Block-Busters: 7 Strategies for Breaking Down Writer’s Block

Breaking Through Writer's Block“Writers’ block” is a thing of terror. Yet the fear of being unable to write can reinforce the block itself. In this article, I’m going to give you a brief rundown of what writer’s block looks like at a neurological level, then give you my favorite seven tools for breaking down the block so you can get back to work.

The Neurology of Writer’s Block

My area of specialization over the last two years has been the psychology of creativity. Unsurprisingly, my research has taken me deep into the maze-like recess of the human brain. While the best I can give in this short space is an over-simplification, I wanted to take you on a quick tour of the “writing brain.”

A Tour of the Human Brain

The brain can be viewed as having three major “territories”: The reptilian brain, which takes care of regulating breathing, heart rate, adrenal response, and other basic functions; the mammalian brain, which processes complex emotions and sensory details; and the neo-mammalian brain, which allows for critical thinking and the use of language.

While the neo-mammalian brain, and especially the pre-frontal cortex, are recent additions in the evolutionary history of the human brain, that doesn’t mean they’re the most important parts. In fact, the more evolutionarily ancient a part of the brain is, the more vital it is to survival. As such, when we feel we are in danger, the brain’s stress response diverts resources from the newer parts of the brain to the older.

The Writer’s Stress Cycle

It’s easy to see the evolutionary advantage of prioritizing raw survival when being faced with a threat. When the threat was something like a sabertooth tiger, linguistic thinking was basically useless, but motor function and sensory awareness were critical. Now, however, the source of stress may be a task that requires creative, linguistic thought.

This is what’s happening with writer’s block: Our stress response to the writing task is diverting resources away from the part of the brain that allows us to write. The inability to write may then increase the sense of stress, which in turn deprives the brain of even more creative resources, and so the cycle continues—unless you manage to break through the block.

(Again, note that this is a major oversimplification. For a more in-depth look, you can look at my article series on the neuroscience and psychology of creative writing.)

Strategies for Breaking Through Writer’s Block

To overcome writer’s block, there are two major types of interventions. The first focuses on decreasing the sense of threat while the second focuses on working our way back into the linguistic portions of the brain through simple exercises. In either case, once you’re writing again, you’ll be working with the correct part of your brain, your stress levels will decrease, your enjoyment will increase, and your creativity will start to spiral upward.

1) The “15-minute commitment.”

This is the strategy I most often use with myself. The technique is simple. Rather that committing the writing the entire paper, or the entire chapter, or even the entire segment, you’re going to commit to writing whatever you can for the next fifteen minutes. It doesn’t even have to be good. The only rule is that you will write until the 15-minute period is up.

Rather than using an egg timer, I prefer to use music. I turn on an instrumental album and check what song will mark the 15-minute point. Once I hear that song, I know I’m allowed to stop—although, more often, I keep writing beyond that point. If you don’t write well with music on in the background, I simply encourage you to avoid any time-tracking option that will pull you out of the writing when the fifteen minutes is up.

2) Use detailed ask and answer.

Your fear response is based on a sense that your life and identity are in some ways threatened by the prospect of failure. This, sorry to say, is not entirely irrational—but the “please, let me live!” stress response may be a bit of an overreaction. Rather than simply feeling threatened, however, it’s helpful to take a real look at what might happen if you fail.

For example, I might have the following conversation with myself:

  • “If I don’t make this deadline, what will happen?”
    • “I will make my publisher angry.”
      • “And what would I do if that happened?”
        • “I would write to the publisher and apologize for being late, explaining what happened. I would ask for a deadline extension.”
          • “And what would happen if they said yes?”
            • “Then everything would be okay.”
              • “What would you do if they refused?”
                • “I would still have the manuscript, so I would find another publisher to pitch it to. It would take more work, but eventually everything would be okay.”

What you’ll find is that your future sense will remain empowered to make choices and respond to negative outcomes. Eventually, any situation can be corrected. After all, these are deadlines—not deadly predators. Following this line of questioning can calm the stress response by putting the threat in perspective. Simultaneously, forcing yourself to use language to address the issue in a narrow frame like a question/response chain starts to re-energize your linguistic mind.

3) Note the next concrete thing you can write about.

Instead of trying to grasp the next thousand words you should write, try to narrow the scope to the next topic. Instead of saying, “How can I write this 30-page paper?,” ask yourself, “Where am I at? What’s the next section going to be about? What sort of connective tissue do I need between the previous segment and the segment I’m writing now?”

By narrowing the scope to just the next single thing you need to write next, you can decrease the sense of threat. If even the idea of the next segment is stressful for you, just worry about the first sentence—or, even better, the next word.

4) Turn off perfectionism.

Perfectionism is the enemy of creative productivity. It’s absolutely necessary in revision, but right now it will not help you. If your task is to write the perfect sentence or perfect phrase, you have changed the task from an achievable concrete (“write”) to an unobtainable abstract (“write perfectly”), and thus increasing the likelihood of a stress response.

Your first draft will not be perfect. In fact, it will almost certainly be awful. I’ve heard the initial drafting process referred to as “unearthing the clay” that you will mold into shape during the revision process.

5) Use sideways creativity.

If your stress response is activated by writing, one of the most effective ways to get back into a creative space is to shift into a different creative gear that steps around the stress response. The goal is simply to get creative without staying in stress.

You can write something else, get up and dance, paint a picture, or do anything else that helps work your brain out of its reptilian mode and toward its neo-mammalian creativity. The important thing is to move directly from your creative respite into the creative act of writing before the stress response can shut you out of your newly re-activated mental resources.

6) Write absolutely anything.

This is another one I do quite frequently. In the middle writing an essay about the barefoot doctors of Maoist China, I may lose a sense of what comes next. Rather than freeze, I write gibberish. Most commonly, this is me saying “moo,” cussing, and (I have no idea why) threatening the pope. Just make sure you delete your gibberish and pope-threatening before you share the content!

By writing, even if it’s complete nonsense, you’re keeping the linguistic portions of your brain active. This ensures that you won’t experience a writer’s block shutdown and can help your brain get unstuck.

7) Bar all the exits.

Many of us have compulsive escape routes, especially in this internet era of ours. It’s easy to retreat from the stress of writing a paper by opting for the comfort of Facebook, Twitter, or email. Often, these delves into the digital world start with pure motives: You want to check a fact. You want to do a little more research. You just want to take a “five-minute breather.”

Don’t do it. Research is not writing; you can always leave yourself a note to research later. And as long as you’re in your stressed-out mode, the escape to the internet will only increase your stress—which in turn makes the internet even more of a relief. I personally unplug my router and put it in the closet while I write. That way it’s not impossible to get back online, but I’ve made the process complex enough that logging back in has to be a conscious choice.

Hopefully some of these tips help. I would also love to hear your thoughts on the topic, either in the comments below or by email. To connect with me, you can check out my website and join my crew for weekly updates. You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, and G+.

Write on,

Rob D Blair