success
It’s easy to use the tired trope of the writer as athlete, but it somewhat devalues the processes our brains engage in to communicate effectively with written prose.
There are somewhere between 650–800 muscles in the human body. It takes only about 20 of those to pick up a pen and scribble down blog post ideas on a piece of paper.
But in order to fire millions of complex patterns of neuronal activity in tandem, the brain must be trained for years and years before becoming proficient enough to turn stimuli and information into persuasive writing.
Still, it’s easy to understand the superstitions and misconceptions that surround writer’s block. Until recently, we really didn’t know that much about how the human brain works.
Moving past the continual writer’s block debate
On the same podcast episode I referenced earlier, I spoke with Mr. Grybko about the many famous writers who have discussed writer’s block, from Toni Morrison to Joyce Carol Oates.
Ms. Morrison would tell her students that writer’s block should be respected and to not try to “write through it.”
Whereas Ms. Oates doesn’t believe it exists, but admits that “… when you’re trying to do something prematurely, it just won’t come. Certain subjects just need time …” before you can write about them.
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7 ways to overcome writer’s block
Steven Pressfield, in his classic The War of Art, described writer’s block as something closer to a supernatural force inside professional writers and artists. He dubs it Resistance that shoves us away, distracts us, and prevents us from doing our work.
But with our new understanding of how all of these neuronal processes connect, it’s far easier to get a handle on why we might be “blocked” — despite our best writing habits.
“… [Our brain’s] connectedness also comes with a downside; activity in one area of the brain may affect another area in a negative way. Our emotions can have an impact on our productivity and learning … When activity in the area of the brain that is responsible for processing the information needed to write effectively is altered, the result may be writer’s block.” – Michael Grybko, Neuroscientist
Ready for more tips?
These 7 lessons will teach you how to overcome writer’s block …
1. Add some restraints to your routine
Michael and I discussed a handful of the symptoms of feeling blocked and how to reframe them.
Whether you’re trying to write at a time that’s not optimal for your creative output, or simply not feeling like you can carve out creative time, there are patches you can apply.
We all operate on unique sleep/wake cycles (Circadian rhythms) that originate in our brains. So, if you’re having trouble writing in the middle of the day, try writing later in the afternoon or evening when your cycle may bend more toward insight.
In “How to Kill Writer’s Block and Become a Master Copywriter in Only 3 Hours a Day,” Robert Bruce wrote about the famous copywriter Eugene Schwartz’s hack. This tip involves setting a kitchen timer for 33-minute increments.
The key takeaway: By setting some simple constraints, the only thing you can do is type words. Restrictions and tight deadlines yield creative rewards.
2. Let your brain do some of the work for you
Michael’s other great advice was to utilize your brain’s tendency to work on a problem in the background. It helps you produce creative solutions when you least expect them.
This is why many famous creatives rely on exercise, meditation, “combinatory play,” and “productive procrastination.”
They give your brain a chance to rest, parse out unneeded information, and help you cognitively.
Greg Iles (prolific #1 New York Times bestselling author) spoke with me about letting your subconscious do some of the work:
“Writing is a much more passive thing than people think it is … The real work is done passively, in your mind, deep in you when you’re doing other things. I try to go as much of the year as I can without writing anything, and the story is working itself out.
“It’s like one day, you’re a pregnant woman and your water breaks. Then I haul butt to get to my [computer] … and I start.”
3. How to get rid of writer’s block by just getting started
The Physics of Productivity: Newton’s Laws of Getting Stuff Done contains one of my favorite productivity hacks from author James Clear.
He applied Newton’s first law to productivity and the science of just getting started:
“Objects at rest tend to stay at rest … Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. When it comes to being productive, this means one thing: the most important thing is to find a way to get started. Once you get started, it is much easier to stay in motion.”
I’ve heard this advice from many bestselling authors, and it seems to hold a lot of power when you’re learning how to overcome writer’s block, however reductive it may seem.
Hugh Howey (bestselling hybrid sci-fi author of Wool) also confided with me about his process:
“Open up the document, turn off the internet, and start writing. If you’re not sure what happens next in the story, skip to the part of the story where you know what is going to happen. Start writing there. Just start writing.”
My favorite part of his journey to globetrotting literary superstar is that he would write in a broom closet during breaks between his shifts at the bookstore where he worked.
