How to Overcome Writer’s Block and Creative Burnout
Use these 15 strategies to move past writer’s block and keep your creative mind healthy.
I’m pretty sure that staring at a page blankly for hours at a time is a universal writing experience. If you write often enough or for a long enough stretch of time, eventually, you’re going to stall out. But why? What’s going on in our heads that makes the creative flow grind to a halt?
Writer’s block is a phenomenon where a writer can’t progress past a certain point in their project. It happens for a variety of reasons and can often be solved using simple tricks and techniques to “reset” the creative mind. Writer’s block itself is normal, but when it lasts a long time or comes from overextension, it can develop into a more serious condition called creative burnout.
To combat these frustrations, let’s look at what they are, why they happen, and 15 ways you can get around them and get back to the story.
What is writer’s block?
As writers, our job is pretty straightforward, in theory - we write. We pick up a pen, open a laptop, or turn on a mic, and craft words into documents that others can read, whether that’s corporate copy or a fantasy novel. We shape the language we speak into a solidified written form, transferring ideas from one person to the next.
But what happens when we’ve hit a creative block and can’t do that? What happens when you sit down to write and find the creative spark is gone, and you’re unable to commit a single line to paper? None of the words feel right, or maybe there are no words coming at all. You’re either typing and deleting for hours on end or not typing anything at all, just staring at the page and willing it to fill up by itself because you need to get this done. Or, the lack of motivation is so extensive that you don’t even sit down to write in the first place.
That’s what we call writer’s block. Writer’s block is a situation in which a writer feels “stuck” in their piece - they can’t move forward and they begin to doubt what they’ve already done.
Writer burnout can happen to anyone, whether you’re a freelance writer, a self-publishing author, an Amazon best-seller, or editing the WIP of your debut novel. Many in the writing world have experienced burnout at some point in their lives. If writing burnout happens to you, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Hopefully, these tips can get you over the hump and on your way to writing your next book.
Common causes of writer’s block
Writer’s block has a couple of different causes
- A writer might feel like the form they’re writing in is too constrictive; there are so many strict, unbreakable rules with this particular format that they feel like they can’t be creative enough to build a new piece within it. This lack of inspiration can get them stuck.
- A writer might feel a lot of self-doubt and worry that the work they’re doing isn’t important enough to be finished, or that there’s no way it could be good enough for the intended audience. This fear of rejection or defeat can erode their will to write in the first place.
- If they’re working on a team, a writer might feel like they can’t make any progress without having conflict with others. By contrast, they might feel as if the others on their team will judge their work and may feel that they can’t stay at the same standard as others do.
When writer’s block becomes creative burnout
Usually, writer’s block is a temporary, if frustrating, condition that goes away on its own after a while. There are some cases, though, when writer’s block happens because a writer has created so much of a particular piece that they feel “drained” of it. They may feel overwhelmed by the amount of work left to do or by the number of projects they have going on at once, or maybe they have lots of things going on beyond their writing life that make dedicating the mental space to it difficult. In this situation, writer’s block becomes more sinister and harder to overcome: creative burnout.
Creative burnout is a condition of fatigue where a person has expended all of the energy they have available to them on creative projects. Essentially, they’ve hit their physical, mental, and emotional limit when it comes to the stress of unique projects and hobbies. This may happen because they’ve spread themselves too thinly over too many projects at once, and aren’t able to fully dedicate themselves to any of them, or it might happen because they’ve invested too much time and energy into a single project too quickly, leaving no room for anything else.
Creative burnout is what happens when you overwork yourself and neglect your personal well-being in the name of your creative task. It’s not safe, and unlike writer’s block, it won’t go away on its own. To overcome creative burnout, you have to change what you’re doing and fix your routine.
Is writer’s block real?
There’s actually quite a lot of debate in the writing community as to whether or not writer’s block is real at all. Many professionals are of the opinion that writer’s block isn’t an actual condition, but rather a symptom of a problem with your writing process. They refuse to name stalling issues as writer’s block; some cite members of the American Psychological Association (APA) with the position that giving these stalls a name gives them the power to stop you in the first place and ignoring the condition gives you the ability to “prove it wrong,” so to speak.
While I don’t think they’re wrong - writer’s block is, by definition, something blocking your ability to continue writing, so it must be a symptom rather than the cause itself - I do think that not acknowledging this frustration can do more damage than good in some situations. Refusing to admit that you’re stuck because “writer’s block isn’t real” isn’t going to help you write any better, and it’s not going to fix the root issue.
What is helpful about this stance, though, is the inability to use “writer’s block” as a crutch. Simply saying you have writer’s block might give you the mental permission to drop a project and never come back to it, which isn’t good if you:
-Want to improve as a writer
-Need to finish a particular project for school.
