What’s Really Happening When You Get Writer’s Block (and How to Overcome It)

Writer’s block isn’t what you think. It’s not a medical condition afflicting writers everywhere. It’s not a disease preventing you from doing your best work. And it’s not a virus that takes control of the creative process, rendering you useless.

What’s Really Happening When You Get Writer’s Block (and How to Overcome It)

What writer’s block is, then, is an excuse.

Nothing more.

Ever wonder why other people in less creative careers don’t experience blocks the way we writers do?

Cubicle dwellers may lament the Monday Blues or the 3PM Slump, but in no other industry do professionals speak of being prevented from their work by an invisible and all-powerful force beyond their control.

As Liz Gilbert says, there are no engineers suffering from engineer’s block.

Why is that?

Few professions require the honesty and self-reflection that writing does. Few vocations demand the constant mining of one’s life experiences, and even fewer allow you to spin this information into beautiful prose for public consumption.

Writer’s block is an excuse. Nothing more.

Jeff Goins

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In that respect, writer’s block makes sense. It is a creative person’s pre-emptive defense against judgment. It is a wall between ourselves and the public. It’s what we say when we don’t want to answer any more questions about that book we haven’t written. We’ve got writer’s block.

People nod understandingly, almost empathetically. Oh, yes. I’m so sorry. That must be hard. I hope you get well soon.

Here’s the truth: writer’s block doesn’t exist. Not really. It’s a condition that exists entirely in your head. That wall you’re building is made of air, not bricks. But when we believe this lie we tell ourselves, it becomes real.

When we think we are blocked, we become blocked.

The concept of writer’s block has so infiltrated our daily lives that it gets a pass in nearly every creative conversation. We do not hold ourselves to a standard of daily discipline, and therefore, neither do others.

But this is a problem. When a toxin to our productivity gets into the creative bloodstream, it must be flushed out. The way we do this is not by treating the symptom, but by acknowledging the real disease.

The real cause of writer’s block

If you’ve ever felt like you have writer’s block, here’s what you actually have:

  • Fear
  • Exhaustion
  • High standards (which is basically fear of failure)
  • Imposter Syndrome (fear of rejection)
  • Perfectionism (fear of not being good enough)
  • Busyness (fear of not having enough time)
  • Laziness (or is it really fear?)
  • Lack of structure (fear of not knowing how to start)

Look: I don’t mean to impose my reality on you because every writer is different. But, for me, what almost always prevents me from writing is fear.

To help me understand what’s going inside of me when I feel blocked, I take the following three steps:

1. Acknowledge the resistance

First, I acknowledge the resistance I feel as a sign that I’m doing something right. I must be doing something important if an unseen force is trying to stop me from finishing, even if that unseen force is myself.

Writer’s block is a condition that exists only in your head.

Jeff Goins

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Subconsciously, I must recognize that this is important work, hence the need to self-sabotage. So, when I realize this, I am encouraged. Excited, even. Because it means I’m doing something that matters.

2. Identify the root problem

Second, I ask myself what’s really going on. Not, what’s preventing me from finishing? But rather: why do I feel stuck?

Am I afraid of failure? Of rejection? Of not being good enough?

Do I feel like I don’t have enough time? Enough talent? Enough grit?

Or, am I just tired?

Depending on the situation, my step three varies. But unless I’m tired, in which case I take nap or do some exercise, it’s most likely fear that I’m having to overcome.

I’m scared to publish because I feel like my best work is behind me or that I’ll never finish it. I’m scared of what people might think, or that I’ll somehow get pigeonholed into some role I don’t want for myself. I’m scared it’ll fail, and therefore I will be a failure.

So, it’s just easier to stare at the screen or procrastinate and find something else seemingly more important to do. Then, when the writing time is over, I play the martyr, pretending like I didn’t have “enough time.”

3. Ask what’s the worst that can happen

Three, once I’ve determined what’s actually wrong, I do a worst-case scenario. Could I fail? Sure. Would that destroy my career in a single stroke? Not at all.

Your output depends on having a system in place that makes productivity not probable, but inevitable.

