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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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13. Problem: You are JUST SO FRUSTRATED!

You’re frustrated by your projects, by the obstacles in your way, by rejection, by expectation, by the energy it takes to keep going.

What to do: “Frustration is not an interruption of the process, frustration is the process,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray Love. “The frustration, the hard part, the obstacle, the insecurities, the difficulty, the ‘I don’t know what to do with this thing now,’ that’s the creative process. And if you want to do it without encountering frustration and difficulty, then you’re not made for that line of work.”

Frustration is simply a product of your own brain telling you that things aren’t going as they should. There is no “right” way your writing should be going, there is only the way it IS going. This is reality, pure and simple.

The first line of M. Scott Peck’s best-selling book The Road Less Travelled is “Life is difficult.” He goes on to say that the sooner you accept this as fact and stop wishing it was some other way, the easier life becomes. The same is true for writing. It’s hard. For everyone. The sooner you can stop expecting it not to be hard for you, the better off – and less frustrated – you’ll be.

 

 

14. Problem: You are stuck in the narrative and don’t know how to move forward.

In my writing office, I have a wooden replica of a TWA airplane that is 3.5 feet long and 4 feet wide. It is held up by a steel rod on a table and is aimed downward. This is my visual metaphor for how I almost always feel when I am writing: like I’m in a perpetual nosedive, and I don’t know how to pull up and out of it.

 

What to do: You move forward by moving forward. Too often we are looking for some piece of information or insight or idea that will move us forward when, in fact, most of the time we have to just proceed even without enough information.

“How long should it take me to write an essay?” I once asked my mentor, frustrated by the slow pace at which I was making forward progress. “As long as it takes you,” she answered. This was unhelpful, since my real question was, “What’s the secret key to unlocking this essay and why are you hiding it from me?” But you can’t hurry the process or make the process something it isn’t. So much of writing comes down to trusting that you will figure out the way by keeping your rear in the chair.

Gift yourself not just the time but also the patience to figure things out.

Forgive yourself for not being amazing at this. Just keep going and trust that there will eventually be a light at the end of the tunnel.

 

 

15. Problem: You are addicted to social media or other distractions and, sorry, you’re not sorry.

We are all addicted to the intermittent reinforcement of alerts, messages, and breaking news. Unfortunately, the very instrument upon which we do our work is also the thing that delivers these alerts. Studies have shown that it takes us 20 minutes to return to our task with full concentration after checking email one time.

 

What to do: These strategies can help you maintain focus and avoid the siren call of online distractions.

  • Do your research before you write a word. If you research as you write, you’ll constantly be flipping back and forth between online and off, and more likely to get pulled in different directions as you find new things that catch your attention. If, during the actual writing, you discover additional things you need to look up, make a note of them at the bottom of your document (or on paper) and move on. You can fill in the blanks later.
  • Turn off the internet. If shutting down your browser isn’t enough, actually disconnect the cable or unplug your modem. Or go somewhere where there’s no Wi-Fi and write on a laptop. (Don’t worry. The internet will still be there when you get back.)
  • Use a distraction-minimizing app. Writeroom and Writer.app are two good ones. Basically, these programs are for writing text…and nothing else. They block out the rest of your computer with a black (or otherwise faded) background.
  • Shut down everything – that means your mail program, messaging apps on your phone, games – everything.
  • Turn off the radio and TV. Background noise is almost never a good thing for a writer.
  • Clear your desk. Visual clutter is a subconscious distraction. Instead of spending time sorting through your papers (a distraction-lover’s distraction), collect them in a pile and put them in a drawer or another room to sort through later. Same thing with pens and knickknacks and other clutter – toss them in a drawer and sort them out later.
  • Tell others when you’re in Do Not Disturb mode. If you have a certain time of the day when you write, let everyone know when that is so they can save their questions or interruptions for when you’re finished working.
  • Take breaks. Not too many, not too few. Move around for five minutes every hour, and then get back to writing. It’s great if you can take a break at a place in your process when you know what comes next. Taking a break when you are stuck can make it much harder to return to the work.
  • Know what helps YOU get back to work. For me, going for a walk often means I return with a new (and kinder) perspective. Some people swear by mundane tasks like laundry or ironing.
  • How can you make what you’re doing more fun, or at least more tolerable? Often I write better on days when I have a fun thing planned in the evening. I’m looking forward to it, so it becomes my reward for staying focused.
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