Writer's block

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A representation of writer's block by Leonid Pasternak (1862–1945)

Writer's block is a non-medical condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author is either unable to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown.

Writer's block has various degrees of severity, from difficulty in coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce work for years. This condition is not solely measured by time passing without writing, it is measured by time passing without productivity in the task at hand.[1] Writer's block has been an acknowledged problem throughout recorded history.[2]

However, not until 1947 was the term writer's block coined by the Austrian psychiatrist Edmund Bergler.[3] All types of writers, including full-time professionals, academics, workers of creative projects, and those trying to finish written assignments, can experience writer's block.[4] The condition has many causes, some that are even unrelated to writing. The majority of writer's block researchers agree that most causes of writer's block have an affective/physiological, motivational, and cognitive component.[5]

Studies have found effective coping strategies to deal with writer's block. These strategies to remove the anxiety about writing range from ideas such as free writing and brainstorming to talking to a professional.[6]


Throughout history, writer's block has been a documented problem.[2] Professionals who have struggled with the affliction include authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald[7] and Joseph Mitchell,[8] composer Sergei Rachmaninoff,[9] and songwriter Adele.[10] Early Romantic writers did not understand much about the topic; they assumed writer's block was due to a power that did not want them to write any more. It became slightly more recognised during the time of French Symbolists (late 19th-century art movement) who had famously recognised poets[who?] that gave up writing early into their career because they were unable to find the language to convey their message. During the Great American Novel period (mid-18th to mid-19th century), it was widely recognised as something that would block a writer and cause them emotional instability.[11] Research concerning this topic was done in the late 1970s and 1980s. During this time, researchers were influenced by the Process and Post-Process movements and therefore focused specifically on the writer's processes. The condition was first described in 1947 by Austrian psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler,[12] who described it as being caused by oral masochism, mothers that bottle fed, and an unstable private love life.[11] The growing reputation of psychiatry in the United States made the term gain more recognition.[13] However, some great writers may have already suffered from writer's block years before Bergler described it, such as Herman Melville[dubious ], who stopped writing novels a few years after writing Moby-Dick.[14]


Writer's block may have several causes. Some are creative problems that originate within an author's work itself. A writer may run out of inspiration, or be distracted by other events. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert, reflecting on her post-bestseller prospects, proposed that such a pressure might be released by interpreting creative writers as "having" genius rather than "being" a genius.[15]

A fictional example can be found in George Orwell's novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, in which the protagonist Gordon Comstock struggles in vain to complete an epic poem describing a day in London: "It was too big for him, that was the truth. It had never really progressed, it had simply fallen apart into a series of fragments."[16]

Physiological and neurological basis[edit]

Physiological and neurological bases of writer's block have been suggested. Under stress, a human brain will "shift control from the cerebral cortex to the limbic system".[17] The limbic system is associated with the instinctual processes, such as "fight or flight" response; and behaviour that is based on "deeply engrained training". The limited input from the cerebral cortex hinders a person's creative processes, which is replaced by the behaviours associated with the limbic system. The person is often unaware of the change, which may lead them to believe they are creatively "blocked".[17] [unreliable source?]

In her 2004 book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain, the writer and neurologist Alice W. Flaherty has argued that literary creativity is a function of specific areas of the brain, and that block may be the result of brain activity being disrupted in those areas.[18] Dr. Flaherty suggested in her writing that there are many diseases that may impact one's ability to write. One of which she refers to is hypergraphia, or the intensive desire to write. She points out that in this condition, the patient's temporal lobe is afflicted, usually by damage, and it may be the same changes in this area of the brain that can contribute to writer's-blocking behaviours.[19] Not to be confused with writer's block, agraphia is a neurological disorder caused by trauma or stroke causing difficulty in communicating through writing. Agraphia cannot be treated directly, but it is possible to relearn certain writing abilities.[20]

Brain trauma[edit]

Other research identifies neurological malfunctions as a cause. Malcolm T. Cunningham showed how these malfunctions can be linked to trauma both mental and physical.[21]

