Can you prevent writer’s block before it happens? Well, it’s possible, but it won’t be easy. With that said, here are some of the telltale signs of writer’s block that you need to look out for.
We’ve all been there.
You’re supposed to be working on something. A book manuscript that should have been turned in to your editor a few days ago. An essay due tomorrow. A paper for a research conference next month.
But you’re not writing, you’re staring at a blank Microsoft Word document, unsure of what to say next.
Congrats (?)!, you have writer’s block. It sucks, but it happens to the best of us. Whether they be bestselling authors or just your average student cramming for an English paper, writer’s block affects all writers, regardless of skill level and experience.
Table of Contents
A tale of two writers
But first let’s introduce you to someone who absolutely DOES NOT have writer’s block.
That person is James Patterson.
Patterson is the king of writing productivity. He is known for publishing, on average, 14 books a year.
At age 75, Patterson maintains a 77-hour workweek, a Herculean feat that writers more than half his age would definitely struggle with. As stated in an interview on CNBC, his grandmother’s wisdom fueled his indomitable work ethic:
“She (his grandmother) said ‘Hungry dogs run faster.’ I’ve always been a hungry dog.”
He is so prolific, so consistently productive at what he does, that he is probably one of the few people living on this planet who can comfortably roast other insanely popular authors on their output (or lack thereof).
For example, in an episode of Stephen Colbert’s Tooning Out The News, Patterson remarked on a fellow writer’s intense struggle on staying ahead of deadlines:
“I’ve heard of writer’s block; this is more like writer’s constipation!”
And of course, that other writer is none other than the chronic writing procrastinator George RR Martin.
Writer’s block? Or writing constipation?
Martin has been working on The Winds of Winter, which is expected to be the penultimate book in his famed A Song of Ice and Fire series, for over a decade. This is in contrast to the previous books in the series which were published with intervals of no more than six years between each release.
There is still a significant amount of writing to be done, if recent interviews are to be believed. He is far from finishing the book . Fans are not happy about this situation, as you would imagine.
We’re getting some good writer’s block memes out of the situation, though.
Due to this, there’s a high chance that Martin will go down in history not as the author of one of the world’s most beloved fantasy series, but rather, as the most prominent sufferer of writer’s block there is.
Is writer’s block just laziness with extra steps?
So… is Martin just lazy?
If the string of writing projects that he has completed in the last decade is to be considered, then no.
He’s written a few ASOIAF prequel novellas, managed a theater and a bookstore in his hometown, and appeared on countless TV shows and fan conventions. He even ventured into video games once, developing the intricate lore of From Software’s Elden Ring.
In short, man’s got a lot of time and energy to do stuff. He’s not lazy by any means.
He’s just not writing what he’s supposed to be writing.
And that’s a prime textbook example of writer’s block if we’ve ever seen one.
What is writer’s block?
According to Mike Rose, author of Writer’s Block: The Cognitive Dimension, writer’s block is “an inability to begin or continue writing for reasons other than a lack of skill and commitment.”
Writer’s block is not laziness. You have the ability to write. You WANT to write, you just CAN’T.
But what makes writer’s block so complicated is that it manifests itself in so many ways and configurations. It can affect different stages of the writing process.
For beginning writers, they may have trouble finding the right word. With some people, it can be a failure to come up with new and original ideas. For others, it may involve freezing up suddenly, gripped by the fear that whatever they’re working on won’t live up to expectations.
The causes of writer’s block, as well as the ways to address it, are incredibly diverse too. In fact, we even have an entire post dedicated to exploring the various causes of writer’s block and the various strategies to fix or combat them in this blog.
As a companion piece to that post, our main focus in this article is on identifying the signs of writer’s block, allowing you to recognize them before they overwhelm you and hinder your creative process.
Because as that old clichéd saying goes, prevention is better than cure. There’s a lot of value in knowing when you’re about to encounter writer’s block and recognizing the signs as they happen.
By addressing the root cause early on, you can prevent the problem from evolving further. You can nip it in the bud, so to speak.
Let’s start with the physical signs.
Physical signs of writer’s block
These physical symptoms are not that much different from symptoms of anxiety and stress.
Because the symptoms aren’t exclusive to writing, some writers find it hard to identify that what they’re actually experiencing are the first indications of writer’s block.
However, these signs can still offer important hints that you’re this close to encountering this dreaded obstacle in your writing journey.
So, what are the physical signs of writer’s block?
I. Can’t sit still
You just… Can’t. Sit. Still. You find it extremely difficult to stay seated and focused on your writing for an extended period of time. You’re constantly giving in to the urge to get up and walk around. Sometimes, you even find yourself engaging in other activities—like cleaning, for example, or watering your houseplants—just to avoid facing the task at hand.
II. Constantly fidgeting
You’re twirling your hair, moving your hands, tapping your feet, and adjusting knickknacks on your table. This constant fidgeting means that your mind is not fully engaged in the writing process. It’s off somewhere it shouldn’t be.
I. Racing thoughts before sleep
When you lay your head down on your pillow to sleep, your mind is filled with thoughts that refuse to quiet down. You keep searching and reaching for ideas that seem to be just beyond your grasp. Sometimes, this can be ironic. There may be times when your mind feels active just when you’re going to sleep and sluggish when you want to write.
At the end of the day, all of that mental activity can make it difficult for you to drift off and get a good night’s sleep.
II. Sleep deprivation
No sleep means no rest.
Just like how Macbeth was haunted by his insomniac nights, your thoughts and ideas haunt you even when you don’t want them to. You become sleep deprived. Your brain gets no rest.
Not only does this affect your ability to concentrate on your writing, it is also extremely detrimental to your body too.
