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Is Writer’s Block Crippling Your Productivity


I don’t like the phrase writer’s block.

To me, it sounds like an enormous, immovable block of bricks on a writer’s head, crushing her with its weight. Plus, thinking about a block only makes it grow bigger.

Instead, I like the leaky bucket analogy by my favorite author Michael La Ronn. 

Imagine a bucket full of water, and it’s leaking because there are several holes in it. How do you fix a leaky bucket? You plug the holes. 

Now pretend that your mind is the bucket. Our mind is always brimming with ideas and inspiration, but if it has holes it will be leaking, and you will lose your ideas and inspirations. And that is when you get blocked.

Curing writer’s block is really no different than plugging holes in a leaky bucket? 

Maybe you’re experiencing writer’s block now. Stop thinking of it as a magical, mysterious force preventing you from writing.

Think of how to plug the holes so that you don’t lose your ideas and inspiration. 

I think there are seven kinds of holes in your writing bucket.

The First Hole: Fear

The first hole we need to plug is fear. 

It doesn’t matter who you are; fear affects every writer. 

We’re afraid of making ourselves vulnerable in our book, making mistakes, afraid of what readers will think, afraid our book will not sell, and so much more. 

That fear can drip into our writing. It paralyzes us. We start to think, “What’s the point of writing” or “No one will like our book” or “I’m just an imposter posing as a writer.” 

Many writers let this fear get to their heads. They quit writing because of it. Don’t join the list of those unknown writers. 

I wish I could give you a recipe for eliminating your fear, but it doesn’t exist. You need to learn to function with the fear.

If you can get a handle on your fear, you’ll find that writer’s block won’t visit you nearly as frequently because you’ll start building confidence in your work — and yourself.

Give yourself the permission to feel the fear but do it anyway.

The Second Hole: Personal Circumstances 

Personal circumstances play a big part in our lives, whether we like to admit them or not. 

Sometimes we get sick. Sometimes work takes precedence over our writing. Sometimes commitments take up all our time. Sometimes we have other important obligations that we have to take care of. All these break our carefully created writing routines.

That’s normal. 

One of the secrets of longtime professional writers is that they keep at it rain or shine. They may not write every single day. They, too get all of the above interruptions and many more. But they keep getting back to their writing. 

Don’t beat yourself up when life strikes. I kept writing during years of sick parents, growing children, and extremely demanding work. True, I couldn’t write as much as I wanted to. When circumstances changed, I gave writing all the time I could. But family and life always come first. 

Deal with the things you need to deal with. Set a timeline to restart, and when it’s time, pick up where you left off. That’s all you can do.

The reason personal circumstances cause writer block is because many new writers think that they don’t have enough time to write. They constantly lament about it, and it blocks their creativity. Their bucket is leaking. If they plug the leak by changing their mindset, they’ll find it magically stops leaking. 

All you can do is all you can do, and all you can do is enough. — Arthur L. Williams

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

The Third Hole: My writing is not good enough

Whether you call it perfectionism, lack of confidence, or imposter syndrome, the fear of bad writing is probably the most common type of writer’s block.

When we think our writing isn’t good enough, it is our inner critics speaking. When inner critic takes charge, getting started or continuing becomes hard, sometimes even impossible.

Many writing coaches suggest you silence the inner critic by continuing writing but silencing your inner critic isn’t always that easy.

But you can fool your inner critic.

How?

By giving yourself permission to write badly. When I was writing my first book, I kept my inner critic at bay by telling it that I was writing the worst book ever.

Here’s what Seth Godin suggests about this type of writer’s block:

(…) it’s comforting to think that we are blocked, that we’re just not in the right mood to deal with something. But people who say they have writer’s block actually have a fear of bad writing, so they’re not willing to do any writing at all. What I say to somebody who has writer’s block is, “Show me all your bad writing. Go sit down and write badly as much as you can, because sooner or later, some good stuff is going to slip through.” (…) Indeed, the job of someone who’s creating is to create, not to be perfect.

