Make it Work

I Had Writer’s Block. Until I Read Writers’ Secret Solutions.

By Grace Bello December 23rd, 2013

“If you think you are suffering from writer’s block, stop writing immediately,” says New Yorker writer Susan Orlean.

Whether a writer is working on a fiction or nonfiction piece, a shorter piece or a long read, writer’s block can strike at any time. Typically, it arises due to not knowing what one wants to say, or fixating on whether one’s work is “good enough.”

The good news? This isn’t a new phenomenon. Which means that writers at every stage in the game have developed their own strategies to deal with writer’s block. Here, writers share their experiences of being stuck – and getting unstuck.

Feeling Stuck

Former co-editor of The Toast Daniel Mallory Ortberg says that he’s experienced writer’s block “plenty of times” and that he would probably encounter it even more “if you told me to write a novel or a 4000-word-essay about something serious.”

London-based blogger and writer Florence Molly says that she doesn’t get writer’s block when writing very short fiction, “but I find that when I write longer stories, the writer’s block comes about a fifth of the way through.”

“The truth is that everyone gets stuck, it’s a normal part of the writing process,” says New York-based Jennifer Mattson, GlobalPost writer and teacher of a class called Get Unstuck: Get Writing, Again. “We all have some good and some bad writing days.”

Anyone who feels the onslaught of writer’s block, know this: You’re not alone, the feeling is normal, and ultimately, it will pass.

Reasons for Writer’s Block

“Writer’s block doesn’t exist. What does exist is a condition in which you don’t really know what you’re trying to say, and therefore are having trouble saying it,” says Orlean.

Mattson says that part of this paralysis comes from expecting too much of one’s draft. “It’s important … not to worry what anyone else thinks,” she says. “I try and give people the encouragement to give themselves permission to write without focusing on whether it’s ‘good enough.'”

“I’m guilty of thinking about my plots/characters/settings so much that it can be a rather sluggish process just transferring it into words,” Molly says of her fiction work.

Ortberg suggests that it’s sometimes harder to tackle a piece that isn’t time-sensitive. “It helps me to know I have a certain number of deadlines every day,” she says. “I have to write something or the site doesn’t exist.”

Writer’s block creeps in when a writer obsesses too much over subject matter or prose without a firm deadline. But according to these scribes, getting unblocked is a (thankfully) pain-free process.

Coping Tips

Paradoxically, many writers suggest stepping away from one’s work in order to get unstuck.

“When I’m stuck on a piece, I find taking walks or a break helpful so I can work it out in my head,” says Mattson. “Sometimes, you have to get up and walk away from something so your brain can figure it out.” Molly, too, recommends staying active; in her case, she figure-skates to get her mind off her work.

Ortberg says she looks for new ideas in surprising places. “Sometimes I’ll get inspired from a comment someone’s made on Twitter or on the site, sometimes by things I’ll say in conversation to a friend.”

Says Orlean: “Start thinking about what you still need to learn before you know what you’re trying to say.” Nonfiction pieces “usually this will require making some phone calls, or doing some research,” she explains. “Once you’ve done that additional research and thinking, start composing in your head the idea that got you stuck.”

Different Writers, Different Strategies

“Perhaps the most important thing I have learned, is that what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for someone else,” adds Mattson. She suggests that writers think about when, where, and how they’re comfortable writing and create a routine that suits them. “Knowing oneself and one’s writing self goes a long way to being productive.”

Ultimately, writer’s block impacts different writers in different ways. Whether you struggle with the story itself or the telling of the story, whether you’re feeling uninspired or too full of ideas, take a break, organize your thoughts, and discover what helps you — personally — get unstuck.

Image via Drew Coffman /

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