Originally published on alveo and republished with permission.
Every writer eventually reaches a point where they can’t even put their pen to paper to write down a single word. Look up the lives and careers of any of the greatest writers in history and you’ll eventually come across an episode of them suffering from writer’s block.
Virginia Woolf, for instance, suffered from multiple bouts of writer’s block due to depression. Ralph Ellison suffered four decades of writer’s block after the publication of his 1952 masterpiece Invisible Man and wasn’t even able to finish his next novel in his lifetime.
Though writer’s block may be an inevitable ailment all in the profession of writing have to eventually experience and suffer through, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to get around it and get cured of it way sooner than someone like Ellison. Here are some mindsets and methods to deal with writer’s block.
You Only Get Good by Doing
One major component to getting good at writing is constantly writing and rewriting as often as time permits. You write something down, reexamine it, tweak and improve upon it, and repeat this whole revisionary process until you have something with which you are satisfied.
No one writes a Pulitzer Prize-winning text for their first draft. If you attempt to seriously write something and end up with something you go so far as to think is the most embarrassing thing anyone has ever written, you shouldn’t let this feeling stop you from writing (as it does to many writers throughout history). The greatest works of writing have been endlessly revised before publication. No matter how bad you think your first draft is, it’s still something that hasn’t been published and can be refined. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway: The first draft of anything is garbage.
Eventually, as you keep on writing and rewriting, you’ll hone your abilities to the point where even a first draft will be of a more respectable quality than your older first drafts for earlier writing projects.
Nobody Starts Off as a Master
The history of writing goes back thousands of years, with the origins of writing itself believed to have come from ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia.
Since then, the world’s greatest writers have produced texts that have come to be considered some of the greatest creations humans have ever produced. If you are a writer, you will always be held to preexisting standards of what’s considered the greatest writing. And even if you’re not a novelist like Leo Tolstoy or an essayist like James Baldwin, whatever type of writing you produce will have had other people doing the same type of work you did before you but with great critical acclaim.
It is understandable that some writers might get so paralyzed by the prospect of having their writing be compared to giants of the past to the point that it makes them unable to write. But you cannot let your pen be halted by thoughts of insecurity. You cannot let this fear cause writer’s block. Neither Tolstoy nor Baldwin (or any other great writer you can think of) started off as the giants of literature they are today. They worked hard to reach that point. And unless you do the same, you’ll never even come close to reaching those same heights. Keep this sense of perspective in mind at all times and never allow yourself to wallow in anxiety, insecurity or self-pity.
Think Small, Not Big
One of the primary causes of writer’s block (especially for those with big writing projects) is the same issue that causes procrastination. It’s someone thinking too much about how much daunting work is required to reach their goal.
Think of some person who hasn’t sorted out or cleaned up their house in years and constantly sets back the date for doing it just because they shudder and get intimidated every time they think of the prospect of actually doing it. The same happens with writers and writing. You will never get your 500-page novel done if you keep putting off doing any work on it simply because you keep getting spooked by the notion of laboring to complete this difficult task. What you should instead do is focus on more immediate goals.
Whatever the scale of your writing may be (whether it’s a one-page article due to be published in a prestigious magazine or a War and Peace-sized novel), try to divide the entire long-term project into smaller, short-term tasks that you can complete more quickly. This can include things like writing a skeletal outline for each sub-heading in an essay and making a list of bullet points of what each sub-heading will contain so that you can have a better picture of what your essay will look like.
By accumulating these smaller personal victories over time, you maintain confidence in yourself and prevent any instances of writer’s block on account of feeling overwhelmed.
Famed American writer Jack London once recommended that writers follow a daily writing routine with a target word count. Doing this may not necessarily produce the next Don Quixote, but you’re at least still writing, and in this case, something is always better than nothing. Even writing up a quick brainstormed list filled with random ideas that you made up in five minutes is better than twiddling your thumbs for five minutes. (ALV)