Why Writer’s Block is Your Secret Weapon

Why Writer’s Block is Your Secret Weapon

Reader Comments (77)

  1. This is great. It’s easy to sit down to write and find yourself repeating what everyone else says…simply because that’s the first thing that comes to mind. Your exercise does a great job of getting past that.

    I’m critical of my work and a perfectionist…I think looking at what I’m supposed to write and being able to blast it with my own opinion will not only help to break out of that shell, but also to feel more confident. Good stuff.

  2. Boy, Copyblogger’s had some incredible articles lately. Add this to the increasing pile.

    Nice work, Melissa. I’m going to use this method going forward as it’s some great advice.

  3. This is an excellent article. I’ve been putting off a project for some time now and this article has helped me realise exactly why that is. Not only that, you’ve pointed me in the right direction to get past the bit that is holding me back!

    This is one of the best explanations of writers block I have ever read and I will be sharing it with all and sundry.

    Thank you, Melissa!

  4. I freely confess that I have been in a writer’s block the last several weeks. Most days, I didn’t post at all, and the writing I did post was substandard. My fear was that I didn’t have as important a thing to say as others writing on my subject (Christianity), but I did an exercise somewhat like the one you propose and it really did help.

    I will use your exercise in the future, because this blog is my voice, not someone else’s.

  5. “When you work it right, writer’s block is your secret weapon to becoming a better and more resilient writer. And when your ability to write is what pays the bills, that’s gold.”

    Those words are worth their weight in Gold!

  6. “Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth. There is no spoon. Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself. ”

    Substitute “conquer” for “bend” &
    Substitite “writer’s block” for “the spoon”


  7. This is an awesome article Melissa. I will be pasting this article next to my laptop where I can always see it. I leave reading this article very much impacted by it. This article is a must read by all. I will be retweeting this article.

    Thank you, Melissa!

  8. What a terrific post! The visual is perfect: we only feel “blocked” when we try to barrel through a brick wall.

    A few tools that I’d like to share that help the flow:

    TIMED WRITING SITE: http://lab.drwicked.com/writeordie.html — I won’t give away the doctor’s methods, but this site makes you keep your fingers moving…which makes great things happen. I write fresher here than anywhere. Just be sure to save your work manually.

    GET IN TOUCH WITH YOUR INNATE FLOW: After taking a year-long writing seminar with Barbara Sher (bartender’s daughter w/ 7 books, 2 of them near million sellers to her credit) — I am convinced that EVERYONE has a flow of ideas all the time, we just don’t tap into them. Barbara studied in Manhattan with top writers and her method is to at all costs tap into those wisps of thought….write them down, call and leave yourself a message, carry a notebook, get a voice recorder. Transcribe them, and categorize them to discover your unique voice. You’ll never think you have nothing to say. This becomes raw material for blog posts, books, speeches, etc.

    Melissa, you have an incredibly interesting blog which I have just subscribed to. Nice to meet you!

    WIN WENGER: One of the leading figures in the field of creative problem solving, believes that if everyone paid attention to their ideas, the world’s problems would be easily solved. I learned a new technique from him: Windtunneling. Spend 15 mins talking with someone about a problematic area…and they write down the interesting things you have to say. Typically, you will have lousy thoughts at first, then wander around, and then come up with some compelling ideas. Switch and repeat for the other person. A great way to spend 30 minutes.

  9. I like the physical process of writing page after page to get down to the root of what’s trying to be said. It’s key to remove all that distracts and get to the heart first. Then add the details after.

  10. Sometimes, we end up criticizing ourselves. This can really hamper this process. Many times, I end up throwing ideas because I think they will not work!

    I think it is also important to make sure that you stay focused and do not think to criticize/judge yourself!

  11. This is some good advice. After blogging for over 2 years, I see patterns – it seems to flow from an absence of ideas to a flood. Actually employing some of the practices I’ve learned here has helped with the “flow”. Thanks.

