Read this if you don’t want Writer’s Block

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For the first time in 3 years, I can say I’ve broken my writer’s block. (Read point 7 – the Twitter method, that’s my fav.)

You probably know that I run all operations here, and I’ve authored 99% of content on Cognition Today. Over 4.5 years, I’ve worked through writer’s block, bad sentences, and harsh self-judgment on my drafts, and effectively slowed down my process of writing. Today, that’s not the case, I have content for a month prepared and scheduled, and I won’t run out of ideas, and this is without asking someone else to draft or edit for me. I still have bad sentences but no writer’s block.

Either I’ve managed to overcome those problems, or I have grown apathetic to them. Either way, I came across some insights that helped me keep producing, and I’ll share them with you. Perhaps they will make writing, planning, and preparing written content easier.

Dr. Edmund Bergler, in 1950, published a paper ridiculing writer’s block deniers[1]. Back then, people assumed writer’s block was nothing more than a lack of talent, a lack of publishing opportunities, or being drained of all the good ideas with nothing new left to produce. Over time, writer’s block got recognized as a general block in creativity and productivity that has been treated and managed with therapy and a DIY approach.

Why do we get writer’s block in the first place?

In creative writing, academics, or just about any content creation, writer’s block is a state of utter frustration and inability to write a good sentence that makes a good point. It is a fog that prevents you from seeing how your sentences and ideas should develop.

Almost every writer experiences writer’s block. Some have it temporarily for a few hours while writing. And some have it for months. Now, writer’s block is partly in the brain and partly in the body. First, we rule out the easy explanations. Focal hand dystonia, a movement disorder where you can’t move your fingers appropriately, and carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition where the median nerve in the hand is compressed, leading to bad movements, are body-based writer’s blocks. They prevent you from writing and typing physically.

Now, let’s look at the brain. Writer’s block is a creative block where you fail to create your sentences and develop your ideas to the standard you need. The most common reasons are lack of inspiration, lack of concrete ideas, lack of foresight into what you want to say, and lack of motivation through depression, anxiety, hopelessness, or low confidence.

But there are layers to this. At the level of the brain, some researchers[2] say writer’s block is a response to stress where the reticular activating system, a bundle of neurons that filter noise and useless information, shifts resources from the cortex to the limbic system. The cortex gives us advanced cognitive skills like writing where we make decisions, construct ideas, visualize themes, check for logical flow, etc. The limbic system is an emotion regulation center that activates to motivate our behavior to feel safe. So as a response to stress, the RAS shifts resources from the cognitive aspects of writing to a fight or flight mechanism that avoids writing (procrastination) or hurried writing to get it over with (verbal diarrhea or graphorrhea).

So when stressed, the brain has no cognitive component for writing, so no thoughts. It only knows emotions, so the guiding principle for writing is no longer thoughts but emotions. And when emotions guide, there is harsh judgment about the writing… this sentence sucks; this idea is worthless; I cannot bore my readers like this. Or, there is scribbled, anxious, typo-filled chaos which is guided by the thought, “I don’t care how this turns out; I need to finish it and pour all my thoughts into it as they come.” That’s when you need editors.

Some psychologists and psychiatrists treat writer’s block[3] by helping writers gain confidence, collect the resources they need to develop their ideas and reduce anxiety about their work. Working on anxiety is important because anxiety is the source of procrastination and avoidance. If you are anxious about your work, you are going to avoid completing it so you don’t have to confront your bad work and then avoid the fear of failure, fear of being judged or ridiculed, or feeling incompetent. No work, no outcome. So writer’s block sets in as a defense mechanism against some perceived threat to your writing.

Perfectionism is one of the best sources of writer’s block. Because there is an unrealistic standard that you can’t meet, no sentence you write is going to be good enough. Authors who want to make the best sentence will try to over-engineer the sentence and lose sight of the idea that “perfect” is abstract. It means nothing. For writers, there is only meaningful, correct, value-adding, and good enough. Perfectionism is a response to changes in anxiety. Anxiety about not feeling good enough can lead to perfectionism. Anxiety about being judged for bad work can lead to perfectionism too. And when it’s not perfect, it is functionally the same as procrastination.

Perfectionism = procrastination.
Good enough = getting started.

