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15 of the most common causes of writer’s block – and how to cure them

Feeling stuck in your manuscript, craft, or career? Here are 15 of the most common problems that can stall a writer’s progress – plus key strategies for overcoming each one.

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7. Problem: You are a perfectionist, stuck in revision hell.

You can’t move forward because you are too busy “perfecting” your work. There’s a difference between revising and tinkering. Revision addresses the overall structure and/or organization of your piece, as well as the mechanics, language choices, narrative arc, and point of view. Tinkering is when you play with a word or sentence here or there, but the overall effect on the piece is minimal. It is possible to get stuck in both revising AND tinkering, the result being that you never show it to anyone or submit it because you are never “finished.”

 

What to do: Perfectionism is fear masquerading as commitment to craft. It’s time to acknowledge the fear. Know you join a long, celebrated list of people who have the same fear – that their work is never good enough – and then set a goal for submission that is not too far in the future. Tell your plan to a friend or your writers group and ask them to hold you accountable.

Realize that in a dangerous world, fear seeks to protect us, but there is little true danger in the writing world save for the pain of rejection. The sooner you accept that you’re going to receive some, the sooner you can get a start on submitting.

Let your fear speak. Let it write you a letter. Actually sit down and pen it to yourself in its voice. Then read the letter with open-minded and openhearted affection. Let your fear know you hear it. You can’t kill your fear, but you can acknowledge it’s there and move forward anyway. This is the definition of courage.

My husband’s high school had a saying painted on the wall: “Avoid failure. Never try.” Is this really what you want?

 

 

8. Problem: You are on the wrong path.

It is possible to choose unwisely for ourselves, or to choose a path that is merely adjacent to where we want to be. Some people who really want to be writers find themselves “next door” as teachers or editors. Some who deeply want to write short stories find themselves working as reporters. But are these professions feeding your craft or distracting from it?

 

What to do: Take a clear-eyed view of what you’re doing versus what you want to be doing. How are they the same? How are they different? Sometimes we realize the two paths are not so far apart or that we are more satisfied with where we are than we realized. But other times we realize it’s time to switch paths.

As with so many of our distractions, fear is often to blame for our resistance to following our true desired path. Get clear about what frightens you. Sometimes we are buying into an old narrative (“You can’t make money as a ____”). Sometimes we’d rather do well at something that’s less fulfilling than potentially fail at something that means a lot to us. If this is the case, you might want to rethink your definition of what it means to fail.

9. Problem: You speak negatively to yourself.

You say things like “Nobody will ever read this” and “I’ll never find a publisher” and “Everything on this subject has already been said.” Negative self-talk is the bane of our creative life. It is one of the most corrosive forces we have to combat if we are to allow ourselves to write. As the master of our own brain, it’s up to us to recognize the stories ours is concocting and to shut those stories down.

 

What to do: It often helps to know exactly what we’re up against. Write down the negative, shaming, distracting, angry things you tell yourself. Now imagine saying these things to a friend you care about or a child while they are trying to work. Sometimes we can’t fathom how destructive our own narratives are until we imagine subjecting other people to them.

The next time you are writing, notice when the negative voices pop up and ask yourself immediately, “What would be more helpful to hear?” If you can’t access that kind voice inside yourself, can you access the kind voice of a friend and hear what they might say to you instead? Taming our negative self-talk is not a quick fix, but your life will greatly improve in all areas once you start to challenge the hurtful messages your brain is feeding you.

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