  12. “Writing flows when you are clear on what you need to say, and why you need to say it.”

    It’s too easy to get hung up on what other people might think (step 2 of the “clean-slate” exercise). People will form their own opinions no matter what you do, so you might as well go with what you believe in.

    Your exercise can be applied to much more than writer’s block. Thanks, Melissa.

  13. Thanks for this excellent post. I am a bit nervous about doing my first NaNoWriMo and this post was what I needed to read today. Isn’t it great how that happens?

    It seems when I get writer’s block, my cure is to get up out of my chair and dart and dash about the house, usually wearing a huge, cheesy grin. My husband gives me very peculiar looks when I do this, and I suspect it might be something like having lucky underwear, but it works!

  14. One cure for writers block is to stare at a blank page until your eyes bleed or you write something. Even if it’s about the hue of the white paper.

    Just write something.

  15. @Shane – Nice analogy. I think it is right on.

    I think writer’s block is just a crutch for laziness. I find when I can’t think of anything to write, it isn’t because I can’t. It is because I’m not actually trying to think of something to write.

    Having a process for writing your way through “writer’s block” is a great way to overcome laziness. Just putting a few things on paper like this article describes is a great way to keep moving forward.

  16. Great article. However, I think that writers block just means that you have nothing to say. Your brain doesn’t have a clear message on what it wants to tell people. So you are kind of stuck there thinking what can I write about that can help my readers. The best way someone can get writing again is by writing down any article ideas they have. Then at night just think about the message to want to get to your readers. Before bed or in the morning you should be able to write a good article.

  17. Just like probably most bloggers (unless it’s just me), I get stuck coming up with new ideas to write about. Think about how ridiculous that sounds. There is a world of ideas out there and plucking one off the idea tree is easy enough to do. And yet, we get stuck.

    You wrote, “Dig deep into what you have to say, what you think, and what your opinion is, stripped away from all of those from the first sheet.”

    It’s one of the obstacles I run into over and over, the idea that my opinion, sitting here in front of my computer, or a piece of paper, is too bizarre or off the wall. And I notice that when I run into that (more like when I run away from it), my writing becomes boring, mundane, and (ugh) common.

    A long time ag0, I was talking to an “actual writer.” I told her that I aspired to be a writer. This is probably 25 years ago and I remember standing in that hallway talking to her, and she replied, “Writers don;t aspire, they write.”

    The only thing that gets my hands moving when it is time to write is to get my hands moving.

  18. Nice post, though I find the sheer terror of major deadlines does the trick. That said, I rarely get writer’s block when I’m working on normal copywriting projects. I wish I could say the same about creative writing that’s done for my own pleasure…

    “Your clarity is directly linked to how convinced you are that you have something valuable to say — and that you can say it.”

    Printing to keep at all times for the writer in me 🙂

    Thank you, Melisaa!

  20. Great tips on writer’s block. Fortunately, I haven’t had too many experiences with writer’s block yet since I have so much info bottled up in my head right now.

    I do agree that there’s so much garbage out there in terms of blog content. In effort to keep up with fresh content, some bloggers will write just about anything, even if the quality or topic is terribad!

  21. Hey guys, thanks for all the feedback!

    @Nathan, the looking at what you’re *supposed* to write is key. The “clean-slate” exercise works best if you have an idea of your writing’s purpose before hand.

    @Jake, that is awesome to hear. All the best using your new secret weapon!

    @Dan, when you unblock enough, you’ll see how unique *your* perspective is, and why you don’t have to worry about it not being “good enough.”

    @Shane, being a self-confessed Matrix fangirl, I am all over that! :p

    @susan kuhn, thanks for sharing that insight! And great to see you subscribed. 🙂

    As I see it, the biggest thing that gets in the way of clarity in writing (among lots of other things) is unresolved emotions, especially fear. (After all, the saying goes that emotion “clouds” logic.) And yes, if we were all to just find out our unique message that we are compelled to share with others, the world would transform rapidly. I think it’s already begun.

