7 Deadly Actions that Cause Writer’s Block

Depressed man with writer's block

Writer’s block can decimate your career. I know, because over a 21-day period I sat in front of my laptop for an average of 14 hours each day and I only managed to write about 700 words. That’s not 700 words per hour, or even 700 words per day. I’m talking a grand total of 700 words over 294 hours. That’s 2.38 words per hour, which is pathetic to say least.

Writer’s block is a condition where an author can no longer produce new work. It is often triggered by extreme levels of stress in conjunction with unrealistic expectations, self-doubt, deadlines, depression, apathy, distractions, and waiting for inspiration to strike.

This article is intended to help you spot seven deadly causes of writer’s block that can manifest in authors. You don’t want fall prey to the debilitating condition. It can set you behind, and in some cases, it can ruin your writing career.

7 Deadly Things that Cause Writer’s Block

You’re going to struggle with writers block at some point in your writing career. If you’re lucky, it’ll be a mild case that will pass in an afternoon. If you’re like me, it could upend your entire career. Here are seven things to guard against…

1) Unrealistic Expectation or Perfectionism

Has anyone ever called you a perfectionist? It means you have unrealistic expectations for yourself, but it isn’t limited to the quality of your writing. It could be an expectation that you feel you should write faster. Or maybe it’s a misinformed belief that bestselling authors get it right on their first drafts and you’re a terrible writer because you have to toil through ten drafts or more before you’re even ready to show it to your agent.

It’s all a lie, and that lie can be debilitating.

Being a perfectionist can quickly turns into procrastination, and over time the stress created from your procrastination will give way to writer’s block if you don’t guard against it.

2) Self-Doubt

There’s a voice inside my head that’s been there for as long as I can remember. Sometimes it whispers, sometimes it shouts but regardless, it’s a constant reminder of just how worthless I think that I am. That voice was emboldened after I got my first reviews.

“Constant danger and some humor keep this adventure moving despite clunky prose.” – Kirkus Reviews

Okay, that wasn’t too bad—especially for Kirkus. It stung a bit when they mentioned “clunky prose” but it was my first book. There were bound to be some hiccups, but overall, I thought it was a fun story in the tradition of adventures I grew up with like The Goonies.

Things got a bit more colorful with the next review…

“Stilted dialogue and stereotypical cartoonlike characters abound as this plot-driven fantasy races to a predictable ending with plenty of room for multiple sequels.” – School Library Journal

Wow. Tell me what you really think.

I can laugh about it now. After all, that was quite a few years ago. But at the time, it was devastating. In fact, you can trace my writer’s block back to those two reviews.

It didn’t matter how good reviews from the actual people who bought the book were or that the book almost hit a million copies sold. I let the opinions of two people I’d never met affect me to the point that I started to doubt everything about myself.

I was desperate to prove that I wasn’t the terrible writer they thought I was, so I devoured close to a dozen books on how to write. I attacked them with a highlighter and filled several notebooks with notes on what to do and what not to do.

That’s when it all started to fall apart.

Instead of just sitting down and writing a story about four friends going on adventures together, I was obsessed with crafting a perfect sentence. I refused to use “ly” adverbs. The only dialogue attribution I used was “said,” not “shouted” or “proclaimed,” and definitely not “mused.”

Oh, and I created intricate backstories for each character to make sure they were never considered “stereotypical” again.

I was in my own head. And it wasn’t long until the undue pressure I heaped on myself turned into a debilitating case of writer’s block.

3) Deadlines and Procrastination

An author with writer's block procrastinating by watching Netflix

We procrastinate because we want to avoid negative feelings. I mean, writing a 90,000-word manuscript from scratch is no easy task. In fact, at times it’s a slog. But thanks to procrastination we end up feeling even worse.

When we procrastinate, we’re not only fully aware that we’re avoiding our responsibilities, but we also know it’s a terrible idea. Yet we do it anyway.

Procrastination doesn’t stop with productivity costs, either. It can be destructive to our mental and physical health, including:

  • Chronic stress
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Anxiety
  • Physical stress
  • Hypertension
  • Cardiovascular disease

Publishers typically give me a year to finish each manuscript. If I’m diligent, I only need about 12 weeks to finish a solid first draft (per book). I can typically hit 500 quality words per hour and since I’m limiting myself to a maximum of three hours writing each day, I can still hit 90,000 words in three months.