Physical damage can produce writer's block. If a person experiences tissue damage in the brain, i.e. a stroke, it is likely to lead to other complications apart from the lesion itself. This damage causes an extreme form of writer's block known as agraphia.[13] With agraphia, the inability to write is due to issues with the cerebral cortex; this disables the brain's process of translating thoughts into writing. Brain injuries are an example of a physical illness that can cause a writer to be blocked. Other brain related disorders and neurological disorders such as epilepsy have been known to cause the problem of writer's block and hypergraphia, the strong urge to write.[20]

Writer anxiety and inhibition[edit]

Some other causes of writer's block has been due to writer's anxiety. Writer's anxiety is defined as being worried with one's words or thought, thus experiencing writer's block.[22]

For a composition perspective, Lawrence Oliver said in his article "Helping Students Overcome Writer's Block": "Students receive little or no advice on how to generate ideas or explore their thoughts, and they usually must proceed through the writing process without guidance or corrective feedback from the teacher, who withholds comments and criticism until grading the final product."[23] He said that students "learn to write by writing", and often they are insecure or paralyzed by rules.[23]

Phyllis Koestenbaum wrote in her article "The Secret Climate the Year I Stopped Writing" about her trepidation toward writing, claiming it was tied directly to her instructor's response.[24] She said, "I needed to write to feel, but without feeling I couldn't write."[24] In contrast to Koestenbaum's experience, Nancy Sommers stated that papers do not end when students finish writing and that neither should instructors' comments.[25] She urges a "partnership" between writers and instructors so that responses become a conversation.[25]

Student motivation[edit]

Herman A. Estrin in his article "Motivation in Composition Writing" writes, "When freshmen are assigned such topics for a research paper as...they have no real background of the subject for an in-depth paper...they prepare a mechanical, lifeless paper with no creativity, imagination, or originality".[26] According to him, freshman students write well about topics they are passionate about.

Aline Alves-Wold, in her article, "Assessing Writing Motivation: a Systematic Review of K-5 Students' Self-Reports" states that there is a general lack of research on the motivation of students to write in the first few years of education, which is problematic when one considers how important initial experiences are in motivating students to write. Success generally enhances one's belief in their efficacy, whereas failure weakens them. "These mechanisms are particularly evident in early phases of skill development where failure typically occurs before a sense of efficacy has been firmly established. This implies that children in their first years in school have writer self-beliefs that are particularly malleable and dynamic".[27] Writing development is therefore both enhanced and endangered during the first years in school.[27]

Negative self-beliefs and feeling of incompetence[edit]

Mike Rose stated that writer's block can be caused by a writer's history in writing, rules and restrictions from the past. Writers can be hesitant of what they write based on how it will be perceived by the audience.[28] Guangming Ling states that there is a negative correlation between self-efficacy and avoidance goals in studies on writing apprehension and writer's block, which suggests that having hesitations about writing may lead to less effort and thus less success.[29]

Similarly to Ling, Dana Driscoll and Jennifer Wells explain writing dispositions in their essay "Beyond Knowledge and Skills". Driscoll and Wells argue that dispositions toward writing play crucial roles in determining if writers are able to transfer their knowledge of writing into other contexts of life. [30] Related to self-efficacy, Driscoll and Wells suggest that writers who have a positive self-belief are more likely to produce work than some with a negative self-belief. [30] Self-efficacy is especially important for a writer when it comes to an unfamiliar learning or writing setting because it may seem overwhelming.

James Adams noted in his book Conceptual Blockbusting that various reasons blocks occur include fear of taking a risk, "chaos" in the pre-writing stage, judging versus generating ideas, an inability to incubate ideas, or a lack of motivation.[31]

In "Motivation in the Writing Centre: A Peer Tutor's Experience," Leonie Kirchoff states "The concept of 'amotivation' describes a lack of motivation due to an individual's feeling of incompetence and helplessness."[32] Demotivation is the process of reducing or diminishing motivational basis for behavior or ongoing actions through external influences. An external factor such as feedback may affect demotivation, whereas an internal factor, such as pessimistic expectations, may cause amotivation. Even so, both concepts have similar effects on writers.[32]

For tutors to provide students with the most appropriate feedback, scholars like Jared Featherstone from James Madison University suggest that tutors should be well educated in mindfulness strategies to combat a student's fixed mindset. [33] He argues that tutors or instructors should be mindful enough to be grounded and focused solely on their student so they can pick up on the feelings, stress, or fixed mindsets their student might have. [33] An unmindful tutor might accidentally reinforce a student's negative thinking patterns.