    @Lydia, I hear you. Some days when the clarity’s not there, it takes some sham pages to get back to the message!

    @Mr. I, yeah, early on in the writing process, self-criticism is counter-productive. Later on is when it’s appropriate.

    @Tracy, I love it! What a great way to not care what other people think.

    @Stacey, yeah, people will always have their own opinions. Take your favorite article here on Copyblogger, there’s bound to be at least one party-pooper that would rather argue against it.

    So great to hear you see the wider scope of the principles. This article is just a finely-tuned positive reframe, as it’s referred to in psychology. 🙂

    @Matches Malone, over intellectualization, interesting. Such as naming this and that, and using the label of writer’s block to mystify the actual process. Thanks for sharing.

    @Matthew, it’s actually slightly different from silencing the inner critic. If yours is going full-blast, I would say, give him as many pages as he needs, because he just needs to be heard (he’s a manifestation of the fear), and then he’ll chill as you take care of the rest.

  22. Hey Melissa,

    A writer’s block is a blessing in disguise.

    It’s a sign that you might not be going about your writing the most effective way. Like you mentioned, you can utilize writer’s block to step back and approach your current writing project (post, article, chapter) differently.

    Perhaps what you want to say isn’t clear, so you don’t know where to start. By writing down the purpose of your project in one sentence, you start from a clean slate with a clear direction. Then you can start banging the cylinders and go from there.

    Rather than being frustrated with writer’s block, you utilize it as a gift in disguise, a tool to help you write more effectively.

    Great article on something that might seem counterintuitive at first, but actually makes perfect sense,

  23. Melissa … Brava!

    You’ve captured the essence of writer’s block! You are to be commended on the succinct exercise to face and disperse the underlying fear that occasionally has its grapple hook grip on those of us who write for a living, or previously only aspired to be known as professional writers.

    I, too, will be printing out this post as a reminder of what I CAN do in those moments when blank pages appear larger than life.

    Thanks, again, Melissa! A great way to build momentum on a Monday!

  24. Thanks for the tips, I’ve been struggling with getting some of my writing done and have just been continuing to push through thinking I could do some rewrites once I’m done, but this method sounds less torturous to myself, I’ll give it chance!

  25. This is great! It can be applied to my job, my copywriting and my blog – but it really hit home now that NaNoWriMo is fast approaching. I’m sure I’ll refer back to this several times during November. Thank you for a great post!

  26. Some fantastic tips here, Melissa – thank you!

    I write for a living and for my MA, and have a fairly ruthless approach to writers’ block. I have found, though, that it’s possible to go too far and plough onwards when an idea simply isn’t ready (the creative mind seems to go at its own pace at times). I’ve found that forcing myself onwards with a “stuck” project can sometimes be counter-productive, as I end up writing words that later get cut.

    Any suggestions on figuring out when something just needs to simmer a bit longer?

  27. @Oleg, I like the way you phrased it, seeming counter-intuitive, but actually not! Yes, anything can be seen as a blessing with the right perspective. Thank you for sharing.

    @Cat, thanks! May your momentum continue to build throughout the week!

    @Tyson, yeah, clarity does wonders with minimizing rewrites.

    @Ali, such a good question. Really, only *you* know when the simmering’s complete.

    Since I use my emotion toolkit as a way to approach challenges, especially in the writing/communicating domain… if an idea doesn’t feel “ready,” I draft out a sketch, and then wait until I can really feel the confidence that comes from “knowing” my message. You know, when it’s been refined and it’s so focused that you wouldn’t even feel compelled to defend it against naysayers… because nothing can take it down.

    Also, I learn best when experiencing something head-on. So if I get burned by a mistake or happen upon success in a unlikely way — that’s when several of my simmering ideas solidify. Sometimes you just need the external life-event validation of what you already know inside. Sometimes you just need to be pushed (in pleasurable or painful ways) to own it.