Stress and Tension
I. Muscular tension
Everything is tense. Your wrists may cramp up, and your neck, shoulders, and hands feel tight—it’s like your body is gearing up for a fight.
The problem is, you’re not fighting in an MMA match. You’re just writing. The stress of putting words on paper has gotten to you, and your body perceives it as more stressful than it should be.
II. Migraines and headaches
As writer’s block sets in, you can sometimes literally feel the pressure mounting on your head. Thus you get to experience all of those annoying headaches and migraines.
Psychological signs of writer’s block
Alright, we’ve covered most of the physical symptoms. Now let’s move on to the cognitive (or psychological) ones.
These are the symptoms that would be more obvious to most writers since they are often the main focus when discussing writer’s block signs. When people talk about writer’s block, these are the aspects that they usually refer to.
Writing procrastination and writer’s block are sometimes used interchangeably in discussions about writing. In fact, many people confuse the two. But they’re two very different things.
You can procrastinate without having writer’s block, and vice versa—you can have writer’s block without procrastinating.
Writing procrastination means that you’re voluntarily delaying work on your writing tasks. Emphasis on the word “voluntary.” You’re deliberately and consciously avoiding writing.
While writer’s block, on the other hand, is an involuntary inability to write or continue writing.
The two are related, of course, and procrastination can be a symptom of the more significant problem of writer’s block.
I. Impostor syndrome
“Am I really a writer?”
“Have I deluded myself into thinking that I can write when, in fact, I can’t even string two coherent sentences together?“
Those are the kinds of questions that’ll pop up in your head when you have impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which a person doubts their skills and talents, persistently believing that they’re somehow a fraud who don’t deserve to be where they currently are. They may feel that they’re severely out of place in their field. Or that maybe all of the success they have achieved up to that point has been undeserved.
Having impostor syndrome means going through an overwhelming internal struggle. It can cripple your creativity and sap away your writing energy.
II. Fear of failure
It’s human nature to fear failure. But when you have writer’s block, this fear is taken to whole new irrational levels. You may become overly critical of yourself. You’re gripped with the fear that your writing may not meet others’ expectations or even your own expectations of yourself.
I. Endless editing
When you let perfectionism take over during a bout of writer’s block, it can sometimes lead to a never-ending cycle of editing and re-editing your work. You never feel satisfied with your output. You spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over every word choice, every sentence, every paragraph.
Should you split this long sentence into two sentences? Is it ok to leave this passive sentence as is? But it doesn’t matter how many hours you spend going through your work with a fine-toothed sieve; you just never feel truly at peace with it.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with editing yourself as you write, of course. But writer’s block related perfectionism causes a complete slowdown of your writing process. It may even halt everything altogether.
II. Unrealistic expectations
Perfectionism can also manifest itself as setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and your skills as a writer. You’re taken with the belief that you must produce a groundbreaking, flawless piece of work every time you write. Then you hold yourself to standards so high and with goals that are almost impossible to attain.
Obviously, setting these lofty, impossible goals for yourself means that you’re always under immense pressure. And what’s the thing they say about high pressure? That it turns coal into diamond? Well, it’s not true in this case; it just cracks your resolve and turns you into dust.
You’re paralyzed, unable to write anything. You fear that you won’t live up to this impossibly high standard that your writer’s block-addled mind has set for itself.
I. Inability to make decisions
With writer’s block, sometimes you can’t make even the smallest of creative decisions. From choosing a particular word or deciding what color shirt a character should wear, the smallest of decisions can overwhelm you.
If you find yourself spending more time pondering on decisions and choices instead of ACTUALLY WRITING, then it’s a clear sign that you’re headed for writer’s block. You’re not as focused and as in tune with your story as you should be.
II. Difficulty focusing
If you struggle to concentrate on your book’s details, like character scenes or plot points, you may be encountering the early stages of writer’s block.
When your thoughts are scattered and all over the place, you have a decreased ability to generate new ideas or even develop ones that already exist.
Bad writing habits
Along with physical and mental symptoms, writer’s block can also reveal itself through unexpected habits and patterns. You might find yourself engaged in the activities below, even if you didn’t consciously decide to do them.
I. Repeating Ideas
It’s just the same old ideas, recycled over and over again. With writer’s block, you may notice yourself constantly reusing old ideas and themes instead of coming up with completely new ones.
You struggle to create new content, and originality seems to be thrown out the window. All of this stems from feeling stuck and uninspired, which is one of the most common symptoms of writer’s block there is.
Inconsistent Writing Routine
A routine is necessary for a writer who wants to maintain consistency in their writing practice. It’s something you need to stick to if you want to ensure steady progress on your projects. Without a routine, you’re often left floundering, struggling to find direction and purpose in your writing endeavors.
When do these writer’s block symptoms pop up?
It’s important to know that writer’s block usually does not stem from a single cause alone. Rather, it often results from a combination of factors. These elements can intertwine and wound around each other, creating a mental roadblock that prevents you from writing another word.
These writer’s block symptoms can manifest themselves during different stages of the writing process too.
|Planning and ideation||Writer finds it hard to come up with fresh ideas.|
|Structuring||Writer knows where they want to go with their story. They just don’t know how to get there.|
|Deciding on which ideas to use||There are too many paths for the writing to take, and the writer finds it so difficult to choose.|
|Writing||Coming up with new ideas isn’t really a problem, but writer finds it hard to express the ideas into words.|
Some symptoms of writer’s block can be easier to identify and overcome than others. Symptoms brought about by mood, stress, and energy changes are easier to overcome for the sole reason that these things can vary greatly during the course of a day. Those that stem from grief or mental health issues like anxiety and depression are more complicated.