Freelance Writer’s Block: Causes, Clues, and Cures

For us freelance writers, staring at a blank screen for hours–or seeing it still empty after those hours of staring–is a tragedy. Running out of words, ideas, or inspiration when our livelihood is rooted in our creative self is like struggling to sail a boat on an arid land. If that’s the case, then we are in serious trouble.

John Cleese, English author and actor, once said, “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” It is not only about the result but the action or the journey of arriving at the result. If this is a process and there are gaps, then this is something you as the engineer of art can mend, twist, enrich, or expand.

CAUSES

According to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, writer’s block is caused by “conflicted feelings.” It explains that sometimes, “we know what we know but we don’t know what our readers know. We know how the memo should sound, but we don’t have all the facts we need. We know everything about the software, but we don’t know what an article should look like. We know what we have to say but we are afraid that it won’t measure up to our expectations or to our readers’ expectations.”

Meanwhile, Elaine Handley of the State University of New York believes that writer’s block happens when you are judging your writing before or as you write. She explains that writing becomes difficult when you are striving for perfection.

In a paper titled Writer’s Block as Brain State from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) website, writer’s block is differentiated from writer’s cramp. Writer’s cramp, the paper states, refers to a brain disorder of the movements that form words. This is a situation where your hand and forearm muscles are affected. The author adds, “Periods of enforced arm rest, or learning an unrelated skill such as braille, may help the brain unlearn the abnormal movements of writer’s cramp. Block, too, may be more common in situations in which writers are under stress and force themselves to sit down day after day, hammering at the same problem.”

The author also differentiates writer’s block from procrastination. Writer’s block means even if you can sit down, you find it hard to write; procrastination happens when you cannot sit down to write but you can write once something forces or motivates you.

The paper associates writer’s block to depression. It says that many of the classic symptoms of depression are also classic symptoms of writer’s block:

  1. Increased self-criticism
  2. Decrease in enjoyment of the project
  3. Loss of energy, imagination and the ability to concentrate

CLUES

Moreover, novelist Barbara O’Neal emphasizes that writers are under a lot of pressure nowadays. They are obliged to “produce, keep producing, produce more—and also keep up with their blogs(s), Tweet, post to Facebook, maintain a mailing list and newsletter, and show up at any writer’s conference that asks, because you can’t miss a single sale.” But how would you actually know you are experiencing writer’s block?

Charlie Jane Anders of i09.com came up with the 10 types of writer’s block:

  • You can’t come up with an idea.
  • You have a ton of ideas but can’t commit to any of them, and they all peter out.
  • You have an outline but you can’t get through this one part of it.
  • You’re stuck in the middle and have no idea what happens next.
  • You have a terrible feeling your story took a wrong turn a hundred pages back, and you only just hit a dead end.
  • You’re bored with all these characters, they won’t do anything.
  • You keep imagining all the reasons people are going to say your story sucks, and it paralyzes you.
  • You can’t think of the right words for what you’re trying to convey in this one paragraph.
  • You had this incredibly cool story in your head, and now you’re turning it into words on a screen and it’s suddenly dumb.
  • You’re revising your work, and you can’t see your way past all those blocks of text you already wrote.

Meanwhile, a document from Santa Barbara City College lists the situations that writers in general find stressful:

  1. Unrealistic expectations about the writing process
  2. Feeling like you have nothing to say
  3. Adjusting to a new form of writing
  4. Writing for a reader or readers who have been overly critical (or who you imagine will be)
  5. Time – too much or too little
  6. Responding to an assignment that seems difficult or unrelated
  7. Dealing with troubling events or feelings

A writer’s burnout, according to author and speaker Tess Marshall, is experienced with “severe exhaustion, feeling depleted, running on empty and lack of inspiration and motivation.”

 

CURES

Again, if creativity is an operation, you can work through the block.

American writer Ray Bradbury said that “Any man who keeps working is not a failure. He may not be a great writer, but if he applies the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, he’ll eventually make some kind of career for himself as writer.”

To cure writer’s block, you can try the following practices:

1) Take a break. It is what you need. Walk your dog, talk to a friend, attend an event, go to the beach, or go shopping. The brain can only handle so much. It is not a type of machinery you can run 24/7. It needs refueling and some vacation.

2) Read books. Who are your favorite authors? What are the books in your to-read list you can cross off? Reading the works of your most respected authors can give you inspiration, help you build ideas, or motivate you to complete your prose too.

3) Get some support. Join a community of writers, editors, or creatives. Being surrounded by like-minded people is key to “going back” to yourself.

Here are other top strategies and secrets about overcoming writer’s block.

