A newcomer’s guide to overcoming writer’s block

By: Vivian Han Nguyen

Published on July 19, 2022

Photo: Karolina Grabowska (Pexels) 

From feeling unmotivated to overwhelmed by to-do lists, there are numerous mental health problems that can disrupt a writer’s progress. Such a blockage in productivity is called, “writer’s block.” This guide offers reasons why newcomer creatives experience writer’s block and how they can overcome it. 

What is “writer’s block?”

Writer’s block is a psychological state that prevents a writer from proceeding with a piece. They are unable to produce new ideas. The main causes of writer’s block are stress, procrastination, perfectionism, and fear of criticism. These factors lead to a decline in performance and productivity.

Why do people experience writer’s block?

1. Unmotivated

The first step to creating any written piece is starting it. This phase is where motivation comes into play and is the most difficult to deal with. Motivation refers to a desire or reason for one’s behaviour. Therefore, a lack of motivation to start a project can lead to writer’s block.

2. Too many ideas

Sometimes creatives struggle with coming up with ideas. Other times, they have too many ideas and do not know where to start. Again, the most difficult part of writing is starting.

Photo: Andrea Piacquadio (Pexels) 

3. Fear of failure

People tend to avoid starting or completing work because they are afraid of failing. This fear is especially true for immigrant youth. A qualitative research from Alberta concludes that racialized immigrant youth feel a strong sense of intergenerational obligation.

In the study, young people are aware of the sacrifices made for them by their parents and feel obligated to pursue higher education for professional careers. This sense of familial duty means that immigrant youth feel pressured to succeed in their studies and careers. Such pressures can of lead to perfectionism and the fear of failure, which can ultimately affect their performances.

Many of the participants in a UBC study also reported feeling indebted to their parents or the government for bringing them to Canada. If they are not succeeding, they feel they should be doing better out of this assumed obligation.

4. Burnout

Burnout is the state of having no energy or enthusiasm from working too hard. It is usually brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. An individual experiencing burnout not only feels extreme exhaustion but also a sense of dread about work. Anyone can experience burnout.

How to overcome writer’s block

1. Re-read or review the task at hand

When dealing with many responsibilities at once, it is easy to skim or overlook important details about the project(s) you are working on. Reviewing the criteria for your piece may give you some clarity as to what needs to be done.

2. Brainstorming: Word association

Brainstorming is a useful step in the creative process in which the writer tries to think up new ideas or solutions. Be it for school, work, or other creative pursuits, brainstorming helps writers organize and understand their projects better.

One way to brainstorm—whether you are working individually or with others—is to play a game of word association. First, think of a word. This word can be related or unrelated to your project. Next, think of one or multiple words that associate with the first word. For example, the word “apple” can connect to “red,” “fruit,” and “banana.”

Illustration: Cardio Studio (Canva) 

You can create a mind map diagram of your words to visually see the connections and patterns in your thought processes. CanvaMindomo, and Mindmeister have unique online templates for digital mind mapping.

3. Word dump

Like dumping the contents out of a bag, word dumping is when you let your thoughts and ideas “fall” onto the page. The best way to execute a word dump during the brainstorming stage is to set a timer for 2 to 5 minutes. Write or type whatever comes to mind and do not stop until the timer runs out. This strategy is especially effective for creative writers.

You can also conduct a word dump when writing paragraphs. The key idea is to write down the important points of your piece without worrying about mistakes. After this step, you can review and edit your sentences. Overcoming writer’s block requires putting something on the page, even if there are errors and unclearness.

4. Set small goals

Knowing you have a major essay or multiple assignments due can feel overwhelming. When individuals feel overwhelmed, they are more likely to procrastinate or feel stressed. Breaking down large projects into more manageable, smaller tasks can reduce stress, maintain motivation, and maximize productivity. Setting small goals also helps to avoid fatigue and overworking. 

5. Take breaks

Maintaining focus is a continuing challenge for individuals of all ages. Thus, it is important to take breaks every now and then. Taking breaks, especially from screens, can replenish your creativity and motivation. Breaks also allow you time to stretch, eat, and complete other tasks.

6. Sleep!

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, children ages 14 to 17 years-old should be getting 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night. Meanwhile, adults require 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Failure to get enough rest results in high stress levels (36.3 per cent in adults and 17.2 per cent in children) and poor mental health (12.3 per cent in adults and 11.2 per cent in children). 

Additionally, research shows that napping, or light sleep, can support creativity and problem-solving. A study conducted by researchers from the Paris Brain Institute suggests that there is a “creative sweet spot” within this period of sleep.

7. Stay hydrated

Drink water! Staying hydrated helps to move nutrients and waste through your body, normalize blood pressure, and lowers your risk of dehydration. Dehydration occurs when you lose more fluid than you take in.

Research shows that improper hydration may physically alter your brain and affect concentration. After all, physical and mental health are closely connected and equally important.

Photo: Antoni Shkraba (Pexels)

8. Change your environment

There are many benefits to working and studying from home, including an increase in productivity. However, being in the same environment during a global pandemic can feel repetitive and uninspiring. This sentiment is especially true for those who work in their bedrooms, where the boundaries between work and leisure are blurred. 

As restrictions continue to lift, changing your work environment to somewhere with ambient noise can help with creativity and boost performance. Libraries and coffee shops are perfect locations to start.

Being one with nature also raises productivity, decreases stress, and lowers blood pressure. Working in a park can achieve these benefits. If you need internet to complete your projects, you can add indoor plants to your workspace. Houseplants provide fresh air: some even eliminate harmful toxins

Writing advice from immigrant authors in Canada

Gugu Hlongwane is an author and professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, NS. The South African-born writer encourages aspiring authors “to have courage and faith in their ideas.” Be your own biggest supporter.

Another way to improve your writing or gain inspiration is by learning from other writers. “I’ve learned to write by reading,” Nepal-born novelist, essayist, editor, and translator Manjushree Thapa says in an interview with The Record. Thapa also likes to write first drafts in scenic locations, “or at least outside [her] study.”

Remember, inspiration is only the beginning of a piece. Award-winning novelist and short story author Kim Thúyreveals that the secret to writing is hard work. “In my case, inspiration is the original spark but would not become a fire without voluntary and conscious effort.”

More from The Newcomer:

5 Lowcost or free mental health services in Canada

Taking care of your mental health

How to balance school, work, and extracurriculars

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