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Writer’s Block: Causes, Symptoms, & Cures (Overcoming It)

Writer’s block is a condition in which a writer is unable to think of what should be written next. The phenomenon was first documented in 1947 by Edmund Bergler, a psychoanalyst. If you experience writer’s block, you may be unable to develop a new piece of content or finish an existing piece. You may feel as if your thinking has become clouded, drained of inspiration, and frustration has set in.

It’s like going through a maze and realizing you’ve made the wrong turn, only to end up at a dead end; you’ve hit a mental “block.” Anyone can end up with writer’s block, even talented writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald have been noted to struggle with this condition. The condition was researched throughout the 1970s and 1980s and specifically focused on the process and post-process theories of composition.

Since this condition is not considered a mental illness or harmful to the individual, there isn’t a market for treating it. There will likely not be a specific line of drugs to help you overcome your writer’s block. However, most people with the condition are eventually able to get past it and write freely again.

Writer’s Block Causes: List of Possibilities

The condition could be caused by a number of different things. Some believe that an author may lack creativity or knowledge surrounding a particular topic – and this may contribute to the block. In other cases, a writer may have no emotional inspiration in regards to the topic they are writing about. Running out of inspiration makes it very difficult to focus and become distracted.

Other causes for the condition include: environmental changes, mental illness, relationship troubles, increased stress, or perfectionism. Often times authors experience writer’s block when they are pressured into writing a piece of content with a specific deadlines. Feeling a sense of intimidation, being unable to work at your own pace, or constantly trying to out-do yourself may also contribute to the block.

  • ADHD: Those with ADHD may have a tough time concentrating during their writing. They may constantly daydream and have a tough time staying focused on a specific topic or concept. Lower levels of arousal, neurotransmitters, and slower brain waves are thought to be components of ADHD. Unfortunately the underlying components of ADHD may also be a direct cause of writer’s block in certain individuals.
  • Alcohol / drugs: If you frequently consume alcohol, it can detrimentally affect your cognition and ability to concisely express your thoughts in the form of writing. Other drugs that act as depressants and reduce ability to think consciously are generally not beneficial for writers. If you noticed after you started taking certain drugs or drinking more that it became tougher to write, it’s likely the cause.
  • Analysis paralysis: Constantly analyzing your content thinking that it may be lacking in some aspect or could be better is counterproductive. Although it is recommended to do your best work, taking hours just to make things perfect isn’t worth it. If you could finish your writing without critiquing every small detail, you may overcome your writer’s block.
  • Anxiety: Having any type of anxiety disorder can make writing extremely difficult, especially when done under pressure for a school project or something formal. People with anxiety constantly feel as if every word they write is going to be judged by those who read it. If you have anxiety, it may make you constantly second guess yourself or flood your brain with anxious thoughts, making it tough to write.
  • Brain activity: Neurologist Alice w. Flaherty has suggested that writer’s block may be related to a shift in brain activity. Specifically when certain areas of the brain are activated, creativity tends to increase. If a writer experiences a creative block, it could be due to the fact that regions of the brain responsible for creativity have become underactive.
  • Depression: In a depressed state, you may be unable to think clearly and could experience brain fog. It can be difficult to feel inspired or motivated to write during depression. Although writing about how your depression feels may be easy, writing about other topics such as for school or freelance work may be difficult. For some individuals, depression results in slower psychomotor activity, making it tough to formulate new ideas and concepts.
  • Drug withdrawal: If you are withdrawing from an illicit drug and/or a psychotropic medication, you may be unable to concentrate during withdrawal. During this time it may become difficult to write and you may frequently experience “blocks.” Do your best to push through it and realize that the further you advance through withdrawal, the easier it should become to write.
  • Emotional fuel: Although logic plays a big role in making sure we have organization and proper writing structure, if you lack emotion, it becomes difficult to write. Most writers are able to come up with insights or opinions based on the emotion that they feel about a certain topic. If you lack emotional fuel for the words that you write, it can become difficult to think of ideas or express yourself.
  • Fatigue: If you are experiencing fatigue, it likely affects you on a physical and mental level. Mentally you may feel as if you are thinking more slowly than usual and cannot process information as quickly. Usually getting rest and targeting the root of the fatigue should help with the writer’s block.
  • Medical conditions: There are certain medical conditions such as diabetes (low blood sugar), Lyme’s disease, and/or an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can make it difficult to stay focused. Your thinking may become disorganized and you may try to write but may feel dazed and confused. Once these are treated, your cognition and writer’s block should improve.
  • Motivational deficit: Some people may be extremely lazy and unmotivated to complete any task, let alone write something. If you don’t have any motivation to do the work, chances are good that you are only going to struggle with writing. By increasing your motivation, you will become more inclined to finish any writing that you started.
  • OCD: Some individuals may have OCD and this may be detrimental to their ability to write. OCD can make people obsess over very minor details and make writing much more difficult than necessary. If you continue to check, re-check, and edit your content, this may be why you have a writer’s block. Additionally if you start writing sentences and constantly erase them in attempt to find the perfect words, this could be a result of OCD.
  • Neurological conditions: Many neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease can detrimentally affect one’s ability to write. Although most individuals with neurodegenerative diseases aren’t writer’s, the onset of a neurological condition make it difficult to write. A person with a severe neurological problem may be unable to write anything that makes logical sense.
  • Psychomotor slowing: Did you notice that your mental dexterity and overall performance recently declined? Those who experience psychomotor slowing often have a condition such as depression that’s causing it. When the brain slows, a person may feel “brain dead” or like they are trying to think of ideas while stuck in a vacuum of thoughtlessness.
  • Psychotropic medications: Are you taking any psychotropic medications such as antidepressants, benzodiazepines, or antipsychotics? Certain medications act as depressants and actually impair our cognition. In particular, the benzodiazepines and antipsychotics seem to be among the worst drugs to take while attempting to write. Some individuals have even reported that antidepressants kill their natural abilities to write.  Many psychological antidepressant side effects can impede our natural ability to write.  Withdrawal from psychotropic medications can also temporarily impair our cognition, making it tough to write.
  • Sleep problems: Those who are sleeping too much (hypersomnia) or too little may not realize that sleep (or lack thereof) could cause a “block” in thinking. Too much sleep can lead to cloudy thinking, while not enough sleep can do the exact same thing. Sleeping problems have profound impact on the brain and can affect both cognition and your ability to write.
  • Stress: When under stress your brain activity changes and the limbic system becomes activated. When the limbic system becomes active, a “fight-or-flight” response is generated, which reduces activity in the cerebral cortex. This prevents a person from being creative, and the unfortunate aspect is that people are typically unaware that they lack creativity. A significant amount of stress can not only impede your natural ability to think clearly, but it can make it tough to perform complex cognitive functions such as writing. When people become stressed, all they can usually think about is the stress. Stress can zap people of their creativity and ability to convey their thoughts.

