Book Trends Blog

July 4, 2011

Writers Block by Bob Spear

You know you need to write, but you keep putting it off. You sit down before the keyboard, and you can’t think of anything worthwhile to write. You try to write something–anything, and it just doesn’t seem good enough. What to do?

These are typical signs of writers block. It can happen to any writer at any time–especially when you least expect it or are under the gun to meet a deadline. That last statement may provide a hint. Stress may be a major component of developing a writer’s block. The more the stress levels, the greater the block; the more the block, the greater the guilt; the more the guilt, the greater the stress, and now we’re into a dog chasing his tail scenario.

Let’s take a look at this subject from a:

  • Generic point of view
  • Fiction problems
  • Nonfiction problems
  • Some helpful tips

Generically speaking, there are several aspects that hold for all styles of writing. I’ve already mentioned stress, which is easy to understand–the greater the stress levels, the greater the blockage. Another problem is burn-out. If we have been working too hard for too long at too many things, a sudden case of writers block is nature’s way of saying, “Chill out, Baby.” Take break or even a short vacation from writing. You should be aware that it’s sometimes difficult to climb back into the saddle, so watch for that.

Another common problem among some writers is perfectionism. I used to watch one of my daughters agonize for hours over a 3-page school assignment. She would sit in front of her computer, staring at the screen and typing nothing. Why? She was attempting to write the paper in her head, trying to say and arrange everything just so before committing it into the computer. I finally would urge her to write anything, think about it, and then go into edit or rewrite mode. That seems like such an obvious thing to do, but you need to understand how obsessive perfectionists can be. They fear making any “mistakes.” If what you write doesn’t seem perfect, you need to lighten up. I was famous for saying, “It’s good enough for government work,” as a joking way of keeping a workable perspective when I labored in the Army’s bureaucracy, especially if I was under a deadline.

Now, lets look at some specific challenges to fiction writing:

Remember there are two major types of writers: outliners and seat-of-their-pants. Outliners have the advantage of a framework or road map to follow. If they fall into a block situation, it’s easier for them to pick back up where they left off. If that doesn’t seem to work, allow your muse to come into play. The blockage may have been a way for your subconscious mind of telling you to rethink your outline and its direction. Seat-of-their-pants writers can become lost in a maze of too many possibilities and fear of committing to a specific direction. Try outlining a direction and see if that helps. Maybe try comparing two or several short outlines and select one that seems interesting and feasible.

In other words, whichever style of writer you are, experiment with the other approach a little. See if that spices you up a little.

Nonfiction writing problems often come from perfectionism. Some scientists I have known had a difficult time coming to closure with a problem or issue. They would research a topic to death, looking for that perfect solution just over the next hill. There comes a time when you just have to say, “Enough!” It’s time to get on with the writing part, whether it’s a plan, a report, a thesis, or whatever. Again, Outlining seems to be a good way to overcome a block. I used to free flow ideas and topics germane to my subject and its intended audience. Then I would rearrange them in some sort of logical order. I would then try to determine their completeness and add or take away that which was appropriate to the process. Once the outline was developed, it was just a matter of filling in the white spaces in between the topics. This approach tends to pull one through a project in a workable manner, lending less probability to developing writers block.

Tips for Overcoming Writers Block

Create a special space for your writing activities: my home office serves this function, and I usually can recover and remain free from blockages here. The other place I have is on the floor of my bookstore, which doesn’t work very well for the following reason.

Eliminate distractions: Ringing phones, constantly checking emails, and customers interruptions (in my case) easily can destroy a whole day of writing opportunities. I get so frazzled, I find myself playing solitaire in deference to writing.

Adjust your perspective about writing: Don’t let writing be your only reason for living. It’s only one activity of many that add meaning and spice to your life. The world won’t stop turning if you take a break occasionally.

Set goals free of guilt and remorse: Setting word-count goals are helpful for keeping on track as long as they are reasonable and flexible. Try to keep the guilt factor down. If you don’t meet your goal for the day, so what? At least you made some progress. In addition to setting goals, try to schedule down time and relaxing activities so that burn out doesn’t happen.

Chat with other writers: I’ve mentioned before that writing is a lonely career track. Try to join with other writers, both on line and in person, in a regular manner. We understand one another and are always ready to lend support.

Now, get back to your writing!