    I would say, go out and do something fun! Or at least constructive. Trust yourself. Life will throw something at you so that you either own your ideas, or find new ones. 🙂

  28. This is a lovely piece… something that works for me — and I’ll adapt it to Step 6 — is to make sure I’m not trying to write in any kind of list or linear form. Some call it cluster writing, or thinking, but just putting the main theme in the middle(ish) of the page and circling it, then free-association jotting down ideas… sometimes I also like to close my eyes and type thoughts, see what I get (not much that’s useful, but almost always at least a spark).
    And Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ THE CREATIVE FIRE reminds that everything, especially creativity, goes in cycles. Fallow time is needed, too.

  29. Writer’s block is one of my favorite topics to read about; always looking for tips to keep my writing flowing. I do think the issue of fear is a big one when it comes to stopping the flow of writing.
    One of those fears many writers face is the fear of failure, being concerned you won’t write well enough or that no one will see your writing worth being published. When you start out thinking, Will I be able to publish this?, is a sure- fire way to get writer’s block started.
    Giving ourselves permission to fail, to not write well, at least initially, can help take the pressure off to write because we want to, which can eventually lead us to write well in the long run.

    Dawn Herring
    JournalWriter Freelance
    Be Refreshed!

  30. @Nnamdi, unleash the weapon for your next batch of midterms. 🙂

    @Martha, yes, so important to be aware of the cyclical nature of creativity. For blogging, I like to keep drafts going all the time, so that on my down-time days I have somewhere to work from.

  31. Writers block can sneak up on you due to lack of preparation and simply just not wanting to do the work. Writing takes mental and physical energy and sometimes it is hard to get moving.

    Writing can be like pushing a boulder up a hill. It takes a ton of work to push it up, but once you get over the hill, you’re much better off.

    Sometimes a good way to get the word flowing from your fingertips (if that’s what is hard to do for you and is causing the blockage) is to go to a blog you read and leave a well-written, long-ish comment. It sometimes does the trick because you get into a rhythm of writing and not really feeling like it’s work. This can carry over into the bread and butter writing.

    A lot of times it’s really just the “work” aspect that holds you back, like having to write a 500 word article about a new cell phone or something you’re not interested in when you would rather be writing about the latest episode of 30 Rock on your blog.

  32. some good tips, personally i find that when you have the right tools and enough experience you shouldn’t ever get writers block, just don’t be scared to fail, also it helps to get out into the real world, live life and get the opinions of others, a survey is a great source of ideas and by answering other people’s questions you know that you are creating content that people want

  33. sometimes there are times when nothing needs to be said. In a less pressure environment, we would just accept this as a natural flow of things. The need to perform is very much a modern construction.

  34. Excellent advice. I can see the benefit in there of using that technique. I’ve not experienced writer’s block but I will file this away for future reference should I ever face it or if I know someone facing it.

  35. What I love about this post is that it is about not accepting writers block and the constant need to battle it, rather than submit to it (and whine about it). Because everyone runs into obstacles, and only when you let them win do you have genuine writer’s block on your hands. Real writers fight it.

    In fiction, writer’s block is one of three things:

    1) your story isn’t working, and you’re married to your plan. Sort of like staying married to the wrong person… your life sucks. You can’t seem to make it work, and you know it, but it’s too daunting to rebuild the thing, or you don’t know how. Or worse, you settle.

    2) You’re in over your head. Sure, you’ve read everything Nora Roberts has written and you think, hey, doesn’t look so hard, I can do that. But there’s an entire discipline involved here, you don’t just make up a good story you go along.

    3) You’ve fallen out of love with your story. This is more common that it may sound. Interestingly, the reason you fall out of love often stems from #1 or #2 above.

    The solutions are in Melissa’s wonderful post. And, in going further up the learning curve as a practitioner of fiction.

