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Blasting Through Writer’s Block

A set of useful hacks for you!

“Unfortunately, many people suffer from BPS—Blank Page Syndrome. Let’s face it: starting to write is scary. Seeing the cursor blinking at you on that bright white screen, realizing that you now have to come up with three or ten or twenty pages of text all on your own—it’s enough to give anyone a major case of writer’s block!” —Stefanie Weisman

As how author Stefanie Weisman describes it, Blank Page Syndrome is a terrifying case a lot of people experience. From professional authors to students accomplishing their essays, anyone can get hit by writer’s block. When you know you need to achieve a certain page or word count, being faced with a blank screen or a clean sheet of paper can be the scariest thing one encounters. Writer’s block is real and can be enervating if you don’t recognize it and do something to overcome it.

  • What is Writer’s Block?

Writer and essayist Lisa Duchene defines writer’s block as a temporary inability to begin or continue a writing project due to fear, anxiety or lack of inspiration, that strikes professional and non-professional writers alike. Researchers described blocks as a failure to come up with new ideas despite the author retaining a normal level of technical fluency. Other blocks have been described as primarily influencing the writer’s ability to accomplish the more technical aspects of composing a work, such as coming up with the right words to express an idea or organizing one’s work in a logical manner. Writers face this phenomenon, some temporarily and some permanent. Previous studies report that blocks can be very short, lasting from minutes to a few days, or can be chronic, lasting decades.

Some believe that the existence of writer’s block is rooted in elementary school, when writing is taught as a type of performance, rather than a process. Back in first grade, we were told to color shapes and write our names repetitively, and then we learned about spelling and vocabulary, and then we composed sentences and paragraphs. From there, the societal pressure to produce only builds up. We are not machines—we cannot continuously create all the time. From time to time, we need to regain our energies to be able to make something with our creative juices.

  • Understanding the Causes of Writer’s Block

In the 1970s and 80s, Yale psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios conducted studies to understand the occurrence of writer’s block. They studied a group of “blocked” professional writers in a variety of genres, from screenwriting to poetry. After months of interviews and psychological tests, the researchers found that blocked writers were unhappy. A lot of writers were highly self-critical and showed signs of anxiety and depression.

However, the writers weren’t all unhappy in the same way and for the same reasons. From the results, the researchers discovered that there are four main causes of writer’s block:

  • Anxiety. "The first, more anxious group felt unmotivated because of excessive self-criticism--nothing they produced was good enough--even though their imaginative capacity remained relatively unimpaired."

  • Anger. "The second, more socially hostile group was unmotivated because they didn't want their work compared to the work of others. (Not everyone was afraid of criticism; some writers said that they didn't want to be 'object[s] of envy.')"

  • Apathy. "The third, apathetic group seemed the most creatively blocked. They couldn't daydream; they lacked originality; and they felt that the 'rules' they were subjected to were too constrictive. Their motivation was also all but nonexistent."

  • Issues with others. "Finally, the fourth, angry and disappointed group tended to look for external motivation; they were driven by the need for attention and extrinsic reward. They were... more narcissistic."

A recent study in 2019 conducted by Sarah Ahmed delved into the causes, characteristics, and solutions to writer’s block. Common factors associated with writer’s block were discussed and classified into four general categories:

  • Physiological or affective causes, which are thought to lead to writer’s block by impairing the functioning of cognitive process used for writing. These include stress, anxiety, intense affective states such as depression or grief, and burnout or fatigue.

  • Motivational causes. Evaluation anxiety (or fear of criticism or rejection) and loss of enjoyment have been identified as motivational components to writer’s block.

  • Cognitive causes. Cognitive components to writer’s block are based on factors that happen during the composition process. Some of these involve perfectionism, writing with a fixed perspective in mind, and using time or effort inefficiently.

  • Behavioral causes, such as procrastinating, becoming too busy to write, changing one’s routine, or not following a structured schedule. Unlike the three previous factors described earlier, which are thought to lead to writer’s block indirectly, behavioral factors are thought to lead to blocking more directly.

The results show that physiological factors such as life stress, general anxiety, depression, and burnout were reported to be the most common cause of writer’s block. The second most frequently reported cause was motivational factors, such as evaluation anxiety and decreased inherent motivation. Few writers stated that they thought cognitive factors like perfectionism or behavioral factors such as procrastination were the main cause of their block.

  • Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

Since the 1950s, a lot of solutions to beat writer’s block have been explored and developed. Most of these resolutions have been taken from intervention studies and interviews with successful novelists about their routines and writing habits. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to overcoming writer’s block as it is a process that is often subjective and depends on each person. But at the end of the day, it is about breaking through the barriers that keep you from doing your best work. Here are a few strategies to fend off writer’s block:

  • Don’t force yourself. If you think you are not in the best mood or in the right timing, don’t push yourself to write. Forcing yourself may lead to you just being frustrated or producing something that isn’t satisfactory. It is best to create a timeline and plan for yourself, so you won’t be procrastinating and beating the deadline. This way things can flow smoothly, and you can accomplish your work on time. Writing also takes discipline, you cannot just slack off and keep on skipping days before starting to do your work.

  • Get inspired. Watch a movie or listen to your favorite album. You may read works of other writers, scroll through articles online, or you may look through your own works in the past. Taking a walk outside and appreciating the scenery may also do. Sometimes you need to look for inspiration, but there are also times where inspiration will naturally come to you.

  • Take a break. Do something else for a while—go out for a breath of fresh air, stand up and do some stretches, run a few errands, take a power nap. After a few hours (or days, or weeks, even months) and you feel like you’re recharged, come back to view your work with a fresh eye. This time, you may be able to think and see things differently than before.

  • Change things up. Identify areas of distraction that affect your writing process, such as your phone or the noise from your surroundings. Move to a better workspace that allows you to get less distracted and more focused. You may also tidy up your desk since clean workspaces boost productivity and reduce stress.

  • Call a friend. Discuss ideas with others and see what they think. Talk to a classmate or a colleague for feedback and insight. Sometimes seeing your work from the perspective of other people might help you modify things that need to be changed and keep those that should be retained.

  • Freewrite. Freewriting is a writing strategy developed by Peter Elbow in 1973. It is like brainstorming but written in sentence and paragraph form without stopping. There’s no need to worry about sentence structure, spelling, or grammar—just write whatever comes to mind. Take small steps as this can help you start organizing your ideas and putting the pieces of your work together.

Writer’s block is faced by each writer differently, but we all have the same goal of overcoming it. If you tried the tips mentioned earlier and you feel like it doesn’t work for you still, here’s a few more ideas you might want to try. MasterClass suggests three writing exercises one may do whenever hit by writer’s block:

  • The Pomodoro technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method used by people to accomplish tasks with the time they have. Writers may utilize this system by deciding on what they would like to write first. This can be an introductory paragraph, a particular scene in a script, or basically anything that will help stimulate an idea. Set a timer for 25 minutes and keep on writing until the timer goes off. Finally, take a five-minute break and repeat these three steps, following the designated time allotments.

  • The 30-minute challenge

Set a timer for 30 minutes and write down how your day went. When the timer rings, take note of what distracted you (thoughts, noises, interruptions). Then, look up ways that you can selectively get rid of those distractions from your writing process. For example, do the notification alerts from your phone get your attention while you write? You may turn it off or put it away for a while. Try the same 30-minute challenge a day later, making use of the techniques you learned to eliminate the distractions you encountered the day before. Repeat the process until you have found your ideal and effective writing routine.

  • The pretend-you’re-talking-to-a-friend technique

Writing has certain rules and demands that need to be met. Sometimes, writers get too caught up in it and have a hard time. One way to overcome this is to pretend you’re talking to a friend at your favorite hangout place and relate to them the piece you’re working on. How would you describe it to them? How will you be able to relay the message you want to convey through your writing? This might help you get through your gradual writing process.

Writer’s block is an inevitable phenomenon, and yes—it is real. Everyone gets hit by it, even your favorite author and world-renowned writers. The next time you encounter the Blank Page Syndrome, do not fret. Build your routine as a writer, learn how to go over your writing process, and utilize strategies that would help overcome writer’s block in your own way. Remember that writer’s block is not a struggle with your writing but with your thinking. You can do this. Just write.

Read about how to effortlessly manage your writing time here!


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