The Secret to Overcoming Writer’s Block

There are few things more daunting than the “blank page” whether you’re working on computer or on paper. Even experienced writers often stare glumly at a page, trying to figure out where to begin. It happens whether you’re a creative writer, business writer, or a technical writer, student, or just a once-in-a-while writer. The human mind tends to freeze up under pressure. It’s like trying to get your cat to “do that cute thing again” for the camera.

However, there is one ultimate secret that professional writers use to get around writer’s block. But before we talk about that, let’s look at . . .

Three Things That Can Stop Any Writer Cold

#1: I don’t know what to write about!

You’re sitting there, pen in hand (or fingers poised over the keyboard), on a deadline, and . . . your mind is a blank. Actually, your mind isn’t a blank: there are any number of things you could write about, but none of them are calling your name strongly enough to break out from the pack. Your brain needs you to make a decision–but you’ve confused it by going straight to the writing process.

Think of it like a car sitting in a driveway. Have you ever gotten into your car, turned it on, and then sat there in “park,” waiting for inspiration about where to go? (Yeah, we’ve all done it on occasion, but it’s not the usual approach.) If you don’t know where you want to go, there’s not much point in getting in the car and hoping for inspiration.

So how do you back up and focus on what you want to write about? Try these exercises:

  • Do something else. Take a walk, read a magazine, make a meal. Let your mind wander across your ideas as you do. Which feels most appealing to you personally? Follow that little tug.
  • Make a list. This is a great way to jumpstart your thinking as long as you make it freeform. Jot down everything that occurs to you. Some will be a single word, others will have more detail. Scan the list to see which one you keep coming back to.
  • Just pick something and start writing: Don’t think. Just write. Write whatever you notice–a coffee cup on your desk, a person on the street, a discarded shoe, or the way the sunlight comes in a window. Describe it. Be specific. Your mind will relax and start to wander off into odd links to past events, associations, beliefs, etc. — like who gave you that coffee cup, or that funny little shop you wandered into while wearing those shoes last summer. Writing without pressure gives you freedom to write.

#2: I don’t know how/where to begin!

This is a really common one for those who write on assignment, like a student, an employee, or even a pastor or manager trying to create a report. Here are four possible things that are holding you up:

  1. Trying to find the perfect opening
    It’s rare to write a great first line. or even have a clear idea of the most important part of your document at first. Most professionals get a draft fairly well completed, and then go back and refine/tweak/adjust that opening.
  2. Thinking you only have one shot to do this right
    Once you realize that revision is a natural, essential and far more powerful process than just spewing out a first draft, the pressure comes off. (In the rare case of a timed test or imminent deadline, thinking is the real key. As Ralph Blum says in The Book of Runes, “More than doers, we are deciders.” Decide quickly on your topic, use a simple pattern (like the Five Paragraph trick), then relax and just fill in the blanks.
  3. Fear of saying what you really want to say
    Remember, you can destroy this document before anyone else sees it. But most of us aren’t going to write something that polemic anyway. We often think our ideas may be more outrageous than they really are. Just put on your professional cap, curb your language, and say what you honestly believe needs to be said. Frank and courteous insights can help others make better decisions. Besides, you’ll revise it before you send it anyway–because you’re a professional, right?
  4. Having so much information in your head and not knowing “which part comes first.”
    Try just writing down a description of each step, idea or section. You can add more details later, and you’ll probably find yourself adding some as you go. Once you have a group of descriptions of each segment, you can decide how to rearrange them. These smaller descriptions are much easier to see as a whole and move around. You need something “on paper” to rearrange anyway, and you can always add more details later.

#3: I can’t get my mind to focus!

All writers know the games we play to do anything except write! While it is true that most of the time, we just need to use some self-discipline and buckle down to the task, there are times when you truly can’t write. This is much deeper than just procrastination.

Something is bothering you deeply, and until you resolve it or at least acknowledge it, it will not allow you to do anything that requires the deeply intuitive, creative and emotional work of writing. When we are dealing with deep stress, worry, or even pain, the limbic brain takes over. Also called the lizard brain, it’s not interested in high art or great literature, or even making a living. Nothing matters except survival, both physically and psychologically. All lizard brain wants to do is find comfort, security, your next meal, release from the pressure, escape.

Since writing requires a lot of thought, and making yourself and your ideas vulnerable to others, this is a hard time to do your best creative work. So, take time, be kind to yourself, find ways to relax.

If you must work, keep reminding yourself of . . .

The Ultimate Secret to Overcoming Writer’s Block

Actually, there are two, although they are just two sides of the same idea.

First, writing is an iterative process. Writing isn’t about the first draft. Real writing happens during the revision process to make each draft better. So, anything you write is not the “last word.” In fact, it might not even be the “first word.” It’s just one version that you are playing around with until you figure out the best way to achieve your goal or vision. But it gets better . . . .

Second, NO one will ever see what you have written–unless you give them permission to read it. You may write 2, 5, 10 or 100 versions before you give it to someone else to read. Obviously, professional writers prefer to limit the number of revisions to a reasonable number purely for efficiency and because they want to get paid, which only happens when they give it to someone else.

A word of caution: There is, of course, one dark side to revision. In reality, all professional writers have to guard against the almost overwhelming desire to constantly revise their work just one more time, because they think they could do better. It’s like eating just one potato chip. One taste of the power of revision, and you can’t stop!

So, write without fear. Just get it down. Revise it. Revise it again to get it closer to “perfect.” But always remember: nothing created by human hands is perfect, but a lot of it is good enough. And nothing we write has much meaning until we share it with someone else.


© Chanda K. Zimmerman, 2012-2022