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Are You Making These 6 Mistakes That Lead to Writer’s Block?

Feeling stuck?

Sometimes writer’s block happens because there’s some aspect of your story that you need to stop and think about.

But if you’re feeling blocked on a regular basis, there’s a good chance you’re making one of these 6 psychological mistakes that writers often fall prey to.

Mistake #1:  You rely too heavily on inspiration to get started.

When you were young, you had to write a variety of things for school, and that felt like drudgery.

But if you had an inclination toward writerhood, you would sometimes feel inspired to create something wonderful for yourself.

You came to think of your own writing as something that happened when you were inspired.

That’s how we all start out.

But there’s an important truth that these childhood excursions into writing didn’t teach us:

Inspiration happens more often when you’re already writing.

When you wait for inspiration to get started, you spend a lot more time waiting than you do writing.

It’s better to write about the dumb thing that happened on the bus in your journal than to not write at all.

It’s better to do a writing exercise (google “writing prompts” to find thousands of them online) than to not write at all.

It’s better to write a scene of your novel that will need revision later than to not write at all.

The more you write, the better you get.

Writing exercises aren’t a waste of time–they’re a form of training that gets you ready so that when inspiration strikes with a great idea, you have the skill to actually write it well.

Mistake #2:  You only write when it’s easy.

There’s this myth in literary circles that if you’re a talented writer, writing will come easy to you.

It’s completely untrue.

Sure, there are times when the writing comes easy. Where the words just flow and the characters seem to be writing the story for you. Those are the times when writing is fun.

Many writers make the mistake of assuming that it will always be this easy. If they sit down to write and the words don’t immediately start flowing, they give up.

They think things like:

I must not be inspired enough.

I must not be ready to write this story.

I must not be good enough to write this story.

So they quit for the day.

In doing so, they’re essentially training themselves to only write when it’s easy. And the next time a challenge comes up in their writing, they’re more likely to quit.

It can become a downward spiral into fear, where eventually they go weeks without writing. Because they’re afraid that if today is a difficult day, it means they’re not as talented as they want to be.

A variation on this is that you assume that if the writing is difficult, you must be writing badly.

Not true. When the writing is difficult, it’s often the case that you’re stretching yourself.

I’ve done extensive tracking of my own writing, and have discovered through my tracking journal that how much editing a scene needs has no correlation at all with how difficult it is to write. In fact, some of the scenes that need the most work are the ones that felt easy to write. Because I wasn’t digging deep enough.

Of course, sometimes the writing feels difficult just because you haven’t thought the scene through. In that case, a bit of brainstorming is all that’s needed to make the writing go a little easier.

Other reasons the writing could feel difficult? You’re sick, you’ve exhausted your creative energies for the day on other things, or you’re just in a terrible mood. What you’re writing could be just fine, but your perception of it might be colored by what’s happening in the rest of your life.

Mistake #3:  You rely too heavily on your talent.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard new writers say proudly that they’ve never taken a writing course, because they don’t want to risk constraining (or diluting, or squashing) their talent.

Deep down, I think they’re afraid that if they learn the techniques of their craft, it will somehow mean they’re not artists.

This is so, so sad.

Because every time I read the work of someone who says this, I see them struggling to execute on a story that would be a thousand times better if the writer had more skill with dialogue, with exposition, with all the other techniques that they’re afraid to learn.

Art and technique are not opposites.

Techniques are tools that you use to create a piece of art.

The real art is in how you use those techniques to tell your story.

Mistake #4:  You won’t commit to a project unless you’re sure it will be successful.

Do you have a story you’ve been dying to write but have been stalling on starting?

I did, for years. I worked on stories that felt safer while my favorite story idea languished on the shelf. I told myself that I needed to do more research. I told myself that I needed to become more skilled to pull it off. I told myself that it was the kind of novel that required a more mature writer.

But the real reason I was procrastinating?

I didn’t see a clear path to success. And I loved that story idea so much, I couldn’t bear to see it fail.

It took me five years to get up the nerve to start it. I regret every second of that delay.

Everything worth doing brings not only the hope of success, but the possibility of failure.

If we hold ourselves back because we’re afraid to fail, we’ll never get where we want to go.

If there’s something you’ve been wanting to write, but have been stalling because you can’t bear to see it fail…guess what?

By not writing it, YOU ARE FAILING.

Mistake #5:  You won’t write unless conditions are perfect.

We all dream of a perfect place to write…a shabby apartment in Paris, or a cabin on a tropical island, or even a shed in our own backyard.