-Work in a creative field, with a deadline to meet regardless of mental exhaustion
The idea of writer’s block as an inescapable condition of the starving artist is silly. It’s not some permanent circumstance or project detonator. It’s always temporary; when you’ve got writer’s block, with enough time and the right techniques, you will always be able to figure out how to get around it and get back into your writing groove.
Ways to overcome writer’s block and prevent creative burnout
Knowing what writer’s block is matters, but just knowing why it’s happening isn’t always enough. Sometimes, you need strategies to make it stop happening. There is no single, surefire way to prevent or cure writer’s block, and what works the first time you try it might not work the next day. That’s why it’s important to develop a toolkit of options to help when you’re struggling to find the right words for your manuscript, and your writing time feels like a struggle.
Here are some ways you can combat writer’s block and creative burnout.
Prevention is the best medicine
It sounds redundant and maybe a little condescending, but believe me when I say that the best way to beat writer’s block is to prevent the block from getting there in the first place. Yes, I know, impossible thing to ask of you - you can’t always stop stressful writing situations before they happen and sometimes they seem to happen for no reason at all. That being said, there are some things you can do to lessen the overall chances of hitting a roadblock while you work, and some boundaries you can set to prevent yourself from hitting burnout.
- Know your limits. You don’t have to say yes to every creative project that comes your way, even if they all sound exciting and inviting. The best thing you can do to prevent burnout and blocking is to listen to your body and mind and keep the number of overall projects you take on to a reasonable scale. Take on only projects that you know you have a sincere interest in, and take on only a few at a time. Writing is hard work, even if you’re not doing it as a full-time job. Find a work-life balance for your writing, so you’re not overexerting your creative muscles.
- Set a writing schedule. Writing is a skill; just like any other skill, you get better at it with consistent practice. Set up a writing routine for yourself, even if you don’t write for a living. Try to write often; if not every day, then try to carve out time as often as you can. Additionally, you need to keep your schedule. Even if you don’t end up writing anything at all, commit to sitting down in the same space every time for a set amount of time and trying to write.
- Keep it brief. So you need a consistent schedule, but you don’t need a grueling one. Try to keep your dedicated writing sessions short, even when you’re on a roll and excited to keep writing. If you leave with more to write, you’ve got fodder for your next session. If you’re scared you’re going to forget your ideas, write quick notes of your ideas before you leave.
- Take breaks. If you’re beating your head against a brick wall constantly, you’re never going to get anything done. Practice some self-care and take time away from your writing in order to let your brain rest and reset, so you can come back to your work with fresh eyes and new ideas.
- Read frequently. When you’re not working on your own projects, read other people’s writing. Seeing the creative works of others frequently helps us feel more inspired to create our own works. Read in different genres, from lots of different authors, in all kinds of formats. This will give your brain plenty of fodder to work with while you’re creating works of your own! As an aside, though, maybe don’t read anything that’s too similar to your own work (at least, nothing too similar to what you’re working on right now); you might accidentally find yourself copying subconsciously.
Beyond this, keep an eye on yourself for the signs of burnout. If you notice that you’re getting easily frustrated or upset, if you’re not getting enough sleep, if you’re feeling more anxious or weepy, stop what you’re doing and assess your routine. Try to make sure that you’re making time for your personal life and getting out of your work environment frequently. Make sure that you have someone to talk to - a spouse, a good friend, a family member, or a therapist - and that you’re implementing healthy habits.
Even with all the preventative measures in place for creative burnout, you might still experience writer’s block, so let’s look at some ways to get out of a rut.
Give yourself permission to write
As I said before, a big part of writer’s block is the fear of failure. We feel like our words won’t be good enough, we feel like they’ll be judged, or we feel like we’re not putting our best foot forward, so we can’t bring ourselves to try at all. And that’s not okay! You have to actually write to get better at writing and produce the work that you constantly compare yourself to; no one is perfect on the first draft. So, give yourself permission to write, and give yourself permission to fail at writing, because trying and failing is almost always better than never trying at all.
Here are some things you can do to get yourself writing around the block.
- Set up your workspace up for success. Dedicate an area to your writing, be that a desk in a corner of a room or a whole home office. You might even choose to use a space outside of your home; a coffee shop might be good for a little background noise and a pleasant atmosphere. Use that space for nothing but writing. Then, set up a routine of “going to work” - grab a coffee, turn off your phone, turn on some music and write. This process can help your brain get into the mindset that this is the time to write and use this particular kind of creative energy, making it easier and easier to get started over time. Try not to introduce any distractions into this space - no phones, no social media, no TV. As best you can, set boundaries with loved ones, asking them to give you the time you need to get into the right headspace for writing.