Coping strategies[edit]

Irene Clark describes the following strategies for coping with writer's block: class and group discussion, journaling, free writing and brainstorming, clustering, list making, and engaging with the text.[2] To overcome writing blocks, Oliver suggests asking writers questions to uncover their writing process.[23] He then recommends solutions such as systematic questioning, free writing, and encouragement.[23] A recent study of 2,500 writers aimed to find techniques that writers themselves use to overcome writer's block.[citation needed] The research discovered a range of solutions from altering the time of day to write and setting deadlines to lowering expectations and using mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation has proved to increase awareness and improve writing skills. Dr. Kate Chaterdon, an English professor at Marist College, suggests mindfulness not only improves writing skills but also allows for writers to transfer their knowledge of writing into other contexts of life. [34] Dr. Chaterdon recommends meditation as a grounding exercise to help people becoming more metacognitavely aware. Dr. Chaterdon had conducted a study in her two writing classes at Marist College and concluded that practicing mindfulness at least once a week is essential in developing higher levels of metacognition. [34]

Right-brain involvement[edit]

Garbriele Lusser Rico's concern with the mind links to brain lateralisation, also explored by Rose and Linda Flowers and John R. Hayes, among others. Rico's book, Writing the Natural Way looks into invention strategies, such as clustering, which has been noted to be an invention strategy used to help writers overcome their blocks,[35] and further emphasizes the solutions presented in works by Rose, Oliver, and Clark. Similar to Rico, James Adams discusses "right-brain" involvement in writing.[31] While Bill Downey proposes that he is basing his approach in practical concerns,[36] his concentration on "right-brain" techniques speaks to cognitive theory approach similar to Rico's and a more practical advice for writers to approach their writer's block.[36] Mike Rose mentions that peer tutors provide supportive feedback so that blocked writers can feel secure in sharing their problems and experimenting with new ideas about writing.[37]

Writing environment[edit]

It is also important to evaluate the environment in which the writing is being produced to determine if it is the best condition to work in. One must look into these different factors to determine if it is a good or bad environment to work in.[6] Psychologists who have studied writer's block have concluded that it is a treatable condition once the writer finds a way to remove anxiety and build confidence in themselves.[38] Sarah Ahmed and Dominik Güss state that solutions for coping with writer's block include using more efficient writing strategies during the composing process, more effective goal-setting strategies, and even brainstorming ideas with others.[39]

Splitting the writing into smaller pieces[edit]

Research has also shown that it is highly effective if one breaks their work into pieces rather than doing all of their writing in one sitting, in order to produce good quality work. While it can be helpful to split up the writing process into pieces, Patricia Huston suggests that starting with different sections of a paper, rather than trying to start with an introduction, can be a useful strategy to cope with writer's block. She points out that if a person is stuck on the introduction, they can try moving onto a different section like a body paragraph. Huston states, "There is no need to begin at the beginning and write an article in sequence".[6]

Free writing and brainstorming[edit]

Free writing is a widely accepted technique for overcoming writer's block.[40] Taught by Peter Elbow, free writing is similar to brainstorming but is written in prose form without stopping.[41] To free-write one writes without pausing to think or edit, and one pours raw ideas onto paper.[42] Author Benjamin Solomon described the rationale for the technique: "Writer's block is a rut, a ditch, a trap, a swampy mire, and in order to lift yourself out, you need to DO something—anything!—to jog yourself into motion."[43] Cherryl Armstrong, who worked with the South Coast Writing Project, stated that one can free-write about anything, even a completely different subject than one was going to write about: "any writing will do".[44] Oliver claims that after free writing the writer is able to analyze many ideas that might not have been generated before and develop a clearer sense of what theme is trying to be communicated throughout the writing.[23] Lawrence J. Oliver suggests that freewriting is another effective method that has helped people deal with writer's block. This method consists of writing down ideas or thoughts about a certain topic. Freewriting doesn't focus on grammar or style. There is only one rule for this method, and that is to keep on writing. Educators should also never read students' freewriting unless asked to do so.[45]