Writer’s Block Symptoms

The symptoms of writer’s block can be different based on the individual. One person may struggle with an inability to stay focused, while another may be drawing a complete blank. Others may experience a combination of all of the common symptoms to varying degrees.

  • Brain fog: Feeling mentally foggy often goes hand-in-hand with writer’s block. Although they are not the same thing, many people with brain fog often note that they have difficulty writing. The goal should be to determine the cause of the brain fog and address it in order to reduce the writer’s block.
  • Drawing a blank: When you try to think of something to write, you may completely draw a blank. You may get a couple sentences written down and your brain may feel as if it has completely shut down. All that you can think of is blackness and the fact that there is not a single thought to expand upon.
  • Frustration: It is common to become frustrated when you need to write, but cannot think of anything to say. This frustration can create a stress response within the body and ultimately a negative feedback loop, which strengthens the writer’s block.
  • Inability to focus: Some people have a tough time staying focused while writing. If your mind frequently wanders from the topic that you’re writing about, you may have poor focus. Once you get your focus back on track, the writer’s block should subside.
  • Lack of inspiration: This goes hand in hand with emotional fuel. If you don’t have any inspiration for the topic that you’re writing about, it may be difficult to finish a sentence, let alone a page. Doing your best to stay inspired can go a long way towards preventing mental blocks among writers.
  • Stress: When you are mentally blocked, you may become stressed out as a result.  The stress can be a comorbid factor influencing the writer’s block, but may also be a symptom of the condition.  Many people become highly frustrated that their brain is not able to properly generate words or sentences that they need to write.

How To Overcome Writer’s Block: Cures / Coping Strategies

Determine the cause of your writer’s block. Was it caused by a lack of inspiration or material? Or are you victim to writer’s block as a result of psychomotor slowing as noted in depression? It is important to realize that a solution for writer’s block in one person may not be beneficial for another individual.

Alter consciousness: Maybe you used to be able to write perfectly and now you are upset that you can no longer replicate your old ability. It is likely that you experienced some sort of change in consciousness that lead to a block. With this method, the goal is to change your consciousness to help with writing. This may involve using medications, supplements, reading, or changing your environment.

Caffeine: This is the most common natural stimulant used throughout the world. If you feel mentally “slow” and need something to give you a little bit of a boost, consider having some coffee or an energy drink. Caffeine won’t help everyone out of their writer’s block, but if you are feeling mentally sluggish it could be of significant benefit to speed up cognition.

Coping strategies: It is important to understand some coping strategies that you can use when you hit a block while writing. Most people are unaware of what they should do during the onset of the block.