Maybe yours is a desk in a corner of a room where the kids aren’t allowed to leave their toys.

Or the window seat at Starbucks that’s next to the electrical outlet and the fake wall that muffles chatter to a non-distracting level.

We long for a place where no one ever bothers us.

Where the chair is so perfectly adjusted, our backs don’t ache even if we write all day.

Where someone brings us exactly what we want to eat or drink without talking to us and interrupting our thought processes.

Where our colored pens never run out of ink and the wifi zooms so fast that it only takes seconds to find out what kind of shoes children wore in the 16th century.

Yes. That would be awesome. If you can arrange for this, do so.

But if you can’t, WRITE ANYWAY.

Write even though you’re tired.

Write even though your spouse is watching CSI reruns in the next room. (Ear plugs are awesome, by the way.)

Write even though you’re on the bus and you only have time to scribble a quick page of dialogue.

Write standing up at the kitchen counter while you’re waiting for the ramen water to boil.

If you push yourself to write when things aren’t perfect, you are training yourself to be able to write when things aren’t perfect.

Which is a great skill to have when you live in a world where things are almost never perfect.

Mistake #6:  You want to be entertained by the writing process.

Our early experiences of inspired writing are often our happiest memories. The ideas come to us in an ecstatic rush. We’re eager to get the story down on paper (or disk). We laugh or cry as we live the story through our characters.

And we look forward to the next rush of inspiration, because inspired writing is fun.

There’s nothing wrong with being entertained by your own creative process. It’s wonderful, and you should enjoy it when it happens.

But if you insist that every day of writing be entertaining–that your Muse entertain you in addition to inspiring you–you’re putting an extra (unnecessary) constraint on your creative process.

Instead of just figuring out how to write the story that your readers will love, you now have to find an interesting way to write the story that your readers will love.

And as we all know from studying our craft–conflict is interesting.

So you’ll start finding ways to generate drama around your writing that actually impede your progress. Like writer’s block.

What’s the fix?

If you’re feeling blocked, and you suspect you might be unconsciously making any of these psychological mistakes, there’s one thing you can do that will cure all six of them simultaneously.

Start a writing habit.

It doesn’t have to be every day, it can be the three afternoons a week when your kids have after-school sports practice. Or your lunch break at work.

Whatever kind of writing schedule you can set up, do it.

Writing at regularly-scheduled times trains you to write when things aren’t perfect.

It trains you to start writing and trust that sooner or later, inspiration will hit.

It trains you to get into a writing mindset at will.

It teaches that you can write when you’re in a terrible mood, or when you’re sick, or when you’re not even sure you want to be a writer any more.

And most important, it’s how you master the techniques of your craft so you can use them to make art.

How a Tracking Journal Can Make You a More Prolific Author

More than a year ago, I joined a different kind of writing group than I usually participate in: instead of emphasizing craft and critiques, this group focuses on building a writing habit.

I joined because I was hoping that peer pressure would motivate me to write more.

It worked even better than I expected.  I had to check in daily to report my progress, and I didn’t want to show up empty-handed.

As I got into the rhythm of daily writing sessions, I started to experience an odd sense of relief when I sat down to write each day.  In the past I’d always felt conflicted about writing–as soon as my butt hit the chair, I’d be slammed with a wave of guilt about all the other things I should be doing.

But knowing that other people expected me to write made the writing feel less like a guilty pleasure and more like a priority.

Not too surprising, right?

That isn’t the best part.

In addition to reporting my progress, I was also required to answer a series of questions about each day’s writing session, including:

How creative did I feel that day?

What negative thoughts did I experience as I was writing?

What obstacles did I have to overcome to write?

At first, I thought these questions were a waste of time.  But it was part of the group’s process, so I answered them anyway.

When I started seeing the patterns in my answers, I was shocked.

I thought I knew what factors were influencing how much I wrote:  what mood I was in, how healthy I was, and whether or not I was feeling inspired.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Mood

It turns out that my mood didn’t correlate with how much I wrote on a given day.  I didn’t write more on days where I was happy, and I didn’t write less on days when I was annoyed or had the blahs.

Health

I discovered that if I wrote at my scheduled time, I wrote about the same amount whether I felt great or had a cold.  Hayfever and other everyday physical complaints didn’t decrease my output at all.

Inspiration

While I’m not the type to wait for inspiration–I know that it often strikes when you’re already working–I did assume that I need inspiration to have a really productive day.