Mind mapping[edit]

Mind mapping is suggested as another potential solution to writer's block.[6] The technique involves writing a stream of consciousness on a horizontal piece of paper and connecting any similar or linked thoughts. This exercise is intended to help a writer suffering from writer's block to bypass the analytical or critical functioning of their brain and access the creative functioning more directly, stimulating the flow of ideas.[6] Other techniques similar to clustering and mind mapping are the writing of notes on cards in a card file,[46][47] and nonlinear electronic writing using hypertext.[48]

Positive self-beliefs and encouragement[edit]

Camacho, Alves and Boscolo wrote about enhancing students' writing motivation in the classroom. She says that to foster students' positive self-beliefs and beliefs about writing, teachers must nurture their self-beliefs as well as their beliefs about the writing task.[49]

Other techniques[edit]

Other ways to cope come from ideas such as The Brand Emotions Scale for Writers (BESW).[50] Using the framework of the Differential Emotions Scale, the BESW works with grouping emotions into either states or traits and then classifying them as positive, negative passive, or negative active. Researchers can assess subjects, giving writers a chance to get more work done if left in the right emotional state since data suggests that writers with positive emotions tended to express more than writers with negative passive or negative active.[50] Scholars and researchers such as Dr. Mandy Bamber suggest practicing meditation to reduce negative moods like stress and anxiety. Dr. Bamber's team conducted a study on 40 university students who showed signs of anxiety. After practicing mindfulness and mediation exercises, 33 out of the 40 showed significant decreases in stress and anxiety levels. [51]

Anne Johnstone suggests a couple of strategies to help with writer's block. When one finds oneself unable to generate content, Johnstone suggests "recopying a well-liked piece" of one's own to help generate ideas.[52] Johnstone states that individuals who are articulate orally but struggle with writing and forming their ideas into sentences on paper should try tape-recording themselves and later transcribing it onto paper.[52]

Relation to procrastination[edit]

Writer's block and procrastination are two similar issues that people struggle with when it comes to writing. Writer's block is an issue that can cause people to delay their goals and may prevent them from finishing writing projects. Although writer's block and procrastination are not the exact same issue, they can end up leading up to one another. Writer's block is not continuing to do a task, and procrastination is delaying to start the task. In her 1987 Ph.D. thesis (published in 2012), Karen E. Peterson posited two different scenarios on how procrastination and writer's block can lead up to each other.[53] One scenario is that a person will procrastinate due to having the fear of past experiences of getting writer's block when doing a task. The other scenario is that a person will have writer's block because of the feeling of being overwhelmed about needing to do a task at the last minute after procrastinating for a long period of time.[53]