Steven Le Vine, CEO of  lifestyle and entertainment PR and consulting firm, grapevine pr + consulting / Forbes

  • Drink plenty of water. The human brain is made up of 90 percent water. In other words, the less water you supply it with, the less it’s able to perform adequately and the more fatigued you may find yourself.
  • Keep your desk neat. Physical clutter also clutters your headspace and slows down your concentration and energy.
  • Exercise. Brisk walk can clear your head and stimulate new ideas through a different setting, but it also gets blood circulating to your brain.
  • Smell something sweet. Our olfactory system, which controls our sense of smell, is our most primitive sense. It shares the same part of the brain that affects our creativity, so it’s no surprise that something as subtle as a particular perfume smell can trigger a memory from 30 years in the past. Whenever you encounter a creative rut, try lighting a scented candle or a stick of incense to really get your creative juices flowing.
  • Read. Just as writing your thoughts down can unlock a new doorway in your mind, reading can have the same effect. It’s amazing the power that reading can have on incubating thoughts, whether it be an article or an entire book.
  • Turn on the music. It inspires us. It makes us feel. It gives us a soundtrack to our very thoughts and emotions. And it also helps us to remember information through repetition. By stirring up emotional sediment and increasing the flow of our river of thoughts, it may just be the trigger you need to find new motivation.

Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL)

Symptom

You have attempted to begin a paper without doing any preliminary work such as brainstorming or outlining…

Possible Cures

  • Use invention strategies suggested by a tutor or teacher
  • Write down all the primary ideas you’d like to express and then fill in each with the smaller ideas that make up each primary idea. This can easily be converted into an outline

Symptom

You have chosen or been assigned a topic which bores you….

Possible Cures

  • Choose a particular aspect of the topic you are interested in (if the writing situation will allow it…i.e. if the goal of your writing can be adjusted and is not given to you specifically, or if the teacher or project coordinator will allow it)
  • Talk to a tutor about how you can personalize a topic to make it more interesting

Symptom

You don’t want to spend time writing or don’t understand the assignment…

Possible Cures

  • Resign yourself to the fact that you have to write
  • Find out what is expected of you (consult a teacher, textbook, student, tutor, or project coordinator)
  • Look at some of the strategies for writing anxiety listed below

Symptom

You are anxious about writing the paper…

Possible Cures

  • Focus your energy by rehearsing the task in your head.
  • Consciously stop the non-productive comments running through your head by replacing them with productive ones.
  • If you have some “rituals” for writing success (chewing gum, listening to jazz etc.), use them.

Symptom

You are so stressed out you can’t seem to put a word on the page…

Possible Cures

  • Stretch! If you can’t stand up, stretch as many muscle groups as possible while staying seated.
  • Try tensing and releasing various muscle groups. Starting from your toes, tense up for perhaps five to ten seconds and then let go. Relax and then go on to another muscle group.
  • Breathe deeply. Close your eyes; then, fill your chest cavity slowly by taking four of five short deep breaths. Hold each breath until it hurts, and then let it out slowly.
  • Use a calming word or mental image to focus on while relaxing. If you choose a word, be careful not to use an imperative. Don’t command yourself to “Calm down!” or “Relax!”

Symptom

You’re self-conscious about your writing, you may have trouble getting started. So, if you’re preoccupied with the idea that you have to write about a subject and feel you probably won’t express yourself well…

Possible Cures

  • Talk over the subject with a friend or tutor.
  • assure yourself that the first draft doesn’t have to be a work of genius, it is something to work with.
  • Force yourself to write down something, however poorly worded, that approximates your thought (you can revise this later) and go on with the next idea.
  • Break the task up into steps. Meet the general purpose first, and then flesh out the more specific aspects later.
  • Try one of the strategies on the next page of this resource.

University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

“When you’re not just blocked, when you’re stonewalled, try freewriting. Sit down for ten minutes and write down everything you can think of about your topic. The object is to write without stopping for the whole ten minutes. If you can’t think of anything to say, write “blah, blah, blah” over and over. If other things occur to you as you write, go ahead and record them, even if they are not directly related to your topic. These distractions may be part of what is keeping you blocked.

Freewriting is good for uncovering ideas–it’s a good way to nudge “inspiration.” But the main purpose of freewriting is to get you moving! Most of what you write in those ten minutes will go in the recycling bin, but you’ll be warmed up and your serious writing should go more smoothly.

Brainstorming resembles freewriting but is more goal-directed. You start not only with a topic, say PROFS, but also with a goal: What do new users need to know about this system? Then allow yourself to jot down ideas for a set amount of time without censoring any possibilities and without striving for perfect prose. When the “storm” has passed, you can rearrange ideas, put thoughts into complete sentences, edit, and polish.”

Margarita Tartakovsky M.S., Psych Central

“What we call writer’s block usually stems from a lack of perspective about the nature of the drafting process,” write Dan Millman and Sierra Prasada in their book The Creative Compass: Writing Your Way From Inspiration to Publication.

According to the authors, we’re supposed to write badly in the draft stage. “It’s our duty.”

The first draft requires a show of sinew, not nuance. We write badly because we need our early drafts to show us, in broad strokes, what we’re actually supposed to be writing about. We write badly because we need to focus our energy on the larger story and structure, and can’t possibly attend to all the elements that make up a developed or refined work. We write badly because, even if we revise as we draft – and, mea culpa, many of us do – either we can’t revise with a complete manuscript in mind or we’re too close to that manuscript to have sufficient perspective…

And when all else fails, just start. Write whatever’s on your mind. Write the self-doubts. Write the confused, anxious feelings. “Write the truest sentence that you know,” as Hemingway says in A Moveable Feast. Write anything.