  1. I used to fret if I went x amount of time between writing things. Now not so much. I think a lot of people believe they’re only a writer when engaged in the physical act of writing down stuff on paper and they tend to pooh pooh the gestation aspect of writing. Nowadays I have far more respect for my body’s need to chew over material before I get to the actual transcribing of thoughts. Also the business of writing for me now includes more than just creative writing and I find that I need a lot less up front before I write a book review (all I basically need to do there is read the book) or write a non-fiction article. You do need to know when you’re making excuses though. I don’t believe in inspiration in the Romantic sense of the term. As far as I’m concerned inspiration is a good idea and if you don’t have a good idea then any ol’ idea will do to get you started.

    Comment by Jim Murdoch — July 4, 2011 @ 4:58 pm | Reply

    • Excellent points all, Jim. I use a well organized set of rubrics or evaluation guidelines for my book reviews that become a basis for a score. I also write short but well structured reviews that first tell a little about the book and then what the author has done well, ending with the book’s score. This structure has held me in good stead for over 2,000 reviews since 2002. I will admit that I occasionally dread the process of writing and may put it off for a while. That’s where some of those alternative come into play to get be back in the saddle again.

      Comment by bobspear — July 4, 2011 @ 11:28 pm | Reply

  2. I felt like you where right here, talking to me. I am guilty of all your insight, and words. I think for me I need to do the outline so I can see the ending. at this point I am just rambling and when I read it back I just get so fustrated. Plus I have been writing this story so long for over 10 years and there has been no deadline. I have gathered my own experiences and they are still happening so where does it end? Plus STRESS….THIS I NEVER CONSIDERED. My relationship is not so great right now, I just had back surgery and recoverying from 2 dics being replaced, had breast cancer 3 years ago. which I am totally clean now and I am very blessed, but life does stress us out. Thank you Bob for this amazing blog and God bless you for trying to help us all. With Respect Susan Bird

    Comment by Susan — July 4, 2011 @ 8:31 pm | Reply

    • Oh my, Susan, you have been challenged! Yes, you’ve had way more stress than many. Remember, if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. You have shown perseverance in the physical realm. Now you get to show the same in the writing realm. Hang in there, good lady, and try organizing your book. I think that may be a key.

      Comment by bobspear — July 4, 2011 @ 11:22 pm | Reply

  3. I think that I and members of my family are alive today because of the design of the IHOP building (at 20th and Rangeline in Joplin), and the quality of construction, but every time I think about writing something, I lapse into the recollections of the pain and sorrow that the tornado left behind. My son and I have gone back to Joplin several times, assisting in various ways, which makes it all the harder to shake off. I really enjoyed our conversation on Tuesday, thanks for help on Pilot Knob history. The Leavenworth radio hams call themselves the Pilot Knob Amateur Radio Club.

    Comment by Peg Nichols — July 6, 2011 @ 1:56 pm | Reply

  4. Oh, Bob! Timing is everything, as they say. I found your blog and this particular post by searching for book trends to find out who is searching for the stuff I am writing about. Instead of what I was looking for, I found what I needed (happens a lot, I do love that serendipity!) and realized my writing in my head before putting anything in ‘print’ may be an aspect of perfectionism. I’m meeting with my writing club this morning (we are all professional writers who have never published our own books, only written for others) and the stress of not having ‘enough’ done for them to see kept me awake half the night, something extremely rare for me. Now I’m re-embracing the whole idea of getting the outline more precise before writing the whole book. I was resisting the outline stage because I normally don’t work that way… but then again I’ve never managed to get any of my books written yet either. Coincidence??? I think not. So thank you, kind sir, for shining a light from a new angle and helping me see that the wall I was facing is really only a pebble in the path, or possibly my own foot getting in my way.

    Comment by Sheila — July 8, 2011 @ 12:06 pm | Reply

    • Sheila, it was so good to learn I may have helped in some small way. BTW, self-publishing is every bit as stressful as writing for a publisher, maybe more so. Let’s face it, if you get it wrong as a self-publisher, it can mean huge losses out of your own pocket. Few of us can afford that. Having written for both, I can tell you that it’s important to focus on the writing and it will come. Try not to focus on the stressors, since there’s little you can do about them anyway. Best of luck on your outlining your latest project.

      Comment by bobspear — July 8, 2011 @ 2:29 pm | Reply

  5. […] Wrestling with Writers Block? – Bob Spear provides some great advice. […]

    Pingback by News You Can Use | The Steve Laube Agency — July 20, 2011 @ 10:03 am | Reply

  6. […] Spear presents Writers Block posted at Book Trends and Writers […]

    Pingback by Self-Publishing: Carnival of the Indies Issue #17 — The Book Designer — February 26, 2012 @ 8:02 am | Reply

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