  36. Thank you! I loved this, Melissa, and I agree with Larry, too. His approach has rekindled my interest in writing fiction. Posts about writer’s block intrigue me because I don’t suffer from it. Although I earn a little from my writing, I don’t write for money; writing for deadlines makes me feel like I’ve painted myself into a corner. My creativity seems to have cyclical ebbs and flows. For me, they’re not only natural but necessary. If I’m stuck with something in a piece, I simply go off and do something else until I come back with a fresh mind and work it out. Everything’s fuel for writers, and nothing’s ever wasted.

  37. Thanks for your post Melissa.
    It’s hard sometimes to be absolutely yourself without the controlling input of other peoples ideas. being accepted is such a strong need for most people that being really unique and standing out can be frightening.
    Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow is another encouragement to be different and using your technique with help me head in that direction

  38. @Gary, yes, the need to perform is very much a modern construction. Good news is that when you voluntarily take that on as part of your job, you can find ways to make it less stressful. 🙂


    Morpheus: What is Twitter? Distraction. Twitter is a computer-generated dream world built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this.

    [displays blank WordPress draft]

    Neo: No, I don’t believe it. It’s not possible.

    Morpheus: I didn’t say it would be easy, Neo. I just said it would be the truth.

    @ContentScoop, I like that. Thanks for the angle, as I’m big on solitude for general mental health. 🙂

    @Janice, you can say that again! I take EVERYTHING that comes my way and juice it if I can, for the writing’s sake! (I think we all do, to some extent.)

    @Larry, thanks so much for sharing your insight on fiction writer’s block. I think what you say about real writers fighting it (and eventually picking it up as a weapon) is crucial.

    As I see it, real writers are obligated to share what they know, and tell the stories as they see them. It’s not so much that they aspire to create writings, it’s that they can’t not. When they can “see” in a way that needs to be shared, they don’t have a say as to whether they are worthy enough to deliver the message. They just do it. They stretch. Because they put aside their ego, and see that it’s about the story, or if not fiction, then the work.

    #1 you mentioned I think is really linked to clarity. You only enter dysfunctional relationships when you aren’t clear enough on what you want or who you are.

    #2 is what gave me a few hefty blocks when trying to finish a sci-fi novel (still in manuscript form). Boy writing never scared the bejeezees out of me like sci-fi did (and does). I never knew it was possible to feel so daunted and buried in your own endeavor! Sci-fi is technically universe-building, who the heck is qualified for that!?!

    #3 I’ve luckily not encountered. I love all the stories and characters that come to me. But I do have to keep some at bay when I don’t have the time and energy to commit to them fully.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  39. With a slight modification, I’d have to agree with John August.

    Writers may get blocks… PROFESSIONAL Writers don’t.

    Shift it to a different environment and you’ll recognize “block” for the excuse it is. The bad guy got away because the police officer experienced law enforcement block. The factory shut down for an hour because a worker experienced Tab A into Slot B block. The Receiver didn’t fumble the football, he just had grip block.

    Professionals ARE professionals because they can perform as needed, on demand — regardless of occupation (politicians being a notable exception).

  40. Allan, you just reminded me of the discussion that went down in August’s comment thread. It’s a good read. 😛

    I agree, and the undertone I hear in your statement: Professionals don’t let their unresolved or unprocessed emotions hold them back from success. Instead, they *use* their emotions to leverage success.

  41. I’ve been sitting on 4 chapters and a dead end in my novel for 3 months. Today I read Melissa’s Blog “Why Writer’s Block is Your Secret Weapon? and after using just one of her suggestions I finished a full 36 chapter outline and now I know how my story will progress and how it will end.

    Thanks for being the answer to a prayer Melissa!

  42. i try my very best to make sure i write new post everyday.. because my blog still new.. but it hard especially to make sure all the contents are good quality.. talking about writer block.. it always occur to me though..

