You sit down at the computer and end up staring at a blank screen for hours, your muscles tense and your brow furrowed. Or perhaps you write, but you’re frustrated with the drivel you’re producing. To put it simply, you have writer’s block.
Writer’s block comes in many forms, and while there are a lucky few that claim to have never experienced it, the majority of us have the doubtful privilege of butting heads with it multiple times in our careers. It might come in a different form each time, but it’s still good ol’ writer’s block.
What causes writer’s block? It can be any number of things, but the most common is reaching a plateau in your learning curve. Despite the popular “steep learning curve” usage, leveling out means that time is passing and you’re not advancing. The first step to fighting writer’s block is figuring out if you’re on a plateau.
4 Basic Types of Writer’s Block (Plateaus):
1. Inability to write because of perfection anxiety: You don’t want to waste your time writing something you’ll just have to discard later. It must be perfect, or have the potential for perfection.
2. Burnout: You have no inspiration or motivation.
3. Nothing good coming out: It’s flowing, but it’s rubbish.
4. Lack of inspiration without burnout: This isn’t really a plateau; this is a ‘crisis’ that most writers experience – reaching the end of your innate inspiration. Nothing is wrong with you. You just need to establish habits that renew your creativity.
Aside from lack of inspiration, these are all versions of plateaus on the path to skill mastery. There are also a couple less well-defined plateaus that are also worth looking out for.
Simple Diminishing Returns: You simply aren’t improving as fast as you were. Powering through can cause a burnout. This can also present as a frustrating lack of improvement (#3).
Skill Consolidation: This can show itself in an inability to focus, or as a drop in quality (#3). It’s the result of your mind rearranging its knowledge web to accommodate new, revolutionary information. In motor skills and card games, early success is often referred to as “beginner’s luck” because of this plateau and the resulting, though temporary, skill reduction.
An upcoming article will have specific advice and strategies tailored for different plateaus.
Advice That Applies To All Plateaus:
Focus on getting better rather than doing good. This means that you accept your failures but not your limitations. Give yourself permission to screw up. For higher competencies, this also means never allowing yourself to think of your skill level as “good enough”. This advice can manifest in several different ways for different plateaus. It also applies if you aren’t at a plateau.
Take stock of your current knowledge on a subject. Writing is a complex task and subject. Create a concept map showing your knowledge of the elements of writing and your understanding of how they interact. A concept map will give you a good idea of what you need to work on next. But don’t let yourself get too hung up on using all the elements at once. You need an uncluttered mind.
Reflect on your progress. Read something from a year ago or more. Seeing your development will make future improvements seem more attainable. If you just started, look at how much you’ve written. Encourage yourself with it. Look at the big picture, adopt a positive attitude about how far you’ve come, and look at what mistakes you can improve.
Change your mental routine. Not the one that gets you in a writing mode, but the one that determines how you look at writing. Find a new literary device to use, a new structure theory to try on, a new style, genre, or format to write in. Forcing your brain to work in new ways gives a boost to your creativity. Do this often to stay mentally flexible.
Track your improvement. Without revealing which is older, have a critique partner compare two 3-months-apart short stories or excerpts. Then track the comparisons repeatedly over time. It’s easiest to avoid the headache of a plateau by catching the leveling off early. Otherwise, the plateau can become a mental rut.
Gauge your real skill level. Let go of a piece for a month and read some good books in the meantime. You can continue writing other things. Come back and read it through without editing anything. You can also check the accuracy of your 6-month tracking using this method. I don’t suggest using this as a sole monitor.
Writer’s Block Prevention Challenge:
Apply at least three of the above recommendations, and start an inspiration notebook or swipe file. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s the best way to not end up staring at a blank screen. Would you rather be productive or avoid the extra effort?
You can defeat writer’s block. Get to it.
Feel like you can deal with writer’s block a little better now? Comment and tell me what you’re going to do differently.