Jeff Goins

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It would take multiple failures all in a row to take me out of the game. That’s not impossible, of course, but it’s certainly not likely. And that takes away the pressure of this one creative act, which frees me up to do what is mine to do, today.

We must acknowledge the true cause of our writer’s block. Then, we must find a practical solution so we have a shot at getting back to work.

Start with structure

A quick word on writing structure: If you’ve balked before at structure as something that would limit your creativity or even induce writer’s block, that’s fear talking.

Your output depends on having a system in place that makes productivity not just probable, but inevitable.

That’s why my friend Tim Grahl and I recently worked together to develop The Productive Writer course. We designed this course to help you find the time to write, overcome your fears, and finish your book in the next 90 days.

You are not merely a vehicle through which writing flows (or doesn’t) despite you, which means that the thing you’re perceiving as a creative block is just you getting in your own way. This is why it’s important for you to use proven strategies to help you remove the obstacles that stand in the way of your writing.

Step aside, define the thing you’re actually experiencing, and try out this proven system to get real traction as a writer.

Register today for The Productive Writer course before it closes on Friday, August 26.

What’s happening in your mind when you’re facing writer’s block? Share in the comments.

21 thoughts on “What’s Really Happening When You Get Writer’s Block (and How to Overcome It)

  1. The Block is just as strong as we let it be 😉

    Personally, I often struggle with a blend of laziness and… well, a sense of uselessness – I end up thinking what if I spend time and energy on a piece no one will want to read?

    But then, I tell myself I am going to write for my own sake, to express an idea which really wants to come to light – and any doubt wanes.

  2. Other professions only have to follow a map, or look at the terrain and make a map. Writers are the only ones trying to create the terrain and navigate it at the same time–and hoping they end up where they want to go.

  3. For me the major issues are lack of structure and accountability. There are so many things in my life that HAVE to get done (kids to school, me to work, dinner on the table, dishes, laundry, bedtime…) Writing is something I WANT to do, but so many days it feels like one of those “extra” things that no one will notice whether I do or don’t get it done. It’s easy to tell myself that it won’t matter if I defer the dream for just one more hour or one more day – but it’s easy to see how hours and days and weeks of deferral can easily lead to a lifetime unfulfilled.
    I can see now that those are just symptoms of fear. I know I can write and I feel passionate about my message – but I feel vulnerable, too. I’m afraid of my critics – both random critics out in cyberspace, as well as those closest to me to whom I’ve never confided my great desire to be a writer. So rather than making a plan to narrow my focus and accomplish small steps each day, I let myself feel anxious and overwhelmed about my writing and get nothing done in the process.
    The other fear, if I may, is so well expressed by Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” In other words, if everyone else is okay with completing a day’s work and sitting down on the couch with a pint of Ben & Jerry after putting the kids to bed – then why can’t I feel like that is enough for me? Why am I the one who feels like there is something more for me to do?

  4. Very well articulated Jeff. I feel you have emphatically put this matter to bed. It really is a lazy excuse for not writing.

    I have just recently discovered your blog. And it’s already proven a great resource. Keep it coming.

    Again, thanks for sharing this.

    Patrick

  5. Funny thing: I started on Tim and Jeff’s Productive Writer course yesterday. First assignment was to write double the amount of daily words I usually do. No problem. I’m a bit of an obsessive compulsive writer anyway. I was looking forward to it UNTIL it came time to sit down, and do it. Then, I hit a strange resistance — a block — that inferred, rather surreptitiously, “I really don’t want to (or I can’t) do this.”

    I recognized it, thankfully, as nothing but a childish resistance, coming from my own self, simply balking at not wanting to do the thing I was told to do: The opposite effect of telling a child NOT TO touch a hot stove, and watch, that’s the very thing they try to do. Tim told me to write double, and now, I DIDN”T WANT to do it.
    Ended up pressing through…refused to give in…wrote double that pages plus more. 🙂

  6. I recommend establishing a routine. When I began writing a weekly column for an online art and marketing site, I had the pressure of weekly deadlines. So I established a routine, whether I felt creative or not. Much like exercising, the hardest part is starting. A routine keeps you on track! Thanks Jeff!