  43. @Curtis, I am so happy to hear it! As Sonia said, thank you for sharing.

    Which step in particular did the trick? 🙂

    I wish you all the best in finishing your novel!

  44. Thank you Sonia and Melissa,

    When I looked at all the thoughts that might be getting in my way, I figured it would take two years of writing non-stop to get them all addressed, so I left them alone. But the “one line summary about what I should be writing” became a paragraph and from there the outline took off.

    I also had written my questions about where I wanted the story to go yesterday. This step got me to the answers and it flowed from there!

    I’m so grateful I stumbled on this website. BTW, I got here from alltop.

    Thanks so much and I’ll be around.

  45. How cool! Thank you so much for sharing Curtis.

    And welcome to Copyblogger! I found this safe haven about a year ago, and have been reading ever since. It has plenty of heartfelt and practical resources to improve your writing, and so much more. 🙂

  46. Melissa, very aspiring and outstanding piece of writing. I love the idea of not confining ourselves into predictable routined topics but a mind-free of ideas waiting to be elaborated. Ever since blogging I’ve been trying hard to avoid writer’s block, fact is the more I dread of it the serious it gets. I kind of let the creativity flows and grab hold of every inspiration that comes. I don’t force myself to write something because I ought to, even by reading this post I have some ideas of my own. I tend to respect that. ^^

    Social/Blogging Tracker

  47. That’s one hell of an article you have. I completely, and at the same time admit, that only non-writers have the so-called “writer’s block”. These advices will surely help a lot, especially those people that earn for a living.

  48. To be honest, I think John was asking for it when he took such a seemingly arrogant standpoint, saying that ‘struggling’ over a work was something bad and a sign that you were a failure as a writer. Seeming to suggest that you either write or whine about not writing and there is nothing else in the equation. I don’t have much sympathy for posers any more than I have for arrogant pros who want to tell us what we should be – but I do know that there’s enough brilliant works out there that were etched from hours of agonizing and soul-searching. In my own case (admittedly, I am a fiction writer rather than a copyrighter, so probably have a very different perspective – this is just my take on the subject), the stories that have proved the hardest to write – that have sometimes gone for weeks while I thrash them out without writing a word – have almost uniformly received the best reactions and reviews and I believe that is because they took ME to places that I found challenging, and the reader can maybe pick up on that, giving the story more substance than just a stroll down a familiar path. In fact – when a story comes really easily or only took a few days to write, I start to get suspicious and start to question how good it really is and how I should be making it better.

    The trick, as far as I am concerned, is knowing when to push yourself to get words on paper and when to step back and just think and let things settle in the head. And sometimes I have got it wrong. I have sometimes forced myself to write and wrecked the story in the process, taking it down blind alleys that need a vast amount of work to remove. Writing before thinking. Then again, stories have occasionally got bogged down and basically come to a complete stop. Thinking too much without actually getting anywhere. But that’s just a part of it all and all just have to be addressed. This is why I see writing as an organic process, rather than a 9-5 job type process.

    Surely any really good work involves some sort of dialogue with yourself as it is produced and, if that is hard then maybe it means that the resulting work will have an even better edge to it when it finally comes together. Either that or it fails – but my own view is that it only fails if you give up. And yeah, sometimes you do because you decide it just isn’t worth it and you have more exciting ideas or copncepts to devote your time to. So yes – I agree completely about writers block being an invaluable tool and your article is really fascinating. All this makes it not whining about being hard but celebrating it, as you say, which I took to be your central message! I love the challenge of it – love knowing that this strange journey that a story has taken me on must have a destination somewhere – and by destination, I don’t mean the end of the story of course! :-). And if it is currently unknown or frightening, that only makes it more interesting.

  49. Yes, I’ve yet to meet the surgeon who has “surgeon’s block” or the plumber who has “plumber’s block”. Writing is a job. Do your job!

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