4. You can’t edit a blank page
Austin Kleon (bestselling author of Steal Like an Artist) has some great advice on this:
“Writing a page each day doesn’t seem like much, but do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel. You do it your whole life, and you have a career.”
Okay, now that you’ve broken that daunting, infinite blank canvas down into tiny, little manageable pieces, what’s next?
When I asked New York Times bestselling psychological thriller author Cynthia Swanson about how to get rid of writer’s block, she shared this great quote with me:
“You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” – Jodi Picoult
5. Sometimes all you need is to change your mind
Michael Grybko reminded me that, very often, our emotional states have an impact on how motivated we feel to write.
We discussed an article by Maria Konnikova for The New Yorker titled “How to Beat Writer’s Block.” It examines research by psychologists at Yale who noted the emotional states of writers experiencing block.
By getting the writers to focus on a creative project completely unrelated to their personal writing projects, they found success in changing their negative feelings about the writing.
“Further studies by other researchers have shown similar effects, with studies showing positive effects on creativity from a period of day dreaming, including an incubation activity that is dissimilar in nature to the target task, or even sleep.”
6. Go to the coffee shop; your brain will thank you
Michael also recommended working in a completely different environment than the one you’re used to writing in, when you’re learning how to overcome writer’s block.
And science backs this up. Being around others who are hard at work on their own projects has been proven to influence our productivity. It helps us concentrate, and it’s literally contagious.
From research examined in PsyBlog’s How To Concentrate Automatically Without Even Trying:
“In the current study, we showed for the first time that the exertion of mental effort is contagious. Simply performing a task next to a person who exerts a lot of effort in a task will make you do the same.”
The ambient sounds of a coffee shop are often enough to do the trick (see also: the smell of coffee). There’s also something almost magical about the watchful eyes and attentive posture of all of those other writers that motivates you to write better content.
7. If all else fails … turn on your digital personal assistant and start talking
I asked Seth Godin a couple of questions on the subject in an interview: Do you believe in “writer’s block?” If so, how do you avoid it?
“This is a fancy term for fear. I avoid it by not getting it. Because I write like I talk and I don’t get talker’s block.” – Seth Godin
If you can talk, then you can turn on that little voice-to-text widget in your word-processing app. You could also just record a voice memo on your phone.
Unsurprisingly, those apps yield words on a page that can be edited and massaged into far pithier sentences in the future.
Until they can implant and successfully interface those nanobots into our brains that will translate our thoughts and allow us to write 100 words per minute … it’s as good a place to start as any when you’re working on how to overcome writer’s block.
Reader Comments (20)
Todd Heitner says
Great suggestions! I’ve used quite a few of these techniques in the past and they work. For example, letting your brain work on an issue subconsciously. Sometimes when you’re trying to force your brain to think about a certain thing, it’s counterproductive. But if you switch to a different task, especially something completely different, often I’ve come up with the idea I needed.
I also liked the points about just getting started, writing regularly (ideally every day) and writing from a different location (like a coffee shop). On the point about writing from a different location, I’ve found I tend to be most productive when my environment changes often. When I worked primarily from home, I would go to a coffee shop once or twice a week, and sometimes a different coffee shop on different days. Now I alternate between my home office and an office I rent. I find it’s helpful to switch things up. On occasion, when the weather permits, I like writing outdoors too, whether in my yard or a park. It can really help to get the ideas going and think about things from a different perspective.
Kelton Reid says
Thanks Todd, I definitely belong to the school of productive procrastination myself. I also find coffee shops ideal for research and first drafts, and quieter locales better for editing and polishing. Working outdoors tends to be too distracting for me, or I should say, too relaxing, lol. But if I’m in daydream mode, I can definitely sit and stare at the trees. Cheers –
Freddy G. Cabrera says
I used to suffer from writer’s block a lot when I first started my blogging journey. And being a high school dropout did not help one bit.
But, the more I educated myself and the more I just wrote, the better I got with my writing skills and at combating this writer’s block.
You can definitely use neuroscience to improve your creativity and productivity. It’s not hard to hack your brain these days. 😉
One technique that I have been using to help with this, is the 5-second rule by Mel Robbins. This is where you count backward from 5 right before you have to tackle a project. Since your brain is not really used to counting backward it triggers all these new neurons and you are able to focus a lot better.
Thank you for sharing these tips! Super helpful stuff!