  • 500 words per hour x 3 hours = 1,500 words per day
  • 1,500 words per day x 5 business days = 7,500 words per week
  • 7,500 words per week x 12 weeks = 90,000 words

That means I should not only have five free hours each day, I should also get 9 months of guilt-free vacation from writing. There’s just one problem—I’m susceptible to procrastination. That’s right, as much as I hate to admit it, I do exactly what I tell my kids not to do with their homework.

On top of it, I fully understand the emotional and physical trauma that accompanies procrastination.

I’ve never been all that disciplined unless I’ve had a big scary deadline looming in front of me. I’d like to say that’s how I do my best work, and in all honesty, there are times when that’s true.

But when I’m under contract with a publisher who has invested a lot time and money in a book that I’m writing, I owe it to them to be more than on time—I need to be on time with a story everyone is excited about.

Besides, instead of procrastinating, imagine what would happen if I was able to write an extra book or two each year? I could double or even triple my income—and with one kid starting college and another ready to get her driver’s license, I could use the money!

4) Waiting for Inspiration

So many of us are fooled by the Hollywood version of an artist. We think that somehow our creativity will be fueled by an unstoppable muse that strikes just when we need it. I mean, true art isn’t mechanical. You can’t force it, right?

Ugh. What a lie!

A good way to leave yourself susceptible to writer’s block is waiting around for a muse that likely won’t show up. And when that muse doesn’t show up for several days in a row, panic starts to set in. Panic ignites writer’s block.

Most days I just didn’t feel like writing, so I wouldn’t. After all, why waste eight hours just so I could scrape together a measly couple thousand words? When inspiration struck there were days I could hit 10,000 words.

If I strung nine of those together over a 12-month period, I’d have an entire manuscript. In my mind, there was nothing to worry about.

One of the many problems with that ridiculous hypothesis is that 10,000-word days are rare. Soon days turned into weeks, and even though I hadn’t much progress with my manuscript, I wasn’t worried.

I spent that time launching a blog, building my social media platforms, coming up with pitches for some new books, and I did some school presentations.

The next thing I knew, I got a call from my agent asking how the story was progressing. That’s then the first spark of panic struck. The deadline was eight weeks away and I told him everything was going fine. What I didn’t say was that I’d only finished about 25% of the book.

I sat down the next day, ready to work. But there was a problem. The words didn’t come. They didn’t show up the next day or the day after that, either.

I was desperate for another inspired writing session, but thanks to the heightened stress, I froze up. For the first time in my career, I missed my deadline.

Take it from me, if you want to be a pro you can’t wait for inspiration. 

5) Depression

Author with writer's block experiencing depression in a chair at a coffee shop

It wasn’t long after Borders declared bankruptcy that I thought my writing career was going to disappear as well. My sales numbers were dwindling and I was worried that we might lose our house. Fear drove depression, and even though I sought counseling and got medication, I still suffered from writer’s block.

I remember wondering what people would say when they heard I’d gone from selling almost a million copies of my first book to living in my car. Unreasonable thoughts about my kids ending up in foster care overwhelmed me. I was so depressed that I couldn’t write a single word.

Depression is real and its devastating. If you’re reading this right now and you’re suffering it’s important to know that a successful writing career is not what defines your value as a human being.

Don’t be fooled by false promises of hitting a bestseller list or winning accolades for your writing. I know it’s hard to see right now but those things don’t matter. Get help, then come back and start writing again.

6) Apathy

I have a friend who refuses to outline any of her books. Once she knows the end of her stories she stops writing because she’s bored. She wants to watch the book unfold as she writes it. It keeps her engaged.

The problem is that writing can be a bit boring at times. When that happens, your only real option is to suck it up and push through. After all, writing a book is a lot like running a marathon.

The difference is that the minute you finish someone hands you some notes on how you can improve and then you start at the beginning and do it again… and again… and again.

As boredom strikes, you’ll start to get ideas for books. Instead of working on your current manuscript, you’ll start to build out characters for the new projects you want to pitch.

It’s exciting and fresh, but its fool’s gold. You’re just distracting yourself and it won’t last.

