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The 5 mindset blocks crushing your writing dreams

If you’ve ever sat at your desk and stared at a blinking cursor, unable to smash out even the first few words, you’re not alone. Many writers wrestle with subconscious barriers which stifle their creativity and sabotage their work. Debilitating, subtle and devilishly difficult to overcome, these five mindset blocks might be holding you back. But identifying and dismantling these invisible barriers brings you closer to realising your full potential.

1. Not prioritising your writing

The poison: When it comes to mindset blocks, this is one of the biggest I see. We all have bills to pay and families to feed. Amid the hurly-burly of daily living, particularly if you’re working in another career, it’s easy to see writing as something you’ll do ‘one day’. Yet before you know it, another few years have evaporated, and you’ve got no words to show for it. A variant of this is burning all your rubber writing professionally for others (newspapers, magazines, brands) but having nothing left in the tank for your passion projects.

The antidote: I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: No-one will ever care as much about your writing as you do. It’s up to you to make it a priority. I inwardly groan when people start banging on about time management techniques. But implementing something called time blocking has helped me put the work I really want to do first – not second, or last, or squeezed into the dregs of a day devoted to other things.

The One Thing author Gary Keller even suggests building a ‘bunker’ – not a Zuckerberg-style bunker, but a place that takes you off the path of disruption and distraction. He recommends stocking up on snacks and supplies, turning off electronic devices and letting people know when you will be available. No big stretches of time available? How to find time to be creative when you’re stretched to snapping point contains tips on how to make the most of little snippets of time. Creating writing rituals can also help calm the chaos and provide a site for the muse to land.

(2) Imposter Syndrome

The poison: Feeling like you have nothing important to add, doubting your own abilities, and fearing you’ll be exposed as a fraud is common among writers. Every time I so much as self-publish a blog post, I must fight the inner voice which goads, ‘What would you know anyway?’ Even repeatedly getting your work past the gatekeepers (commissioning editors) doesn’t create a lasting sense of security. Every publication feels like a fluke. You’re convinced it’s only a matter of time before you’ll be found out.

Sometimes circumstances conspire to reinforce these suspicions. I was once commissioned by an editor who hated the story I subsequently submitted. He didn’t say so in as many words, but the sarcasm dripping from the feedback he scribbled all over the draft made it obvious. And, as I fully expected, I never heard from him again. Here it was at last. Proof that my work was, in fact, crap. But then I spoke to another writer who worked regularly with him. Was it just me, or did this editor have a particular talent for making writers feel like shit? ‘Yes,’ she admitted. ‘I always feel like I’m on my last chance with (that publication).’

The antidote: Accepting that you’re not everyone’s cup of tea wasn’t the main lesson I learned here. It was about overcoming shame and isolation and being vulnerable. Sharing your fears, frustrations and failures with other writers can provide comfort and reassurance. Find a supportive writing community by joining online groups or local meetups, or by attending writing or blogging conferences. It can also help to log your victories as they arise. Keeping a file that contains your favourite clips, and some positive feedback, however minimal (“Nice job on X”), can go some way towards mitigating that nasty, nagging voice. Sometimes, Imposter Syndrome takes the form of feeling utterly unqualified to write about certain topics. If so, read How to write about subjects you know nothing about.

(3) Perfectionism

The poison: The relentless quest for perfection brings a host of downstream problems. These include the inability to get started, countless rounds of revisions, multiple unfinished projects, and (worst case scenario) missed deadlines. Perfectionism is one of the main reasons for procrastination. Perfectionism also rears its head via endless hours spent researching matters peripheral to the topic at hand, in a well-meaning but ultimately misguided attempt to be ‘thorough’. When you break it down, it’s the fear of being found wanting that leaves us frozen, fingers poised over the keyboard, unable to go on. “Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame,” says Brené Brown, writing in The Gifts of Imperfection.