Best regards! 😀
Kelton Reid says
Much appreciated Freddy, and I’m very curious about the “5-second rule,” sounds fascinating. Thanks –
I’m a hypnotist who recently decided to work exclusively with writers. I really appreciate this article, particularly this point:
“Utilize your brain’s tendency to work on a problem in the background and produce creative solutions when you least expect them.”
Glad this info is getting out there. I’ve been wondering if writer’s block is just being stuck in a beta-dominant state of mind, when the writer really just needs to be in alpha?
Thanks for writing this!
P.S. Check out Youtube videos of elephant’s painting.
Kelton Reid says
A pleasure, thanks for reading. I’d be interested to know what you conclude on brainwave research and writing therapy.
And I’ve absolutely seen elephants painting, it’s pretty cool 🙂
In my opinion the best, and possibly only way to effectively combat writer’s block is to put the proverbial pen down (after all, we all type now, right), put on your jacket, and head off for a half-hour walk. The therapeutic effects alone of this simple practice are enough to get the neurons firing on all cylinders again.
A little time in the fresh air also has countless other physical and mental advantages as well.
Kelton Reid says
You’re in good company. Charles Dickens and Henry Miller both used to wander around Europe trying to “get lost.” They were both rather prolific.
Michael LaRocca, Editor says
I just shared this pretty much everywhere, because this is exactly how writing works. Thanks for digging deep!
Kelton Reid says
We’re just scratching the surface 😉 Thanks for sharing Michael!
Very true indeed… at least in my experience!
I would add stress as another factor contributing to writer’s block!
Very interesting read.
I think that most writers who’ve been writing for some period of time and depend on writing for their livelihood, probably have a reasonably reliable technique to overcome writer’s block.
In my case, it’s a combination of things that have already been mentioned. But the main ingredient is to just start writing something. I’m definitely not in the Toni Morrison camp of “not trying to write through it”. I’d get nothing done if I didn’t force myself.
I’ve developed some mind-maps that are basically outlines of structure for various types of writing I do frequently. For the maps, I’ve used pen and paper, index cards, software – doesn’t really matter. Visually seeing the structure and essentially “filling in the blanks” to get an outline has worked great for me.
Changing environments (by taking a walk, for example), work well too.
Thanks the article!
Great suggestions of books to check in with, thanks!
Icy Sedgwick says
My biggest solution is having a shower or picking up my knitting. For some reason, the process of washing my hair or working on a craft project always kicks the creative part of my brain into gear and then I’ll get a new insight about whatever writing I’m working on. Which in all fairness is fine when I’m knitting – I can put it down and pick up a pen – but it gets a bit irritating when I have a burst of inspiration in the shower and I have nothing to write with!
Noelle Hartt | Freelance Writer For Hire says
This is really interesting, and it makes a lot of sense! As a freelance writer, I find myself dealing with writer’s block quite a bit, and sometimes the only way to get rid of it is to walk away from the computer and do something completely unrelated to my work, like folding laundry or reading a book. I appreciate that you acknowledge writer’s block exists, because some writers have this attitude that it’s just an excuse, and I knew that couldn’t be true!
Thank you for all the great information. I havn’t been writing too long and my mother died a couple of months ago which resulted in my brain closing down. I am ready to get going again physically but the brain is just not responding so will be attempting a few of your suggestions.
Guillaume Frouté says
A great read. The constant pressure to write and create can be stressful – I’ve found going for walks or doing sports always helps changing my mind. Approaching a task with a fresh mind is a game changer.
Productivity tools such as Trello or Asana also help me focus on smaller achievable tasks and gives me a daily sense of progression to overcome writers’ block.
Helen Golubeva says
Thanks for the valuable piece of content! For me, the best way to sparkle your inspiration is to do something that you have never done before. Do you know your neighbours well enough? What if they have something to share with you that you’ve never known before?
Alison Ver Halen says
This is why I’m so glad I got my BA in Psychology as well as English. It has informed my writing in so many ways, especially when it comes to marketing.
I loved the insights you have on how to overcome writer’s block, sometimes the brain just needs some time to think and when it’s working for too long, it’s difficult to get something out of it. Taking breaks every now and then refreshes the mind and suddenly you are filled with ideas and the quote from Seth Godin, it was life-changing. I started using the speech-to-text option on my phone and my life has never been easier ever before.
Also, the fact that sometimes you need a change of environment to be more productive is looked upon by many people but it does help a lot. You never know where you can get an inspiration from.
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