  7. “Here’s the truth: writer’s block doesn’t exist”. Good comment, Jeff.
    What I respect you the most, is you use your authority to tear down fear. Thumb up and thank you.

  8. I struggle with laziness in the sense that I feel so overwhelmed with trying to put everything together that I tend to find any excuse to avoid it.

    Overcoming myself, my weaknesses and fears has been a real challenge for me. Very thankful for all the people in my life that encourage me to keep moving forward.

    This article has been helpful in keeping me focused and getting past the lies.

  9. I believed this is due to something called the Moire Effect. You’d often see this in older TVs when g a picture of a person wearing a striped shirt. In essence, the first pair of stripes is the shirt, and the second would be the column of pixels. I think this happens when we scale down the original image without resampling it first. nba 2k16

  10. Writer’s block is indeed an excuse! If you don’t do things in a systematic manner as a writer, then you prevent yourself from getting into any rhythm and throws you off from writing. By establishing a structure, as you said, and getting rid of distractions, you can let your creative ideas flow naturally.

    Also, I think it is important to not get too rigid with your structure. By following your routine every day, you may get jaded by your actions and burn you off. It happened to me a couple of times. What I did was to diversify my routine so I don’t do the same thing every day. I hope that helps your readers too.

    Also, I have linked this post in my weekly roundup of great blogging and marketing posts: https://christopherjanb.com/blog/write-wednesday-vol-6 Thanks!

  11. Love this. =) Completely agree that writer’s block is an excuse. I think one part of it is that…writing seems so much more formal, when you’re putting words on paper, that the fear is even stronger. One of my favourite Seth Godin quotes is that “there’s no such thing as talker’s block”. I’ve found that sometimes when I’m stuck, it’s easier to just talk and ramble – there’s less judgement and fear about saying the wrong things than there is about writing the wrong things – and then go back after to look (or listen) through what I said.

  12. Functional as well as fundamental potentialities are necessary to make the move proper plus perfect in all the possible manner. In order to make the move precise along with functional in proper manner so that anyone could hints the way out in precise options for all. In order to expose the proper approaches in precise manner before mentioned way out is the key factors to all.

  13. Ha, such a timely post. I’ve been procrastinating on writing one post in particular, and I definitely can’t use “writers block” as an excuse anymore. I typically say there’s something better or more of a priority for me to be working on, even though it’s been at the top of my to-do list for a few weeks, now. Time to face the fear and write! Thanks for the post, Jeff.

  14. Thanks for sharing, I view things clearly right now. Helpful for me as I build a habit to have my writing on the books.

  15. ALL OF THE ABOVE.

    …. (hangs head in shame)

    The thing that stands out most in this article — for me — is Step 1. This extends far beyond writer’s block. I get discouraged from chasing dreams because of how often they’ve fizzled out in the past … but recently I’ve begun to suspect that these “failures” are really my own self-sabotage of everything that’s most important. (Abandoned writing projects are the prime example.)

    I needed to hear it from someone else, though. Thanks.

  16. Great article. Been there several times. Actually I’m in the middle of that now because of a question about switching my direction a little bit.

  17. I personally don’t think this article debunks writer’s block based on my experiences. If you’re wondering why I’m reading this if I do believe writer’s block exists, it’s because
    I’m trying to see both sides. I love writing so much that I never feared anything listed above. I just wrote for fun. Sometimes I do think I write so much at once that I don’t know what to write anymore. If I started feeling fear for whatever reason, it’d probably be with editing before handing over my manuscript in hopes of getting it published, which I haven’t done, but I hope to someday. And for the laziness part, I love writing too much to be too lazy to do it. One more thing. To me, when you listed “Busyness (fear of not having enough time),” that doesn’t really make sense to me. It sounds more like something that a person who doesn’t enjoy writing would feel. Even when I was busy (school, homework, and my job), I’d still write and get everything done. That might be one reason why I don’t understand this.

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