There’s No Such Thing as Writer’s Block

A friend of mine asked me for some advice last week. He’s preparing to leave the military, and thought writing might be his next career. Did I have any pearls of wisdom?

I gave him two main pieces of advice. The second one: he must understand that there’s no such thing as “writer’s block.”

I’m Totally Serious

Really: no matter what anyone tells you, there’s just no such thing as writer’s block. A writer who “can’t write” simply has nothing to say. If you always have something to say, you’ll never have a “block.” It really is that simple.

Wanna-be writers use being “blocked” as an excuse to not write.

When I first starting having some success as a writer, I would sometimes go to “writer’s conferences,” which were numerous in the Los Angeles area, where I lived at the time.

Just about every one of them had a session on writer’s block. After the first few conferences I went to, I began to realize a truth: most such conferences are where wanna-be writers pay to talk about …no, not writing, but how cool it would be to be a successful writer! Successful writers rarely go to these conferences: they spend that time writing, instead — and getting paid for their work.

I quit going to the conferences and spent that time writing, instead — and getting paid for my work!

The exception to this: networking with actual peers at your level of expertise or success (or, if you’re lucky, a higher level than you), or bona fide Mastermind groups of peers who will give you useful feedback on your writing work and career. When run well, those are worth your time.

How to Fix Writer’s Block

If you’re “blocked,” it’s because you’ve psyched yourself out. (Or, as noted, you don’t actually have anything to say.) But let’s assume you’re psyched out.

I had a good friend from work at my prior day job, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (“Had” being a bummer: he died at 37.)

He was a NASA engineer, but what he really wanted to do was write. He is the only writer I know who had been published quite a few times in magazines as a freelancer, and yet never had a rejection. Awesome. But one day he told me he was “blocked” and hadn’t written anything for weeks.

I went over to his house and said, “Want me to fix that for you?” He didn’t know what I was up to, but he definitely wanted help, so I gave him this assignment: sit his ass in front of his computer and start writing — right now! I told him that I would come back in half an hour.

Here’s the key to my method: I said if he could think of nothing else to write, he was to type “I have nothing I want to say” over and over and over again, until he had something better than that to write.

After half an hour of chatting with his wife, I opened his office door to see how he was doing. He didn’t even look up! He said “I’ll be out in a bit — I’m in the middle of something now!”

I’ll bet it took him less than a minute to realize he had something he’d rather write than “I have nothing I want to say” over and over.

And he still never got a rejection slip to the day he died.

The First Piece of Advice

I said that understanding there’s no such thing as writer’s block was my second piece of advice. The first: write every day. Every … freaking … day! You want to be a writer? Then write! It’s your job! Get to work!

Have you heard of the 10,000 hour rule? It’s said that successful professionals — from musicians to carpenters to anything else that requires real skill — need 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at their craft. A typical work year (8 hours/day for 5 days/week for 50 weeks) is 2,000 hours, so we’re talking about five years of full time practice — preferably with feedback from a qualified instructor (or at least an audience!) — to reach a true professional level.

Yeah, you got some writing instruction in school, but remember what a slacker you were? And it certainly wasn’t full time on writing alone. So maybe if you paid attention and got some good instruction, you have one of those five years under your belt from school. You’re not going to be truly good as a writer until you get rest of your 10,000 hours in.

You better get started!

(I just love it when people say they’re a writer because they were taught to write in school. My response: you were taught to finger-paint in kindergarten. Does that make you a professional illustrator?)

Get Help

I suggest taking college-level classes in Journalism and English: Journalism to learn how to research, and to write quickly, and English to more deeply learn proper grammar and other technical aspects of writing.

Putting random apostrophes in words (like “vegetable’s” — shudder!) isn’t a “style thing,” it’s proof you’re an amateur. Learn to write correctly and accurately so your mistakes don’t get in the way; you can worry about developing “style” later. (Tip: you won’t need to worry about style later, either, as it will develop on its own. Trying to force a “style” will look amateurish too.)

And the whole time you’re doing this, whether you have a class assignment or not, write every day.

And Then Publish

It doesn’t do much good — if you want to be a professional writer who makes a living from your work — to fill journals that no one reads. Get it out there! Start a blog where you put something good out to the world at least weekly.

Collect the email addresses of your fans onto a mailing list (I use AWeber for this) so you can email them every week or two to alert them to the new stuff you’ve posted. That’s how you develop a following. You can’t expect your fans to remember to come back week after week; you have to remind them.

