The Author Burnout Coach
Episode 09: The 5 Causes of Writers’ Block
Hello writers and welcome to The Author Burnout Coach. Together, we will dismantle the burnout culture in book publishing and reclaim our love of stories. I am your host, Isabel Sterling, and this is episode 9.
Hello writers! Today we’re going to talk about something that affects nearly all writers at some point…. The dreaded writers’ block!
You don’t have to call it writers’ block if that doesn’t resonate for you. There are certainly different opinions on whether writers’ block is even real. A common argument is that surgeons don’t get surgery block, so writers’ block isn’t a thing. I’m not here to argue the semantics. You can call it writers’ block, getting stuck, not knowing where the story goes next, or simply feeling uninspired.
Either way, the result is the same: You, staring at the blank page, with no idea what happens next. You might try to write anyway, hoping that the ideas will come if you just get started. Sometimes that works, but other times? Forcing the words only makes it worse.
If this is you, don’t fret. This happens to all of us, at every stage of our writing careers. Panicking about being blocked will only make the block worse. So, deep breath. We’re going to get through this.
There’s a lot of advice about how to get over writers’ block, but most advice skips an important component: diagnosing WHY you’re stuck. That’s where we will begin.
Over the course of writing ten novels, I’ve found the reason I get stuck has shifted a bit. And between that and what I’ve seen with my coaching clients, I’ve distilled the source of writers’ block into five main causes.
Even if you’re not currently blocked, I recommend you listen anyway. Many of these causes of writers’ block can also contribute to burnout if not addressed.
Okay, let’s go!
Cause number 1 - your story is going in the wrong direction.
These days, this tends to be my number one cause of writers’ block, and it happens a couple times with every book. If I get stuck on the same scene day after day after day and everytime I sit down to write it feels wrong and stilted.
For you, this might look a little different. Maybe you have this sense that something isn’t right. The characters aren’t speaking to you anymore, or you have an unsettled feeling in your gut.
When I recognize that this is the cause of my block, I’ll ask myself “where was the last time this felt right?” I’ll go back a chapter or two and read through what I have. If I can keep the judgment out of it and stay curious and open, I can usually sense the spot where I took a wrong turn. For me, it’s usually because a character’s emotional reaction was forced instead of authentic.
Once I spot the problem and fix that spot, the words flow again.
If you’re working on your first ever novel, you might not have the same spidey-sense for this yet, and that’s okay! It comes with practice. I wasn’t able to do this with my earlier novels, but the more I write, the more finely tuned my story intuition gets.
Cause number 2 - you’re putting way too much pressure on yourself
This might be you if you find yourself worried the project will never sell, that readers will hate it, or that this whole endeavor is a waste of time. Perfectionism can creep in here, too.
Now, y’all know that I love big goals. But creativity is not lump of coal waiting to become a diamond. Intense pressure is not conducive to the freedom and creativity needed to tell stories. What if writing could be fun?
When we get too attached to the external goal—get an agent, sell this project, hit a best seller list—we can forget that writing is allowed to be fun. We put too much pressure on our first draft to be perfect, and that pressure stops us from writing at all. Or, if we ARE able to create under this pressure, it wears away at us and leaves us vulnerable to burnout.
If this is you, try to focus on enjoying the process of writing. The external stuff can matter later, after you’ve finished this draft.
Cause number 3 - you think there’s one ‘right’ solution
When you get caught in the trap of thinking there’s only one right way to tell this story, you can end up feeling totally stuck. Every idea (if you have any) feels terrible and not good enough. Your predominant thought about what comes next is “I don’t know!”
Many of us have been conditioned through all a decade-plus of education to associate wrong answers with failure. We’re taught that failure should be avoided at all costs, that if we’re not automatically good at something, we’re doomed to be terrible forever and should avoid it.
Writing a story isn’t anything like solving a geometry equation, though. We’re not solving for X. This isn’t a RIGHT answer. Creativity, by its very nature, requires risk and a string of failure.
My favorite solution here is letting yourself get silly with it. Come up with 10 possible places the story could go next, the more bizarre and ridiculous, the better. Once your brain sees it’s okay to be wrong, it’ll offer up ideas you’ll actually want to use. If you STILL feel suck, coming up with 10 intentionally WRONG ideas can help, too.
This brings us to cause number 4 - you doubt your ability to tell this story.
Your inner monologue sounds a little something like this: I’ll never figure this out. Why did I think I could do this? The story is too complicated for me. I’m not smart enough.
First, know that doubt is normal. We all have doubts, and has we grow as a writer, we do tend to stretch ourselves to the limits of our current abilities. This is a good thing! It means we’re growing and evolving as a writer.
When you catch yourself in the doom spiral of not being good enough, try to shift to thoughts like: All writers have doubts sometimes. I don’t need to know the entire story to write the next scene. I’ll become “good enough” DURING the process of writing this book.
Be careful here not to force an overly positive mantra. Find something that feels better than “I’m doomed” to inch yourself to a more neutral state.
I love the thought “If I wasn’t capable of writing this story, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with the concept.” Or, if that’s not working, an addendum: “I can grow to be good enough.”
Finally, the 5th and final main cause of writers’ block is this: you’re too damn tired to think!
Sometimes, friends, we’re just fucking tired. We are human, after all, not writing machines.
If you find yourself drifting off, losing focus, or chugging caffeine to get through a writing session, if you you can’t even bring yourself to open your manuscript, you might just be tired.
The solution is super simple (though often hard to get ourselves to do). Give yourself permission to rest without feeling guilty about it. Take a nap. Go for a walk. Snuggle your pets or loved ones. When you’re rested, ideas will flow again.
We tend to think rest is for the weak, or that if we rest whenever we’re tired, we’ll never finish our novels. The truth, though, is the opposite.
If we want a sustainable writing career, we need to be able to breaks. Pushing ourselves to keep creating even when we are physically, mentally, and emotionally tired is a huge risk factor for getting burnt out.
So, to summaries, the 5 causes of writers’ block are:
1. The story is going in the wrong direction
2. You’re putting too much pressure on yourself
3. You think there’s a right way (aka you’re afraid to do it wrong)
4. You doubt your ability to write this story and
5. You’re too damn tired to think
Once you can figure out the cause of your block, you can implement a tailored solution to get the words flowing again, without working yourself into the ground.
If you’re not on my newsletter yet, make sure you sign up to get a free PDF that outlines the 5 causes and solutions we talked about today. Check the link in the description.
And if you’re ready to love writing again, I invite you to join my 4-month coaching program, where you’ll learn to trust your creative instincts and burnout proof your entire career. You can learn more at my website, www.IsabelSterling.com
Until next time, happy writing!