  • Avoid perfectionism: If you have writer’s block, your initial rough draft may suck – which is fine because it’s a draft. The goal is to get something written even if it is complete puke in terms of your standards. Many writers over-think and over-analyze what they write, critiquing everything along the way. Stop nit-picking every detail and just write… even if it’s bad, you can always edit it later.
  • Brainstorming: If you have hit a block, one way to get around it is to brainstorm. Think of ideas for your writing and write them all down. Even if you think they are “bad” ideas, just write them down anyway. The idea behind brainstorming is to change your perception and let the creative juices flow.
  • Change environment: Your environment can have a big influence on how easy or difficult it is to write. If you are attempting to write in a noisy environment with people talking, music playing, or the hustle and bustle of the outside world – this could be interfering with your concentration. Anything in your environment that is detrimental to your concentration has potential to cause writer’s block.
  • Cut distractions: Many people, especially students work on writing with their headphones playing music, their social media accounts open (i.e. Facebook), and their cell phone alerts turned on. All distractions not only make the process of writing less efficient, but they can cause us to lose the flow of our work. If you got a good start on the beginning of your paper, but all of a sudden got caught up texting your friend, you may now have writer’s block. Cut back on all distractions and focus on the topic at hand.
  • Find inspiration: If you are lacking inspiration, do your best to find a little bit. This may mean reading some inspirational quotes, reading new material, or thinking about people that inspire you. It may be something as simple as having a conversation with a friend that gives you your next idea.
  • Forced writing: Sometimes even when thinking of new words for sentences is as difficult as pulling teeth, you need to keep going. Even if you can’t think of anything to say, force yourself to write something. If you stop writing, you may constantly think yourself in circles about what to write next instead of getting something on paper. Forced writing is like forcing people that are out of shape to go to the gym; they may not like it, but at least they’re getting something done.
  • Read something: Reading primes your brain with new ideas and perspectives on various topics. If you are caught up in a mental “block” take the time to just read something, even if it’s completely random. Chances are good that when you’re done reading, you’ll be able to think of something to write.
  • Research: Perhaps you have writer’s block because you aren’t very familiar with the topic you’re writing about. You can’t expect to pull material out of your brain that was never there in the first place. Take the time to do a bit of research and take some notes – this will give you a better understanding of the topic and some general ideas.
  • Stream-of-consciousness: This involves opening up a new document or getting a fresh sheet of paper, and writing whatever is on your mind and/or comes to your mind. This may have nothing to do with a paper that you’re writing about. However, most people are usually able to write about their own thoughts with relative ease. This technique will prove that you still have a writing voice, can still write effortlessly, and don’t have any “block.”
  • Use your own voice: If you cannot think of what to write, just go with what you’d normally say to someone if you had a conversation. Most people try to sound technical and smarter than they are by throwing around synonyms and jargon that they wouldn’t normally use during a conversation. Trying to use a different persona and synonym finder while writing isn’t really going to help a block.

Psychostimulants: We’ve all had that one friend in college who popped an Adderall before writing each research paper. Although psychostimulants are regulated substances that are prescribed for ADHD, they are also called “nootropics” or smart drugs. This is because they tend to increase cognition and mentally “prime” us for any cognitively demanding tasks. These can work extremely well for helping those with writer’s block. Unfortunately they are not a very good long-term treatment strategy.

Relaxation: If you are stressed, one of the best ways to overcome writer’s block is to relax. Although stress can help us create beta waves, which influence logic and organization, too much stress can cripple our creativity and the natural processes within the brain. With relaxation, brain activity shifts away from the limbic system and allows for creativity from the cerebral cortex.

Sleep: You may be experiencing writer’s block because you haven’t gotten enough sleep. When we lose sleep, it becomes difficult to think clear about anything, let alone write. A majority of mentally taxing tasks are going to become impaired when you deprive yourself of sleep. Students staying up all night to finish a paper are likely going hit a “block” caused by sleep deprivation. Sleep is restorative for the brain, and gives it a chance to recover after functioning for an extended period of time.

Take a break: If you are staring at your document and are racking your brain for ideas or what to say next, sometimes the best thing you can do is take a break. Breaks are especially common after you’ve been working for awhile. Doing cognitively demanding work takes a mental toll on the brain and can make it difficult to maintain concentration. Give yourself a break to psychologically “refresh” and then come back to your writing mentally recharged.

Quit: Sometimes the best thing you can do if writing isn’t working out anymore is to just quit. Not necessarily quit permanently, but make up your mind to quit. In some cases, we lose our ability to write because we are trying to force it and deep down we know that other areas of life are more important. If you were able to write well in the past, chances are your ability will come back, and you will know when it has returned.

Have you ever dealt with writer’s block?

Realize that if you have writer’s block, you are not alone – many people share your frustration. Fortunately over time, you will find solutions and coping strategies that help you get past the problem. If you’ve had to deal with writer’s block in the past, what did you do to overcome it? Feel free to share your experience with writer’s block and/or if you found anything useful to help you overcome it in the comments section below.

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Lorena February 9, 2016, 1:56 am

    Smart thinking – a clever way of looking at it.

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