If after a full year you get no fans or following, maybe you need to rethink the track you’re on.

But stop using the “writer’s block” excuse. If you’re a “real” writer, no one can stop you from writing.

– – –

My friend later asked for more advice, which led to another post: Planning for the Rest of Your Life.

- - -

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20 thoughts on “There’s No Such Thing as Writer’s Block

  1. Randy, these are truly word of wisdoms … er, words of wisdom. I’ve battled with so-called “writer’s block” many times, until I figured out that what I was labeling “writer’s block” was simply an inability to come up with perfect copy in one sitting. Now, I just write what I can, even if it’s just an informal outline of some sort, and worry about prettying it up later on. Amazing how quickly the words begin flowing once I get into it. Thanks for this!

    Your solution is excellent — and falls right in line with my contention. Kudos! -rc

  2. This is wonderful and I fully agree. I have posted often on what I call the Myth of Writer’s Block on my own blog, and teach it in my writing classes. If you do really feel stuck there are so many ways to prime the pump that there’s no excuse. My advice is much like yours, write stream-of-consciousness if nothing else is there, even if it’s just, “I hate this, Geoff is an idiot for suggesting it”, etc. And write every day.

    And, yes, get what you write in front of people! (I was going to put a random apostrophe in here somewhere, but figured people here don’t know me well enough to get my humor.)

    Thank’s! -rc

  3. I only write as a hobby, but I have a much more serious problem – waster’s block. While I would like to spend much more time surfing the net or watching Youtube videos of cats falling off the sofa, I am just inundated with story ideas, and can’t find the time to write them all down!

    Seriously, though, if I ever do have a dry patch, I either go write something completely different, or just write anything even if I know it’s not what I want to say, and then come back to rewrite/correct it later.

    You’re more of a writer than you think, perhaps! Beginners often wonder “Where do I get ideas?!?”, but “real” writers can’t possibly follow up on all the ideas they have. -rc

  4. To Tony in Japan: The internet does indeed offer a plethora of excuses for the budding writer not to write. I too am a hobby writer (more disturbingly I am also a 37 year old engineer who once worked for JPL) and also found the lure of the inane a sufficient distraction from practicing the art.

    Then I moved to China. No YouTube. No Facebook. No Twitter. No excuses.

    And people wonder why China is the economic powerhouse that it is.

    And good writers never start a sentence with and.

    And why not?! -rc

  5. I wholeheartedly agree. In over 25 years as a professional wordsmith, I have NEVER had writer’s block. It comes from the awareness that I am also NEVER bored. I call it being frequently fascinated. There is always something to muse about and then communicate. As grammatically incorrect as it seems, I ‘can’t NOT write.’ It is one of the first things I want to do when I wake up and when I can’t sleep (like this morning), it becomes my soporific. It is like breathing. Am in the editing stages of my first best seller called The Bliss Mistress Guide To Transforming The Ordinary Into The Extraordinary. I write a daily blog for Beliefnet called The Bliss Blog. Thank you for your wisdom in this blog entry that a friend sent to me this morning.

  6. I’ve heard of writer’s block, but only in the context of one who is writing a novel. Even then, I’d suspect it’s not so much of a “block” as an attempt to avoid banality.

  7. I contest this idea that there is no such thing as ‘writer’s block’. Though I get where it comes from. Mostly because the way to beat the block isn’t to sit around not writing. It is to force yourself to write even if it isn’t what you were trying to/wanting to write at that stage.

    It is pretty much like any other ‘block’ you can get from trying too hard. I am sure everyone has had a moment where they ‘knew’ the answer or solution to something but they couldn’t actually spit it out/do it until they picked up stopped focusing so much on that one detail. At which point it just hits you or at least tends to come more naturally.

    Of course that doesn’t mean go watch youtube videos. Yeah sure eventually the block will likely dissolve but meanwhile you don’t get much done. Instead you should jump to a second project (if you have one) or skip/force the paragraph/scene you are on so that you can work on another. When writing a story you don’t have to go from chapter 1 to chapter end nor does it have to be immediately ‘perfect’. If Chapter 4 is giving you a problem you can always skip to chapter 6 or 7 or even chapter end. True, you may later need to revise some things, but hell you are going to be revising things as is.

    So Writer’s block does exist but it isn’t a complete block it is merely a block of one idea, one scene, one paragraph, or the ilk. It is an instance where such just won’t come out even close to right for you. And the harder you try to force that one idea/scene sometimes the worse it gets. You just need to move on and revisit it later.

