Three reasons you’re blocked and what science says about breaking through

You’re stuck. Coherent thoughts remain tantalisingly out of reach. Ideas have evaporated. The words fail to flow. If the blank page or the blinking cursor has suddenly turned into an instrument of torture, you might be experiencing writer’s block – defined by researchers as an inability to produce new material.

The good news is that science is shedding some light on the main causes of writer’s block and provided strategies on how to overcome it. Here’s a handful of the top reasons you’re blocked and how to break through.

  1. Boredom

The problem: You’re writing about a subject – let’s say, golf, motoring, or personal finance – that just doesn’t ring your bell. Boredom, no matter where you find it, kills desire stone dead. When you’re bored with the subject of a story (and that might be a person, a place, or an issue) that’s a sure route to writer’s block.

Alternatively, you might be writing about something you love – in my case, travel – but the five-star resort you’re staying at just doesn’t have enough friction points, culture, colour or personality to make it really compelling. Which is why I recently found that writing a 3500-word story about a challenging trek with donkeys in Far North Queensland much easier than penning a 1200-word story about a beach break at a luxury resort.

The antidote: Research suggests that the higher your level of intrinsic motivation – meaning your inherent interest or enjoyment of a task – the better the creative output. This is one reason you should be cultivating and pitching your own ideas. Sometimes you’ll get stuck with a stodgy topic which will challenge your creative spark – which is your signal to find a way around it. I loved this story by Kendall Hill which, in its brutal honesty, turned what could have been every other story on the Maldives into something fresh and new.

2. Exhaustion

The problem: You’re weighed down by worries in other areas of your life, you’re overworked, or you’ve been burning the candle at both ends. It’s difficult to write when physical or mental exhaustion is chewing up all your bandwidth. In a recent study, almost half (42%) of 146 writers surveyed reported that stress, anxiety, intense emotions, or mental or physical illness, left them with writer’s block. Decision fatigue can also lead to writer’s block. Read more on decision fatigue and how writing rituals can help.

The antidote: Step away from the keyboard. Go for a walk. Go for a nap. Go on an artist’s date. Do yoga. Meditate. Rest is the answer for many things, including writer’s block. In the same study, “taking a break” was nominated by more than one in four writers as a way to beat writer’s block. Carving out time for rejuvenating activities – also known as sharpening the saw – is the seventh and final habit of highly effective people, according to Stephen Covey. Once restored, you can return to the work in progress with renewed vigour and a fresh perspective.

Photo by Yuris Alhumaydy on Unsplash

3. You don’t know enough

The problem: You’re in a tearing hurry and you’re trying to write a story for others to read before you fully understand it yourself. Sometimes this come about because you’re wanting to dispense with a boring subject (see point 1), other times it’s the result of deadline pressure, and still others it’s due to poor planning. Either way, it leads to a story that’s “thin”. You might try to pad it out with waffle, but then it reads with the same beige tone that ChatGPT comes up with. It’s truly terrible, but you’re out of time.

The antidote: Number one is to beg, borrow or steal more time. Do more research. Read more. Speak to more people. Revisit existing leads to see if they’re willing to reveal anything new. Gathering more information will help you identify your angle – the precious lens through which a story is told.

Of course, it’s not always (or even usually) possible to extend a deadline, in which case you might need a jumpstart to get your creative juices flowing – fast. Because I often struggle with the lede, I have a Word document called ‘Sentence starters’, which I sometimes wheel out when I’m stuck and looking for a quick fix. It’s a collection of opening lines I’ve culled from writers whose work I’ve enjoyed reading. Obviously, I don’t copy them wholesale – that would be plagiarism. Rather, I use their structure as a template to stimulate fresh thinking. One of Tony Perrottet’s opening lines (“You never know what you’ll find on the beaches of Tasmania …”) made me rethink how I could approach the beach break above – even though my story (in press) started quite differently.

Sometimes all you need is to put a fresh spin on what you already have.

Coming next: 3 more reasons you’re blocked