No matter how hard you work, how talented you are, or how much success you experience, it’s virtually impossible to avoid struggling with writer’s block during the creative process. For me, the first step in moving forward is to try to remember just how universal writer’s block is, rather than subconsciously viewing it as some sort of personal failing.
Once I acknowledge this truth—and the accompanying feelings of self-doubt, frustration, and anxiety—I can then try to identify the root of the problem. Writer’s block can stem from a variety of sources; unsurprisingly, identifying the cause makes it easier to address. If you’re struggling with writer’s block, this letter will focus on questions to help you diagnose what might be causing it; the next letter will focus on ideas for overcoming it.
Are you struggling with perfectionism?
If you struggle with perfectionism in any other areas of your life, you’ll likely experience it in your creative life as well. Creative perfectionism can look like endlessly revising as you write. It can lead to avoiding writing out of a fear of writing badly. It can manifest as unreasonable expectations, for yourself or others, or it might result in downplaying your efforts and accomplishments.
If your writer’s block stems from perfectionism, try to identify how it’s specifically affecting you. One exercise is to pretend that you’re talking to a beloved friend instead of yourself. What advice would you give a close friend if they were struggling with the same issues you’re facing? Are there steps they could take to make their creative process easier? Would you place the same expectations on a dear friend as you do yourself? Would you criticize them in the same ways? What difficult circumstances would you notice in your friend’s life that you might be tempted to overlook in yours?
Are you falling into the comparison trap?
Some people find small doses of external comparison to be helpful and even motivating. Considering how other authors outline, prepare for presentations, or connect with readers could lead you to discover a new tool that might also work for you. However, comparison can quickly veer from a concrete learning exercise into a time-consuming cycle that sows self-doubt and envy—of others’ writing outputs, submission timelines, sales, followers, accolades, and on and on.
Compounding this issue is the publishing world itself, which loves to focus on rankings and comparisons. While receiving an award or hitting a bestseller list can be fulfilling and motivating, awards and bestseller lists inevitably overlook many, many fantastic books. Focusing on these accolades can also lead to the impossible expectation that every book an author writes will somehow exceed their previous work—ignoring the fact that a book’s external reception is out of the author’s hands. Beyond writing the best book they can, there is nothing authors can do to guarantee that their books will receive a certain reception in the marketplace. Expecting each book to outshine its predecessor can only lead to disappointment and frustration.
Are there problems on the page?
Sometimes writer’s block is a subconscious signal that something in your current draft needs to be examined before you can move forward. Perhaps you’ve just written—or are about to write—a scene that takes your characters or plot in a direction that makes sense in theory, but doesn’t feel right in practice. If you think that this might be the case, try exploring other ideas for these scenes or even rewriting them in the opposite direction. You might find that solving the problems on the page helps you to work through writer’s block and inspires ideas for new scenes.
Are you physically or emotionally exhausted?
Lastly, writer’s block can be a sign of burnout. While burnout is a complex topic that goes beyond the focus of this letter, one of the things I’ve learned from authors like Emily and Amelia Nagoski is that our bodies don’t differentiate from physical stressors (like running from a lion) and mental stressors (like running from your inner critic). Physical stressors typically have a clearly defined end point that tells your body it can relax (like getting away from the lion). In contrast, mental stressors are less finite and escapable.
One way to identify whether you’re struggling with burnout is to try some of Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s recommendations or to use them as a starting point for your own ideas. While activities like going for a walk or slowly enjoying a cup of tea don’t directly result in words on the page, taking a step back can lead to renewed energy, inspiration, and excitement for your creative work.
Your Editor Friend,
P.S. If you found this letter helpful, please consider sharing it with a friend or subscribing to receive letters straight to your inbox every Wednesday. If you’d like to say hello, share feedback, or submit a question that I might answer in a future letter, please email me! I’d love to hear from you.