- Use a prompt. Writing prompts abound on the internet; their whole purpose is to give you a jumping-off point to write from, which is sometimes all you need to get moving. Writing prompts are how I produce the vast majority of my short stories and some of my poetry. Here are a couple you can try:
- “Last night, I heard the strangest sound from downstairs. When I went to check it out, I couldn’t believe what I saw…”
- What is the happiest thing that’s ever happened to you? Write down everything you can remember about the scene.
- Flip to a random page in a dictionary and point at the word in the dead center. Write as much of a story about that word as you can in 60 seconds.
- Free write. Free writing is a writing exercise that calls for you to grab a pencil or your keyboard, then set a timer. Hit go, then write, and don’t stop writing until the timer goes off again. Write down anything that comes to mind. Don’t edit yourself, don’t try to make it good, don’t let any inhibitions slow you down, just write. This can often jog your brain out of the “we’re not allowed” slump.
- Change how you’re writing. Do you normally write with pen and paper? Write from your computer or phone today. Normally on the computer? Bust out that notebook you’ve been saving and your favorite pen. Heck, you might even try dictation! Turn on your phone’s speech-to-text function and use that. Changing the method that you use to write can be enough of a break in your routine to let your brain take on a fresh perspective. Or, try a different style of pose. Do you usually write in first person point of view? Try writing something from a third person perspective.
- Write out of order. Not sure how to get the heroes from A to B, but know what’s gonna happen when they get there? Skip ahead! Write the parts of the story you already know and worry about connecting them later. Sometimes the answer you’ve been looking for will show up in another part of the manuscript.
Keep in mind that you’re looking for progress here, not perfection. With a lot of these exercises, you can put the writing away and never let another soul see it - you don’t have to worry about anyone else’s opinions if the work you’re writing was never meant for anyone else. And if you do find a gem in the mix? Awesome! You’ve now got something to build out of. A popular phrase in the writing community is you can’t edit a blank page. Giving yourself permission to write means that you’re putting words down that you can polish up later while you’re revising. Neil Gaiman put it best on Twitter a few years ago:
“Write down everything that happens in the story, and then in your second draft make it look like you knew what you were doing all along.”
Give yourself permission to not write
In complete opposition to the previous advice, sometimes you’re not going to make any progress by agonizing over what comes next for several hours. Sometimes, the words just won’t come - you find yourself unable to write through prompts, you try to free write and nothing happens, or you just sit there and stare instead of actually writing. When this happens, the best thing you can do is give yourself permission to not write anything at all. Yep! Give yourself the go-ahead to take some time off and do something else.
Here is some procrastination that you can do that might help you get your creative juices flowing.
- Do something boring. Wash the dishes, vacuum the carpets, fold the laundry. Doing something monotonous and repetitive lets your mind wander, and you might find that it wanders exactly where you need it to to get past your writer’s block.
- Do nothing at all. Let yourself get bored. I’m serious. Daydream by staring out a window, spin in your spinning chair, and just sit there, doing nothing. Sometimes, you really do need to just stare at a wall until the answer comes as part of your creative process. Being bored does much the same thing that monotonous tasks do - it lets your brain look for creative outlets that it might otherwise have ignored.
- Have a conversation. In the best-case scenario, you can grab a friend or family member who’s willing to listen and try to explain your story and why you’re stuck. They might be able to offer you some insight and a fresh perspective to approach the problem, or help you brainstorm solutions.
- Try rubber duck debugging. If you can’t wrangle a real person to talk things out with, then you might try rubber duck debugging. This is a trick coined by engineers and programmers where you explain your problem to a rubber duck (or any inanimate object, really, but rubber ducks are fun) and by talking it out, come to a solution on your own.
- Work on a different project. It can be anything - another writing project, that craft you’ve had in the box for ages, the garden you’ve been meaning to start - provided it takes up a bit of your time. Dedicate a few days or even a couple of weeks to your new project, then come back to your initial writing piece and try working on it again. Sometimes, you just need to hit the reset button on your creative mindset by switching gears.
I know I just harped on about progress, but sometimes, it really is important to let yourself step away from frustrating tasks. As I mentioned, burnout can come from being too deeply involved for too long, so make sure that you’re dedicating a reasonable amount of time to your life outside of your writing. It’s okay to take time for yourself, to spend time with family and friends, and to just live rather than trying to live productively.
Writer’s block can be incredibly frustrating, and letting it become creative burnout can be dangerous for your mental health, your emotional health, and even your physical health if you leave it untreated long enough. Whether you’re a professional writer or a hobbyist who loves creative writing, your priority should always be your health - if a project is costing you that, you need to re-evaluate how you’re going about the project. Great writers understand that writing may be hard work, but it shouldn’t hurt you.
The next time you’re facing off against writer’s block or feeling burnt out on creative works in general, take a step back, take a breath, and try one of these techniques to get out of your slump. You’ll figure it out. You just need the right tools to do it.