Not so, it turns out.  In fact, I often wrote more on the days that I felt less inspired.  It’s possible that I was pushing myself in the hopes that inspiration would come.  Or maybe the feeling of satisfaction I felt on the days when my muse was generous made it easier to quit early.

In other words, how I feel–physically, emotionally, creatively–is not an accurate predictor of how much I’ll be able to write.

Seeing the cold, hard data made it impossible to ignore the patterns.  For years, I’ve been allowing myself to skip writing sessions when my mood was bad or when hayfever had my sinuses in an uproar.  And I’d been blaming my uninspired days for my slow progress.

My faulty assumptions about how my creative process works were keeping me from reaching my full potential as a writer.

So what factors did affect how much I wrote each day?

Only two:  sleep and how active my inner critic was.

Days where I got eight hours of sleep or more were days where I exceeded my word count goal.

Days where I got less than eight hours of sleep were days with lower word/page counts.

Days where I got less than seven hours of sleep were days where I struggled to write anything.

And as for my inner critic–recording the negative thoughts I experienced as I sat down to write was enlightening.  There was an almost perfect correlation between how many negative thoughts I experienced and how little I wrote.

And the thing that really stinks:  my inner critic doesn’t know what it’s talking about!

When I went back to look at the things I wrote on days when my inner critic was throwing a tantrum, I discovered that they weren’t any worse than the things I wrote on days when my inner critic was silent. They both required about the same amount of editing.

That’s right.  My inner critic wasn’t helping me improve the quality of my writing.  At all.

Lessons Learned

Now that I’ve seen the real factors that affect my productivity as a writer, I’m doing things a little differently.

1.  I don’t let how I feel on a given day determine whether or not I write.

2.  I go to bed at a reasonable time, knowing that I’m increasing my capacity to write tomorrow.

3.  I’m exploring ways of taming my inner critic.

Just knowing that my inner critic isn’t giving good advice makes it easier for me let those negative comments go.  When the voice in my head tells me I’m writing crap, I now shrug and reply, “That’s your opinion.”

The group has also taught me that positively reframing my inner critic’s negative comments helps take the sting out of them.

When I find myself thinking that I’ll never finish this novel, for example, I remind myself that I don’t have to finish it today.  I just have to write the next scene.

Challenging my assumptions about what factors affect my creative process has allowed me to more than double my writing productivity in a mere two months.  I encourage you to do same.

Make a list of the things you think are affecting your productivity.  Time of day you’re writing, noise levels, diet, sleep, inspiration, mood, exercise. If you’re not sure what to track, start with your usual excuses.  What are the things you usually blame on the days you decide not to write?

For the next month, commit to writing for at least five minutes each day, and track each productivity factor at the end of your writing session.  You might track hours of sleep, or rate your energy levels on a scale of 1-10, or simply note your mood at the time you started your writing session.  You might start a list of negative thoughts and put a checklist by the ones that show up as you write each day.  Whatever you think is important, track it.

At the end of the month, look for patterns.  Did you write more on days when you felt blah and less on days when you felt angry?  Did your output go down on the days when all you ate was pizza and milk duds?  Did you discover that you write best after a brief nap or a snuggle session with your cat?

Once you see the patterns, you’ll know exactly what you need to change to become a more prolific author.

Time Management for Writers: The Kaizen Approach

Have you ever set aside time for writing–maybe even blocked that time off on your calendar in pen–but then skipped it anyway?

How often do you sit down at your desk at the appointed time, intending to start writing as soon as you send a quick email–then realize you’ve spent your allotted writing time surfing the web?

You might think that you need to learn time management skills. But if you already know how to block off time on a calendar and you understand how to prioritize your to-do list, you’ve got time management skills. What you really need are some self-management skills: tricks to help you stay motivated and focused, so that you’ll actually write during your scheduled sessions.

The kaizen approach is perfect for self-management. “Kaizen” is a Japanese word that means “continuous improvement.” Kaizen is the strategy of improving a process by making small, gradual changes that support your desired outcome. You make a single change, and when that new way of doing things has become a habit, you make another change.

Because small changes only require small amounts of willpower, you’re less likely to give up than if you were to make a bigger change. For example, rather than forcing yourself to get up an hour earlier to write before work, you could start by setting your alarm clock 15 minutes earlier and you go to bed 15 minutes earlier. After a week or two, your body adjusts to the new time and you do it again, until you’ve shifted your schedule back an hour and are now used to the new wake-up time. Continue reading