According to some scholars like Claire Kervin, procrastination is usually a result of a negative mood and is a "short term mood regulator". Unlike previous beliefs that procrastination is poor time management, Kervin suggests procrastination is a way individuals cope with negative emotions. [54] Kervin's suggestion makes a connection to one of Peterson's scenarios, specifically when someone procrastinates due to fear of past experiences and begins to feel judgmental toward themselves. Kervin recommends taking a mindful approach to combating procrastination in order to become more grounded and improve self-regulation. [54]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rose, Mike (1984). Writer's Block: The Cognitive Dimension. Foreword by Marilyn S. Sternglass. Carbondale: Published for Conference on College Composition and Communication by Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 0-8093-1141-0. OCLC 9392424.
  2. ^ a b c Clark, Irene (2012). "Invention". Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415885164. OCLC 703871383.[page needed]
  3. ^ Castillo, M. (5 September 2013). "Writer's Block". American Journal of Neuroradiology. 35 (6): 1043–1044. doi:10.3174/ajnr.a3729. ISSN 0195-6108. PMC 7965145. PMID 24008169.
  4. ^ "Symptoms and Cures for Writer's Block - Purdue OWL® - Purdue University". owl.purdue.edu. Retrieved 18 March 2023.
  5. ^ Ahmed, Sarah (1 January 2019). "An Analysis of Writer's Block: Causes, Characteristics, and Solutions". UNF Graduate Theses and Dissertations.
  6. ^ a b c d e Huston, Patricia (January 1998). "Resolving writer's block". Canadian Family Physician. 44: 92–96. PMC 2277565. PMID 9481467.
  7. ^ Rienzi, Greg (28 September 2009). "Great Scott: Fitzgerald's Baltimore". The JHU Gazette. Johns F Kennedy University.[verification needed]
  8. ^ Maher, Michael (7 May 2015). The New Yorker writer who didn't publish for 30 years. BBC News (Video).
  9. ^ Winston, Robert (27 July 2010). "How great artists have fought creative block". BBC News.
  10. ^ "Adele Opens Up About Writer's Block". Sky News UK via Huffington Post. 24 October 2015. Archived from the original on 20 November 2015.
  11. ^ a b Acocella, J (14 June 2004). "Blocked Why do writers stop writing?". The New Yorker. Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  12. ^ Akhtar, Salman (2009). Comprehensive dictionary of psychoanalysis. Karnac Books. p. 310. ISBN 978-1855758605. Retrieved 17 October 2011.
  13. ^ a b Castillo, M. (5 September 2013). "Writer's Block". American Journal of Neuroradiology. 35 (6): 1043–1044. doi:10.3174/ajnr.a3729. ISSN 0195-6108. PMC 7965145. PMID 24008169.
  14. ^ Miller, John J. (23 May 2016). "Wordsmiths Without Words". National Review. Vol. 68, no. 9. pp. 23–24.
  15. ^ Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity Archived 26 September 2016 at the Wayback Machine, a TED talk in 2009
  16. ^ George Orwell, Keep The Aspidistra Flying, Chapter 2.
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  18. ^ Acolella, Joan (14 June 2004). "Blocked: why do writers stop writing?". The New Yorker.
  19. ^ Flaherty, Alice Weaver (2015). The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0547525099. OCLC 1037196899.
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  21. ^ Cunningham, Malcolm T. (17 April 2007). "Writer's block: failures of the neurological network and comparisons with business networks". Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing. 22 (3): 154–160. doi:10.1108/08858620710741850. ISSN 0885-8624.
  22. ^ Kaufman, Scott Barry; Kaufman, James C, eds. (2009). The Psychology of Creative Writing edited by Scott Barry Kaufman. Cambridge Core. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511627101. ISBN 978-0511627101. Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  23. ^ a b c d e Oliver Jr., Lawrence J. (1982). "Helping Students Overcome Writer's Block". Journal of Reading. 26 (2): 162–168. JSTOR 40029248.[verification needed]
  24. ^ a b Koestenbaum, Phyllis (Summer 2007). "The Secret Climate the Year I Stopped Writing". The Massachusetts Review. 48 (2): 278–308. JSTOR 25091203.
  25. ^ a b Somers, Nancy (2012). "Across the Drafts". Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415885164. OCLC 703871383.[page needed]
  26. ^ Estrin, Herman A. (1973). "Motivation in Composition Writing". Improving College and University Teaching. 21 (2): 132–134. doi:10.1080/00193089.1973.10533389. ISSN 0019-3089. JSTOR 27564516.
  27. ^ a b Alves-Wold, Aline; Walgermo, Bente Rigmor; McTigue, Erin; Uppstad, Per Henning (2023). "Assessing Writing Motivation: a Systematic Review of K-5 Students' Self-Reports". Educational Psychology Review. 35 (1): 24. doi:10.1007/s10648-023-09732-6. ISSN 1040-726X. PMC 9947433. PMID 36852261.
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Further reading[edit]