    But you are correct in that ‘Writer’s Block’ is a stumbling stone for the amateur. The amateur writing for his/her own pleasure often does not force the issue and as such the block literally ‘blocks’ the entire work. For the Pro they force the issue and SOMETHING will be written. They may have to revise like they are possessed later, but they will put something down. And as such the block is more of an annoyance than anything else, that and it is merely part of writing.

    No one is so blessed that everything they write is dipped in gold the first moment it is written. Eventually everyone will feel something like a block. It is the sign of a pro though to work regardless of the block. This is because the pro recognizes that revision, even serious revision is a naturally stage of writing.

    This is actually the core of NaNoWriMo if memory serves. The amateur in general is too focused on perfection and as such they tend to forget that the goal is to entertain and/or inform. It doesn’t have to be perfect, heck many published authors will openly admit that their novels are far from perfect! Let alone their first drafts of many ideas that went into said novels!

    NaNoWriMo — the National Novel Writing Month — is in November. -rc

  8. Thank you so much for this blog about writer’s block. So many times I have been dissatisfied with my writing, despite having so many ideas to write about. Now I understand that I can be a writer, I just have to do more of it. (I feel like slapping my forehead and saying, “Duh”). It’s an obvious concept isn’t it? After all, I have spent the last four years of my life studying music and voice and am now to the point where I recognize the vast improvements I have made and the skills I have aquired, but also how far I have yet to go to get past the point of being an amateur. Almost anyone can sing, but it takes a little talent and a lot of hard work to become a good singer. The same goes for writing.

  9. I am a writer, and I agree, there is no such thing as “writer’s block,” but there is such a thing as getting to a block in the particular work you are doing. My remedy is to take a break. If that doesn’t do it, then write about something else. That breaks through the block every time.

    I put take a break in there first because you can run out of ideas because you need a break. It’s a simple concept, but too many people fail to realize it. If you still are having trouble then it is probably because you are too focused on one thing and you need to relax. Writing about something else for awhile will do that nicely.

    I have never had any problem with breaking “writer’s block.” My only problem is when the new thing I’m writing about is so interesting that I don’t want to go back and finish the work I was on in the first place.

  10. Brilliantly put.

    I’ve always said the cure for writer’s block is to show up.

    I’m also always arguing in favor of proper grammar — learn the rules first then you’ll not only look professional but you’ll also know when (if) breaking one of them works.

    I like your cure! -rc

  11. I agree. A writer writes. Isaac Asimov worked on several pieces at once. When he had a problem with the one he was working on he would switch to another. He just kept writing. He said in some of his comments “all he wanted to do was write”. While in the Army he had the librarian lock him in the library during lunch so he could have time and peace to write.

    He, by the way, did have a few rejections during his early days, but eventually everything he ever wrote that survived was published. He wrote science fiction, text books, histories, fantasy, biographies, and on almost every other subject matter including two most unusual items, a calendar and two wall posters. He wrote every length from short stories to series and was published in almost every type of publication. Mr. Asimov listed 469 items. More were published after his death and Ed Seiler lists over 500 items.

    He was a writer.

    Yes he was, and a great one! IIRC, he’s the only writer to have books published in every major category of the Dewey Decimal system. During my first university year, I read every bit of Asimov fiction they had in my school’s very excellent library. Took me most of the year. -rc

  12. As someone who has been writing professionally (journalist-publicist-author) for nearly 60 years, I would have to say that, yes, there are times when the right lead or first paragraph just doesn’t pop up. But the professional usually has more than one iron (or chapter, as another commented) in the fire — so you just go on to that and Bang! what you needed to overcome the block comes to mind. I usually have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to write and how before I sit down at the keyboard. Early mornings after first awakening but still abed are good for this. Working for a newspaper (or wire service), of course, there is no time for dawdling; you bang it out and go on to the next edition’s or day’s story.

    I was a history major at an elite university where all exams were essays, and you had to beat the clock. I did not set out to become a writer but a thankfully perceptive would-be employer saw promise in me for just that trade.

    One piece of advice for tyro writers: write like you talk and read it aloud to yourself before submitting. That’s from ad copywriter and novelist Elmore “Dutch” Leonard.

    And a final comment about writer’s conferences: yes, they are often filled with wannabes, but also a good source of networking and inspiration. I rarely go to them but do believe in, and support, them.