Another source of anxiety while writing is a lack of planning, poor spelling, and incorrect language use. All of these end up showing the author that the work is not good enough or is inherently “weak.” To overcome this anxiety, word editors and tools like Grammarly or ChatGPT can help. While ChatGPT does a lot more, I am only considering its ability to paraphrase and refine content for now. Ethical problems of automated content aside for now. Learning how to write through courses can help too. Improving vocabulary or learning how to think clearly is a way to reduce that anxiety because now you’d know how to compose precise thoughts.

Writer’s block is known problem for bilingual authors[4] and Chinese speakers[5] too. And one problem is some thoughts are better expressed in your first language. People code-switch while talking, which is when they change the language to represent an idea and return to their starting language while making conversation. This happens because some ideas are represented in one language but not others, so the brain switches the language context. While writing, one can first compose the thought in their native language and then re-write it in another. So this way, language doesn’t become the source of a thinking block.

A more liberal, less emotional explanation is that there simply isn’t enough material in the head to go on with. Either there is low clarity, insufficient content, or no central point to make. To reduce this, writer’s block needs thinking and meta-cognition. Thinking is cognition. Thinking about what you are thinking, such as planning and organizing your knowledge, is meta-cognition. It’s like the brain’s in-built editing process. And because it needs thinking and re-thinking, it is exhausting. So when exhausted, writer’s block sets in. Because the brain prefers the path of least resistance or the least energy-consuming process, it avoids thinking and relies on habits. And one such habit is not writing and just wondering what to write. Therefore, some aspects of writing need to turn into a habit or a strategy.

With this context, how did I overcome my writer’s block? Sharing tips from experience, YMMV 

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1. Figure out the scope and start reading weeks in advance.

  • Helps you incubate ideas and articulate them better.
  • Prevents you from digressing too much
  • Make an outline and fill in the blanks; when you revisit, it’ll feel easier to pick up where you left off
  • Set minimum criteria for what you want to achieve with your writing, and do just that.

2. Use your natural momentum

  • If you are very productive on some days, make the best of it.
  • Natural flow matters; it’s your brain in a ready-to-write state.
  • We have an “ultradian rhythm[6]” for productivity, which is a natural up and down of alertness + productivity that lasts about 90 minutes. It starts within 20 minutes of waking up, and every 90 minutes, the body goes into a low arousal healing mode where you wouldn’t feel naturally productive. Use those 90 minutes when you feel aroused and energetic. Monitor your ups and downs and leverage them.

3. Edit while writing and edit again

  • Everyone makes typos and bad sentences. Fix them when you see them.
  • Edit again so you can review your material. When you change to an editing mindset, you come out of your drafting mindset, and that can trigger new thoughts.
  • You’ll feel motivated and skilled when you improve your own work.

4. Create a system of editing tools and drafting procedures

  • I use Grammarly for editing and WordPress Gutenberg for drafting. Unintuitive, but I like doing it on WP more; feels more real.
  • Figure out your research and data and put it in place while you use your research tools. Compile, then sort.
  • Create some content on some platform and then use it elsewhere again. I like making tweets and writing on quora as a start for something bigger. For those platforms, something small serves the purpose. I build on what I’ve already written.
  • Your environment itself is a tool. If you are stuck in a rut, change your environment because your mental state is tied to what is around you. Random moments of inspiration, change in mindset, change in focus, etc., are all easy through your environment. Natural elements like plants, wind, sunlight, and animals can help, and so can a new work desk or a new location.

5. Use variety

  • If you write every day, it will get boring and tiring. Money won’t matter. Try something new in your content. This improves writing motivation.
  • New formatting, new narrative style, new focus, new writing techniques, new platforms to draft on, etc.
  • Start thinking of examples and add them when you are stuck. Get good at coming up with examples.

6. Make drafts of 2 kinds: a skeleton + a full body

  • The skeleton is a quick overview of headings, points, and layouts for you to fill up.
  • The full body is a clear, articulate point (or set of points).
  • Keep a few of these ready for you to work on; combine them if needed. 

7. The Twitter thread method

  • I use Twitter to force myself to make small but strong points. Then, I convert them into articles. Twitter is particularly useful because there are physical constraints like 280 characters and 1 tweet at a time. It forces the brain to make one single point per tweet and have a logical follow-up. This is easier than the psychological burden of writing a full-fledged article, so start small with a single tweet.
  • Once you have your tweet, you can make a Twitter thread of a few precise, compact points. That’s your bare minimum. You can develop that into an article.
  • The brain functions more lucidly when there are constraints. Creative work needs constraints. A blank document is full of potential, and there is no constraint on what to write, how to write, and what its purpose is. That can be overwhelming. That’s why I tweet; it forces me to articulate just the important bits first. Then I fluff them up in my blogs.
  • Formula: 1 tweet = 1 strong point. Next tweet = next strong point. Continue. With 10 tweets, you have a thesis, a story, or a revelation.

