Let’s do something fun and separate a common experience: writer’s block. Whether you’re a writer or not, you probably know the struggle of trying to think about what’s next.

It could be as great as an artist who stops in the middle of a masterpiece.

Or as simple as having ten tasks to do and not knowing where to start.

What happens when you are disconnected from your thoughts in this way? What causes it?

And what can you do to overcome it?

(Note: this article focuses on literal writer’s block: the inability to write. But you can adapt the principles when you feel stuck.)

What is writer’s block, really?

I used the word “disconnected” above. This is what writer’s block feels like: being disconnected from a place, state, or emotion where writing flows easily. As I write this, I have relevant thoughts on writing that are seamlessly translated into words on my screen.

It’s nice, easy, and effortless.

In this way, writing well is a form of state of flux. As Csikszentmihalyi describes it, you enter the state of flow when the task you are doing is difficult enough to stretch your skills. This absolutely applies to writing, at least writing worth reading.

Anything that is too easy or too difficult to write will turn to garbage on the page.

In Stealing Fire, Kotler and Wheal describe altered states of consciousness as states in which you lose awareness of yourself, lose all sense of time, feel effortless to continue on task, and there is an intensity (or “richness”) in experience. Again, this applies perfectly to writing.

So your best writing occurs in the flow state or during an altered state of consciousness.

Which means writer’s block is when you can’t get into the flow.

And you are too conscientious to write.

Would anyone challenge that definition? That is exactly how I feel to myself. It’s like you can’t completely disconnect and just type.

Disconnected from writing by his own thinking.

Emotions Don’t Always Cause Writer’s Block – Here’s What It Does

There is a theory that writer’s block comes from negative emotions. If you’re upset about a fight with your best friend, anxious to write well, or unsure about your skills, it may prevent you from writing.

All of that makes sense and resolving emotions can help.

However, this is far from the only cause. Even with a clear mind and calm emotions, you may have a hard time stringing together a sentence, let alone an essay.

You can be an amazing writer and still run into this hurdle. After all, it’s called “writer’s block” – it assumes you’re a writer in name.

If lack of skills or confidence isn’t causing it, what could it be?

Most likely, he is holding himself back with his own rules and strategies.

Think about what I said about the flow state and altered states of consciousness. If something is going to disconnect you from these, it is the wrong kind of conscious thinking.

Writing is an unconscious activity. When you move your arm, you set an intention: You don’t consciously fire each muscle in a precise sequence. Similarly, when you write, you don’t consciously choose each word, you set an intention and the words to get out.

If you consciously try to interfere, either with your arm or with your words, everything goes haywire.

If you have writer’s block, then your writing rules and strategies are making you overly conscious.

That’s how:

Common Thought Errors That Create Writer’s Block

If you want to write, you must follow rules and strategies. At the very least, you need enough grammar and spelling to convey your point of view. Without any strategy, your paragraphs will randomly move from one to another.

Writing is like problem solving – you can dive in and start fidgeting, or you can approach it with the right thoughts.

But if you are stuck, you are probably doing one of the following:

• Follow rigid rules instead of guidelines,

• Using the wrong guidelines,

• Adopt too many guidelines of way, way,

• Bring broken perspectives to your writing,

• Chisel your strategies in stone,

• Make your strategies complex,

• Ignore comments and information.

Follow rigid rules instead of guidelines

How long does it take you to write your opening paragraph?

Do you spend ten minutes on that?

An hour?


That’s weird, since it’s only a few sentences. The only way it would take more than 30 seconds is if you’re overthinking it.

I can already hear some of you objecting. The first paragraph is the most important! You have to get attention! You have to say something new! Have to …

It has to, it has to, it has to.

You don’t have to do anything. Generally speaking, the first paragraph should grab attention. I should say something new. But there is no law that says so.

If a rule is holding you back, drop it. After all, there are only guidelines. It can even break grammar and spelling if you’re right.

Using the wrong guidelines

Some people say that an email should be between 300 and 800 words. It is not like this.

Some people say that it is necessary to present three arguments in an essay. You do not.

Some people say that a sales letter should include a money-back guarantee. You are wrong.

These can be helpful guidelines … or they can paralyze you. Let’s say you’re writing emails for kids with ADHD – 300 words is too much. What about the Oxonian professors? 800 words is too short.