In fact, you have to be careful because when apathy sets in, writer’s block is just around the corner.

7) Distractions

Author with writer's block procrastinating by posting on Instagram

I bought my first computer when I was a freshman in college. I had it custom built and it wasn’t cheap despite the fact that it didn’t have a hard drive. That’s right, I had to save all of my files to a floppy disc (yes, I get it. I’m old).

Thanks to my iPhone, I carry more computing power in my pocket today than I would have ever imagined possible back then.

I can play just about any video game imaginable, check the scores of my favorite sports teams, see what my friends from one of the three high schools in three states that I attended have posted on social media, or watch any of endless amount of streaming video services that I pay for.

When I come home, those same streaming services are available on a TV that covers half my wall. Let’s not forget football games all day Saturday and Sunday (not to mention Monday and Thursday nights).

Then there’s my family, church, kids sporting events and music activities, our dog, fish, and a yard that isn’t going to mow itself.

As you can see, it’s easy to get distracted by life. If you aren’t intentional about your writing, those distractions will lead to writer’s block.

How Long Does Writer’s Block Last?

Writer’s block can last anywhere from a few minutes to a lifetime depending on the individual.

The good news is that it doesn’t need to last forever, but you’re going to struggle until you’re ready to fight through it. My hope is that stumbling upon this article will be your first step in the right direction.

How to Overcome Writer’s Block

The answer to overcoming writer’s block is simple. It’s the execution that’s hard. If you want to overcome writer’s block you need to shut out all the noise and just write.

That means no matter how hard it is, you have to ignore:

  • The voice of doubt that says you’ll never be a good enough writer
  • Professional critics who’ve never had the courage to write their own books
  • Consumers who leave scathing online reviews because it helps them feel empowered
  • Friends in critique groups who mean well
  • The rules of writing (because there are no rules)

Look, I know from experience that shutting out those voices is a lot easier said than done but if you don’t all that negativity is going to spread across your consciousness like a wildfire. When that happens, you’ll shut down.

One of the things that helped me was cognitive behavioral therapy. I needed tools to help me combat my thoughts, and even though I only went to three sessions it really helped.

I also recommend following this exact writing formula:

  1. Research, plan, and develop your characters before you start writing.
  2. Once you start writing, never stop to edit. You’re going to change it again anyway, so don’t worry about it now.
  3. Don’t stop to research while your write. You’ll end up getting lost in click holes on the internet.
  4. Don’t start your day by editing what you wrote yesterday. Push on and finish the entire first draft before you edit anything.
  5. Give yourself permission to write a terrible first draft. Even if your first draft is solid, it’s going to pale in comparison to the final manuscript, so why not give yourself permission to fail so you don’t think your words are so precious.

If you’d like some specific tactics you can implement to help with writer’s block, I wrote 33 Proven Strategies to Overcome Writer’s Block that I’ve actually implemented. If even one or two of them can help get you out of your writer’s block it’s worth the read.

Related Questions

Are There Quotes About Writer’s Block? There are several quotes about writer’s block from famous authors. Here are three that are particularly strong.

  • “Writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all.”
    ―Charles Bukowski
  • “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” —Jack London
  • “Writer’s block is only a failure of the ego.” —Norman Mailer

What Are Some Writer’s Block Prompts to Start Writing Again? Switching to a 15-minute writing exercise unrelated to your current manuscript can at times be the jolt you need to get over your writer’s block. Here are five writing prompts you could use in that exercise:

  1. A twelve-year-old girl discovers a crypt with a stairwell that leads down into the darkness.
  2. An eleven-year-old boy wakes up in the middle of the night to see an identical twin he didn’t know existed staring back at him.
  3. A twelve-year-old girl discovers that her therapist father hypnotizes children to turn them into thieves.
  4. A school bully is humiliated when he starts crying after reading a text.
  5. As he walked through the charred remains of his bedroom, he spotted the one thing he never thought he’d see again.

Jon Lewis

Jon S. Lewis is the bestselling author of nine novels, including GREY GRIFFINS (Scholastic), CLOCKWORK CHRONICLES (Little Brown), CHAOS (Thomas Nelson), and a few comics for DC. He is also an award-winning digital marketing executive.

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