  13. Great advice. I’m a non-writing writer, if that makes sense. It’s not writer’s block but a lack of self esteem, I keep telling myself. Actually, I write often, but it’s mostly course development stuff, assignments, and small comments on student work. My interest in writing about science goes back many years and I have a master’s degree in print journalism. I used to love writing articles for the independent student newspaper in college, especially feature articles about science topics. Then I decided to go back into education, getting a doctorate, and becoming a science educator. Now I’m wanting to get back to science writing. My block is always thinking that I can’t produce anything of value or interest. I need a bit more chutzpah!

    Yes you do: I’m sure by now you have a lot to say. I think you should get back to your “used to love” and recapture that feeling. I started out as a science writer myself: it’s what got me hired at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Now get to work, and follow up here later to tell us you have finished your first piece! -rc

  14. Thank you very much for the insight. It takes a person of truly high intelligence to cut through all the peripheral junk to see the real big picture.

    I too “shudder” at the comma debacle. It’s scary that so many want to “possess” when they only want to add more than one.

    I think you mean apostrophe, but yes: we agree! -rc

  15. I love this! It’s so inspirational I plan to make a large poster of it and put it near my laptop on the wall. Thanks for putting into words what I already think I knew.

  16. Well, I was going to write an angry rebuttal of your idea, as I am someone who is writing a (second) novel and often suffers from what is called “writer’s block”. I thought that your ideas were only valid for writing when the subject is totally free for you to choose, rather than having to follow the plot of a story. Then I read Dustin from Ohio’s words and thought they really summed up my views well. Then I thought some more about it. Then I read your piece again.

    Now I think I get it: both you and Dustin are saying the same thing: Writer’s block is the blocking of one idea or flow of ideas. Switching to something else can free up thinking process and allow the creative juices to flow. Eureka!

    Actually, when I come to think some more about it, I kind of do this already. When I have time to write, yet the words don’t flow, I switch to researching detail for another scene or planning a bit further ahead or even writing a later scene. I’ve also been known to force write the scene I really need to get written. It always needs lots of re-writing later and generates about a quarter of the words that I produce when the I’m in the mood and the juices (and words!) are flowing well, but at least I feel I am progressing the story, if very slowly.

    Still, I want to thank you for stirring up the controversy in my mind. I know from reading a lot of your work that one of your major reasons for writing (apart from allowing you to live in the paradise called Colorado) is to make people think. I’ve certainly thought a lot about what you had to say on this issue and hope it will help me in the long evenings to come when the ideas don’t seem to be flowing. I’m just sorry I couldn’t express myself better or, perhaps, more concisely. I’m obviously way, way behind on the 10,000 hours.

    By the way, I totally agree with you about learning the correct way to write. Only then can you know when to break the rules to make a point. I don’t suppose you fancy the job of Minister of Education over here? We could do with someone to tell our educators to damn well educate and stop accepting poorly written work because it is the pupil’s “style”. I think it is due to this obsession with getting pupils to express themselves and value their thoughts above those of the great people who have shaped history. Frightening the arrogance of it! They should learn and understand the world first and only then will they have a useful contribution to make. I was lucky and had a first rate English teacher who taught us to write properly (though it was a long time ago, so any mistakes in spelling or grammar are mine and not hers!). Many are not so lucky.

  17. I used to teach writing at CSU-Pueblo, but instead of “10,000 hours,” used to say, “The first million words are just for practice.”

    All comes down to about the same thing, I suppose.

  18. Randy, I have been a reader of This Is True since… Newsweek run a story on “This Just In” in ¿1996? Well, in your True 923 your recommended this post, and even I feel scolded, also I decided to act on your advice, and work again on my blog.

    Of course, the entry for today was… about you and your work. Thanks a lot and I hope to give you a dozen of new subscribers as a thank you! (You can see it here. Sorry, in spanish — but with translation availabe at the toolbar). Thanks!!

    I did read it (via Google translate — my Spanish is poor). I hadn’t thought of this as scolding, but I can see how some would take it that way. You do mention (if the translation is correct) that you’re not really a writer/blogger; this essay is more aimed at those who wish to be writers as a profession. If readers wish to view themselves in this way, then they must write! And if not, then they need to stop calling themselves “a writer” as a profession. -rc

  19. Thanks for your answer. I take it more as a call-to-action than a mere scolding. I took your advice seriously (and also take the Lifebook test you recommend). I had already some books published as a ghost-writer, but in the way to get published on my own credit. And yes, I will get the “Writer” title soon enough. Thanks, I admire what you do and set as example.

    Do you remember when the Newseek column was published on “This Just in”? 1995, 1996?

    November 1994! It’s noted in this blog, here. -rc

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