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Writer's Block Doesn't Exist

I've said for years that writing is the most mythologized profession in the world, and I still believe that. Inexperienced writers and people who aspire to be writers often believe that writing is about being inspired, that you can't be a "real" writer and care about getting paid, that literary agents are all crooks, and all manner of nonsense. But one of the most pernicious myths, and one that does the most harm, is the myth of writer's block.

You're familiar with the myth. You're sitting in front of your computer wanting to write, intending to write, but you can't come up with anything. Ergo, you have writer's block. For writers who believe this to be true, it's like torture. I've seen agonized Facebook threads and Quora pages dedicated to solutions to writer's block, featuring alleged fixes like "write something different," "Mow the lawn," and "Keep a journal by your bed and write down ideas while you sleep." That sound you heard was my eyes rolling.

This popular mythology about writer's block is wrongheaded and false, born of ignorance and unrealistic expectations about what it means to write. I'll say it simply:

Writer's block does not exist.

I've gotten lots of angry pushback on this idea from wannabe writers, but surprisingly little from working professional writers. I think that's because when you depend on cranking out books or scripts or articles or ad copy to pay the bills, you find a way to get stuff written. That evidence alone should convince a jury that writer's block is a mirage. But if it doesn't convince you, let me present my theory as well as my solution.

First of all, I don't get writer's block. Ever. The reason for that is simple: I grew up acting, singing, and performing on stage. Wait, what? Bear with me. As a performer, and especially as a choral and jazz singer, you learn that quality comes through rehearsal, and rehearsal is the practice of making mistakes and correcting them. No one expects to sing a complex piece of vocal music perfectly on the first cold read, or on the twentieth read. It takes time and correcting errors to get the music right.

The same idea applies to writing. Of course it does; writing is a creative endeavor. Designers, painters, architects, composers—they all try ideas, erase them and try again, over and over, until they hit on something that works. Only in writing do practitioners seem to feel that the first words they put on the page have to be the perfect ones. They don't.

I'm not talking about writing a draft and then revising. I'm talking about treating writing as an iterative art form in which the work is created passage by passage, paragraph by paragraph. By approaching your writing this way, you can avoid the psychological paralysis and perfectionism that we call writer's block. Try this next time you're not sure what to write:

  1. Forget about the entire chapter or article you're trying to finish and focus on the next paragraph.

  2. Take your best stab at an approach to writing that paragraph. It doesn't matter if it's perfect.

  3. If you don't like what you wrote, screw it. Hit delete, come up with a different approach, and try again.

  4. Repeat until you land on a treatment you like, then move onto the next paragraph. Eventually, you'll find a groove for that particular work.

I've ghostwritten more than 65 nonfiction books, hundreds of articles, and a lot of other stuff, and I used this approach on every one of them. It works because it removes the pressure, but also because it lets you throw stuff against the wall to see what sticks. Give it a shot, and let me know in the comments how it works for you, or if you have other approaches to escaping writer's block that work better.

Now, go write something.

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