Anne Lamott tries to drill into new writers through her book Bird by Bird that your first draft will be a shitty draft.

Shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few time to get all the cricks out and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. This is just a fantasy of the uninitiated. — Anne Lamott

Early in my writing career, I purposely wrote shitty first drafts. At least, this is what I thought I was doing. But I found it gave me permission to write unreservedly. Later, when I read my work, I was surprised that I wrote it. It sounded pretty good.

Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher, uses another smart tactic to get around the fear of bad writing. He tells himself he isn’t writing; he’s simply jotting down ideas:

I have a very complicated ritual about writing. It’s psychologically impossible for me to sit down [and do it], so I have to trick myself. I elaborate a very simple strategy which, at least with me, it works: I put down ideas. And I put them down, usually, already in a relatively elaborate way, like the line of thought already written in full sentences, and so on. So up to a certain point, I’m telling myself: No, I’m not yet writing; I’m just putting down ideas. Then, at a certain point, I tell myself: Everything is already there, now I just have to edit it. So that’s the idea, to split it into two. I put down notes, I edit it. Writing disappears.

To get over the fear of bad writing, you may need to fool your inner critic, too.

Whether you give yourself permission to write badly or tell yourself you’re only jotting down ideas; the key is to get the first draft on paper, no matter how bad that draft is. 

“My writing is not good enough” leak doesn’t happen at the start of a writing career; it can happen at any stage of writing even when you become an established successful writer. You start wondering whether you can write something that good again. The antidote remains the same: write a bad first draft. You may even challenge yourself to write the world’s worst book. 

Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

The Forth Hole: Lack of ideas

When I started writing, I didn’t have many ideas for articles. I was afraid I would run out of them soon and write nothing after that. 

But as I started writing, I kept coming up with more ideas. Do you know why? Because ideas breed ideas. Ideas are everywhere; we just need to learn to capture them. 

Each article answers a question but raises many more, and the cycle continues.

If your bucket is leaking ideas you not only need to plug it but also pour more ideas into it. 

“The way to have good ideas is to get close to killing yourself. It’s like weightlifting. When you lift slightly more than you can handle, you get stronger. In life, when the gun is to your head, you either figure it out, or you die.”
Claudia Azula Altucher, Become An Idea Machine: Because Ideas Are The Currency Of The 21st Century

Take a pen and paper and write down ten ideas in two minutes. Don’t evaluate, just keep writing. The first few will be easy, the middle ones will be a bit of a struggle but the last two to three will be the hardest. They will be the nuggets you are looking for. Do this exercise every morning, and you will never run out of ideas.

Here’s what Austin Kleon suggests about this type of writer’s block:

I often get most blocked when I lose sight of why I began my work in the first place: because I was inspired by the work of others and wanted to join in the fun.

“Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master,” Lewis Hyde writes in The Gift. “That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself.”

In other words: all writers are readers first.

When I stall out, it’s time to start taking things in again: read more, re-read, watch movies, listen to music, go to art museums, travel, take people to lunch, etc. Just being open and alert and on the lookout for That Thing that will get me going again. Getting out the jumper cables and hunting down a battery.

When you lack ideas, your muse has not deserted you. You’ve simply neglected to feed your creative soul.

The Fifth Hole: Lack Of Distance

One of the biggest reasons for getting stuck is we have been too close to our writing for too long.

I’m sure that you’ve experienced this leak and you know how agonizing it is. You would do anything to plug it, right?

Do something that most writing coaches and experts would tell you NOT to do: walk away.

For a little while.

Sometimes, you just need to get some distance between yourself and your manuscript. Walk away from your work, do something else — literally go for a walk, or cook a meal, or play with your children. If you can find anything else, clean a closet. 

When we get too deep into our work, we can lose perspective. Sometimes, fresh air is all we need to get our perspective back.

Taking a nap or a good night’s sleep could also work wonders. Tell your brain what problem you want to solve, then take a nap or go to bed and see what happens in the morning.