No guideline applies in all contexts or at all times. That is why they are called guidelines.

If following a guide weakens your writing, your brain will rebel and shut down the process. Follow the wrong ones and it’s a recipe for writer’s block.

Adopting too many guidelines

Let’s take a simple example:

Guideline 1: Brevity is the soul of ingenuity.

Guideline 2: Add details, anecdotes, and more information than the reader can use.

Both are good guidelines. I have used both, separately and together, to create very interesting writing pieces.

The problem is that they contradict each other. And that’s just with two guidelines. If you have dozens, it will be even worse.

It will be so bad that you will not be able to write and follow them all. You think of a sentence, it is ground against a pattern, so you throw it away. Different sentence, different pattern. And so on and on …

In the end, you’ve thought a lot, but haven’t written much, which is an excellent definition of writer’s block.

Bringing broken perspectives to your writing

Here’s one I see often: technical people learn to think technical, then fall into the trap of not being able to write.

For lawyers, each word has a precise meaning. You cannot be loose with your words. So when you sit down to write, for example, a short story, you struggle.

For scientists, jargon is their lifeblood. Detailed, strictly structured, jargon-rich documents earn you congratulations and your paycheck. When you sit down to write, you choke on your own story.

It’s not just technicians who bring their perspectives to writing. Some poets are horrible storytellers, they just can’t get to the point. Probably most professions have a paradigm that helps with daily work but kills good writing.

Chiseling your plans in stone

It is worth planning your writing before you begin. Even with a simple email, you have a result in mind. Anything you add to it should align with that purpose.

What it doesn’t pay is to follow your plan as if it were divine wisdom.

As of writing this, he had a plan, a vague outline of what he would say. How similar is the final article to the first? Maybe 50%, maybe not at all. The plan was enough to start and keep me focused. Everything else was just suggestions.

Making your strategies complex

A writing flows from one concept to another. You must have a central idea that the writing reinforces. That is why having a strategy helps.

But a uselessly complicated contraption cannot be justified.

Complexity limits you. A vague plan is much, much better than one that ties you down.

Writing is about getting into the flow. If you can’t, it may be because you have over-prescribed what that “flow” should look like.

I never wrote anything that didn’t surprise me. There is a lot you can plan for.

Ignore comments and information

I started writing this by jotting down some thoughts on writer’s block. Then I decided to dig into this with a little research; surely someone has done the science behind this for me.

Many people have. And within minutes of reading the research, I completely scrapped my plan. I rewrote the bones and then as mentioned above I threw away most of the bones.

People say, “keep your audience in mind when you write.” Great advice, but it only helps if you know your audience. Imagining how you think they could be reminds you.

Research fuels your writing. So does plum.

Destroy writer’s block with these rules and strategies

All of the above is how you can go wrong. If you want to do this correctly, all you need to do is do the opposite:

• Soften the rules you have into guidelines. “Write how people talk” is less useful than “aim to write how people talk.”

• Be very selective about the rules you follow. Keep them small in number and never let them get in the way of your writing. “While you’re at your desk, write, write anything” is a respectable rule because it forces you to write.

• Don’t be loyal to your guidelines. If a pattern normally serves you well but is holding you back now, drop it now.

• Good strategies are closer to philosophies than tactics. You are not invading a nation; you’re writing. Keep your strategy loose and broad.

• Your strategy must be flexible. If it works for your writing, it should be transformed into pretzels.

• If your strategy does not serve its purpose, it cannot be a good strategy. Leave it in a hurry.

• Look up information before writing. Look for comments as you write or later.

(Yes, some of these rules contradict each other, especially the first two. They are allowed because they are not rules, they are guidelines).

And if this doesn’t work, consider that writing has three phases:

1) Brainstorming, researching the facts and choosing topics,

2) Writing and

3) Edition

Don’t edit as you type. Don’t do your research while writing. Write when you’re writing and don’t let anything stop you.

One final thought:

Sometimes writer’s block is what you need. Perhaps your ideas are not yet mature. Maybe you are not a machine that generates words like a factory generates widgets. Be kind to yourself and take the time. If you try all of the above and are still struggling, consider rethinking everything you planned to write.

Your unconscious could be telling you that there is a better way.

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