The antidote: Perfectionism manifests differently for everyone, so it can be helpful to spend some time reflecting and journalling on whether this is one of your mindset blocks and, if so, how it shows up for you. (This is how I learned that my exhaustive research efforts were, in fact, fuelled by the perfectionistic fear of appearing stupid.) Look at where and when perfectionism derails your train; and sift and sort the thought processes underpinning it (e.g., “A single mistake will ruin my credibility”). This is sometimes a difficult and confronting process to get started, but it gets easier with time and practice. Before long, you’ll be able to recognise when perfectionism is undermining you, redirect your behaviour, and proactively head it off at the pass.

Making a pact with yourself to do the worst job in the world can also help you overcome perfectionism. In Shitty First Drafts, Anne Lamott explains that just getting some words down on paper is better than none. “All I had to do was to write a really shitty first draft of, say, the opening paragraph,” she writes. “And no one was going to see it.” Focus on having a handful of shitty words to work with. That’s much more likely to move you forward than a perfectly blank page.

(4) Fear of rejection

The poison: Fear of rejection does bring one major benefit – it allows you to sidestep the pain of being told your writing is not up to par. But it stymies you like nothing else. Worrying about whether your pitches or manuscripts will be rejected means you’re less likely to send them out in the first place, leaving you with no work to do. Alternatively, fear of rejection can lead to you ‘playing the small game’, by sticking with safe but low-paying (or no-paying) local markets, rather than shooting for top-tier international publications.

The antidote: Accept that you’ll be rejected a million times before breakfast. For writers, it’s part of the territory and it doesn’t have to mean anything other than that this was a great pitch (or article, or proposal, or book) delivered at the wrong time, or to the wrong person. Drowning your sorrows, fantasising about firebombing the editor’s office, or vowing never to write another word are all possible responses to rejection. But there are a range of healthier strategies that will keep you in the game – and out of jail. (Read: Secrets to coping with rejection as a writer.)

People sometimes suggest you should reframe rejection as a learning experience. That’s easier said than done when the only feedback you get is a brisk “not for us”, or “no thanks”. Often, of course, you simply won’t hear a peep. So how can you learn from that? This is when taking your work to your writing group, paying for a manuscript assessment service, or analysing what’s worked for others can prove instructive. (Want to read three pitches that landed assignments and ongoing relationships with editors? Click here.)

A man writes in his journal about overcoming mindset blocks.

(5) A fixed mindset

The poison: There are writers out there who have undoubtedly been walloped on the head by the talent stick much more forcefully than others. But the truth is: talent matters a lot less than you think. Having a fixed mindset means believing you either have what it takes to be a writer, or you don’t. You see your abilities as static, and unlikely to change, no matter what you do. In her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck coined the concept of fixed versus growth mindsets. She said those with fixed mindsets believe that if they don’t already have the skills, intelligence, or talent to complete a task, then there’s no possibility of improvement.

The antidote: That simply isn’t so. Dweck’s research revealed that people with a growth mindset were more able to hone their talents for higher achievement. Writing skills can be learned and strengthened just like any other skill. Whether it’s developing an ear for dialogue, an eye for observation, or a neat knack for picking just the right descriptive phrase, those with a ‘growth mindset’ believe they can (and do) get better with effort and practice, Dweck says. Even in the digital age, with the world awash in AI-generated content, there are ways to make your writing stand out. Mindset blocks around a fixed versus growth mindset are among the easiest to tackle, once you know what you’re looking at.

Writers at all levels can expand their horizons by actively seeking out opportunities for ongoing learning. Participating in workshops, webinars, courses and writing festivals can introduce new techniques and perspectives that reinvigorate your writing process. Reading widely across different genres and styles also expands your grasp of different narrative structures and language choices. Signing up for novel experiences like travel can also boost your creativity. Making a commitment to lifelong learning means writers can continue to refine their craft, stay inspired and keep their work fresh and relevant.

Over to you …

What are your most diabolical mindset blocks and how did you break through?