The Sixth Hole: Fuzzy Thinking

This hole is the most frustrating one. It happens when you don’t have clarity, and your thoughts feel entangled or fuzzy. You keep going in circles and don’t make progress doesn’t matter how much time you spend.

Sometimes you don’t know how it all hangs together or where to start?

This is when you need more thought behind your ideas. Thinking is an essential phase of the writing process. Content marketing pioneer Ann Handley calls it pre-writing:

Thinking is pre-writing. And pre-writing is the key to writing. — Ann Handley

You can use three ways to plug this hole. You can get away and let it percolate. Thoughts need time to mature and to make connections. After a few days solution appears out of nowhere.

Alternatively, you can read more or do in-depth research. Chances are you need more information for the thought to complete. Reading or research might take you in a completely different direction which is even better. You are not stuck anymore.

Finally, you can write your way out of it. Sometimes stream of consciousness writing is a great way to clarify your thinking.

The Seventh Hole: Not having a system in place

This might be the biggest of all holes. Writing becomes a daunting task, especially when trying to do everything in a single sitting. 

To plug this hole, you need to put a system in place. A system is a set of procedures to do something efficiently and consistently. 

Most people struggle with writing because they don’t have a system. They think they would sit in front of a computer, move their fingers on the keyboard, and beautiful prose will flow out of it on the screen. It doesn’t happen that way.

Those new to cooking think of it as a one-step process. Ask any chef, and they would tell you that preparing a dish is a three-step process — shopping, preparation, and cooking.

When a chef cooks a dish, he doesn’t first go to the shops, buy the ingredients, come home, do the preparation (cutting, chopping, soaking, marinating), put the dish together, and then place it in the oven.

He already has all the ingredients ready. He has done some preparation too. So when the time comes, he puts them together and puts them in the oven.

Writing is like cooking too. It is made up of three distinct activities:

  1. Coming up with ideas
  2. Turning those ideas into drafts
  3. Editing and publishing

You can’t do them all in one step. You got to separate them, and you got to do each activity every single day. If you can do that, you have a system.

Let’s take the leaking bucket analogy a little further. Since your bucket was leaking, there’s probably not much water left in it. Your bucket’s water level may be so low that there are only a few drops of water in it.

But if you have a system in place, your bucket will always be full. 

How? 

Imagine you have three buckets instead of one, each with a label on it — IDEAS, DRAFTS, and EDITS.

Your job is to add something to each bucket every day.

It doesn’t matter how much. You can add just one idea into the IDEAS bucket and only one paragraph in the DRAFTS bucket and EDIT something small, but you mustn’t miss any of the buckets any single day. Soon you have a system going. You will never run out of ideas, and you will have plenty of drafts ready to edit and publish.

Cutting writing projects into smaller tasks and then focusing on one task at a time plugs the biggest hole in your writing bucket. 

Takeaway

Writer’s block is a response to a number of little problems. Address them, and you will be able to overcome them each time they threaten to impact your productivity.

Once again, here are the seven blocks and ways to deal with them.

  • The first block is fear. It will never go away. The best strategy is to accept it and work with it. Pretty much feel the fear and do it anyway. 
  • The writer’s block caused by is personal circumstances is tough to handle, but it is something you can’t avoid. Life will always come in the way, and you somehow have to work with it. This acceptance will be liberating in itself.
  • My writing is not good enough is a very common block. The way to overcome this is to give yourself permission to write badly. 
  • Getting blocked due to lack of ideas is in fact lack of practice. Build your idea muscles by writing ideas every day. 
  • Sometimes you will get blocked because you have been too close to your work. Put your work aside for a while and do something else. You will get back to it with renewed energy.
  • The frustrating block due to unclear thinking. You can rest the writing to let the ideas mature, or do research or write your way out of it.
  • Lastly, the block due to not having a system in place. Try a three-bucket system and break the writing process into smaller chunks.

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