8. Talk with your audience and listen to everyone around

  • You’ll get ideas to include in your articles.
  • You’ll get the words and phrases your audience thinks in.
  • You’ll get what context they need.

If these details are there in your article, pause. You are ready. Your writing confidence will primarily come from meeting these 3 criteria.

9. Work hard for a few weeks ONLY to keep things ready for the future

  • Make it easy for yourself by preparing.
  • Finish drafts to full completion and let them be your ticket to a free week. This motivation of earning a free week goes a long way to let your brain feel good about writing and have enough space to come up with new ideas. It’s a rewarding buffer period.
  • If your mind wanders to make something new, do it there and then, but finish, else move on.

10. Use self-imposed writing deadlines but screw perfectionism

  • Set a deadline to have a minimally meaningful, structured, clear, and substantial draft. The rest is just packaging, and you can do it later.
  • If it’s simple as a draft, it’s good enough 99% of the time.

11. Use accountability

  • For good habits, having someone to tell what you are doing is useful. Once you externalize your writing goal, it becomes more real.
  • Another way to be accountable is to video yourself for a few hours while writing and see how the writing pressure builds up. You can track your progress too; Grammarly offers a nice snippet of weekly writing achievements.

12. Take breaks and lighten up

  • Breaks are needed to restore attention and cognitive processing. If your writing process feels dull, multi-task and use non-vocal background music for more creative insights (music while working helps productivity when the tasks are easy).
  • Breaks in the form of fun and leisure create work-life balance. But they also let your mind wander and re-process information. New ideas come up when the mind is idle. When you notice them, jot them down and use them in your writing.

How to prepare for your content

  1. Meta skill: A skill about thinking with structure, intent, and flow. The more you write, the more you develop writing ease because the brain develops an approach to writing. More repetition = less anxiety, more familiarity. In fact, the more you write, the more you start thinking with your fingers. So just opening an editor on your laptop on your workstation and beginning is enough to kick-start a writing mindset.
  2. IMPerfectionism: Saying good is good enough, don’t aim for perfection before you start. Meet minimum criteria and then refine.
  3. Populate ideas: Fetch facts from multiple sources. They help you build a context. Other people word things differently, so use their wording. Use metaphors liberally for some types of content; they help you make the content interesting and communicate it easily.
  4. Kill the start, rewrite it after you know what’s in it later: When you start writing, there is uncertainty about what your article says. So it’s hard to know how to start. So make a start, write your main content, and then re-write the start to sync with your main body. The starting lines are difficult, and that’s why writer’s block enters at the start. If you are open to redoing the start midway, there is little reason to have a “block.”
  5. Communicate the idea in 10 words at 3 levels of difficulty: When you make a point, write it in a way that can appeal to an 8th grader, a graduate, and a technically-informed reader. Then choose the best or all variants. This ensures that each point is crisp and clear for a particular audience and that you have enough understanding to display sophistication.
  6. Examples: Variety, intuitive, relatable. Explainer articles need examples. News content might not. When you explain, give an example. It helps the audience understand the concept and find some reason to keep reading. Examples break writer’s block because now you don’t need logical flow, you need depth and elaboration.
  7. Hook caption, sensational wording: When you don’t have enough to go on, start thinking about a hook that grabs attention. For example, “I wrote a million money-making words without writer’s block; do you want to know the secret?” This lets you think about how you position your content, which is typically a new train of thought – one which is a detour from your block.
  8. Spontaneous ideas and note-taking: Trying not to forget the good stuff you say and think. When your mind wanders, when others speak, you are “cued” to have good thoughts; note them down. When you start writing, include those thoughts.
  9. Making memes – they are shortcuts: Borrow familiar structures which help people process information (Some info is good for pros/cons, some is good as a list, or as galaxy brain meme). Memes are templates of presenting information – advanced thought patterns. They allow you to organize thoughts in relatable ways, so make memes for your content when you get stuck. While thinking of which meme format to use, you’ll inevitably think of new ways to continue your thoughts.

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