Bad Diagnoses: What’s Wrong With Writer’s Block.

This piece was first published in 2021 on Creator’s Hub. As quite a few people have found it useful, and I don’t want it to be paywalled, I’m sharing it again here.

I have worked as a writing teacher for two decades. And in almost every course I teach, we inevitably come up against the idea of writer’s block: the mysterious ailment that scuppers the hopes and dreams of writers everywhere.

Many writers are sceptical that there even is such a thing. They protest that writer’s block is an idea we could do without. In 2009, on the Q&A section of his website, Philip Pullman wrote:

I don’t believe in it. All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?

Elsewhere, Pullman has been quoted as saying that the idea of writer’s block is “howling nonsense” (this is one of those quotes that are widely shared, but hard to source). And it is easy to have some sympathy for Pullman’s arguments. The idea that writers should have a special affliction of their own seems a weird one. All work involves some kind of difficulty. Why should writers be the only ones who are allowed to have a mysterious work-related ailment?

Nevertheless, over the years, I have had many students who have struggled with writing. And dismissing these struggles as a fantasy, or even as “howling nonsense”, is neither useful nor kind. So I’m reluctant to throw out the idea of writer’s block altogether. Rather than dismissing writer’s block, we need better ways of thinking about what is happening when writers complain they are suffering from this mysterious sickness of the creative soul.

A visit to the doctor

One problem with the idea of writer’s block is that the term is so vague, it doesn’t have much diagnostic power. Here an analogy with medicine is useful. Imagine you have been feeling ill for some time. You are tired and your body aches. At night, you are restless and feverish. You have lost your appetite, and you can’t concentrate on anything. It’s not clear what’s wrong with you, but something is up. So you decide to visit the doctor.

When you get to the doctor’s office, she asks you to list your symptoms. You go through the list: the aches and pains, the tiredness, the lack of concentration, the fever. The doctor makes notes and looks concerned. When you have finished talking, she fixes you with a look. “I’ve got bad news,” she says.

“Yes…” you say, waiting for her to say more.

“You’re ill,” she says.

“Okay…” you say. “Any particular kind of ill?”

She shrugs. “Just ill,” she says.

You hesitate. “That’s your diagnosis?” you ask. “Just ill?”

She looks at you sternly. “Yes,” she says. “That’s my diagnosis. You’re just ill. Anyway, I have other patients waiting…”

Sharpening our diagnostic tools

This medical analogy helps us recognise a few things. First, as a diagnosis, “you have writer’s block” is not entirely useless, just as “you are ill” is not entirely useless. Recognising you are ill can be a useful first stage in remedying the situation. If you are ill, nothing risks making you worse more than forging ahead and trying to tough things out, refusing to acknowledge you are under the weather. Not only this, but there is quite a lot of generic advice that is useful in most cases of illness. Take a bit of time off. Rest up. Eat good food. Avoid stress. Take in plenty of fluids. Keep active, but don’t push yourself. And so on.

Similarly, recognising that you have writer’s block may be the first step towards trying to remedy the situation. Toughing out the difficulties you are having is not necessarily the best response. There is some generic advice that can be useful for writers who are feeling stuck. Get some rest. If you’re stuck with writing, try reading. Get a wise, objective friend to look over your work. Give yourself a bit of credit.

So the complaint against the doctor who says, “That’s my diagnosis: you’re just ill,” is not that she is indulging in howling nonsense. It is that instead of a proper diagnosis, she is giving you a general claim about the state of your health. And this is not nearly as useful.

But this analogy also helps us see the limitations of “writer’s block” as a diagnosis. Writer’s block exists in much the same way that illness exists. When you say you have writer’s block, you are making a general claim about how things are going for you as a writer. But you are not giving a diagnosis. So to get to grips with what is not going well, you need to move beyond general claims to a closer analysis of what the problem is. You need to sharpen your diagnostic tools and identify more precisely what is going wrong, so you can see what remedies you might need.


The emperor Aurangzeb’s son, attended by physicians. Gouache painting from the 1700s. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The Art of Self-Diagnosis

To flourish as a writer, one of the most useful arts you can develop is the art of self-diagnosis. The closer attention you can give to the question of what is not going right, the better you can deal with it.

So when things aren’t going well, the first thing to realise is that “writer’s block” is not a particularly useful diagnosis. It is just a general claim about how your writing is going. To get to a more accurate diagnosis, you need to ask what’s the specific issue here?

There are many more specific ailments that might afflict you as a writer. Here are a few: exhaustion; self-doubt; impatience; lack of preparation; perfectionism; indecision; distraction. These are all substantially different ailments; and being different ailments, they all have different cures.

For example, one cure for exhaustion is rest. If you get stuck, as Hilary Mantel says, get away from your desk. Do something else. When you are tired, problems with your writing can seem intractable. But after taking a day off and coming back to them, they can resolve themselves almost magically.

What about self-doubt? Some measure of constructive self-doubt may be useful for a writer. If you think everything you write is brilliant from the get-go, the odds are you are deluded. But similarly, if you think everything you write is terrible, you are almost certainly equally deluded. And this delusion is going to get in the way of your writing.

Constructive self-doubt is the sceptical, analytical ability to ask: what isn’t working here, and how can I get it to work better? But destructive self-doubt is very different. It is the crazed urge to throw your work into the waste-bin, to set it on fire and watch it burn. It is the desire to ritually purge the world by destroying everything you’ve ever written. This kind of destructive self-doubt needs remedying. The first step in remedying this is to blow out that burning match and step away from your desk. And the second stage is to return to the work with a more dispassionate curiosity, asking “What is working here, and what isn’t?”

Impatience is different again. I once attended a talk by the writer Alan Garner who, like many professional writers, said he didn’t believe in writer’s block. But he conceded there was such a thing as writer’s impatience. When writing, it is easy to want a project to take shape all at once, fully formed. But ideas take time to coalesce. Writing is an iterative process of rethinking, reconceptualising and reworking. A degree of impatience may be useful in keeping you working. But when impatience drives you to try and short-cut this process, it becomes a problem.

If you have diagnosed your problem as impatience, then there are plenty of remedies available. You might decide to focus on smaller issues in your writing, rather than worrying about the progress of the whole. You might tell yourself that this morning, it is enough to edit just this page until it is working, allowing the rest to look after itself.

The same goes for those other ailments that you might have as a writer: lack of preparation; perfectionism; indecision; distraction. First, you need to identify the problem more precisely. Then you can set about finding a cure that works for you.

A bag of remedies

The more precisely you can diagnose your ailments as a writer and the more accurately you can name them, the more you can treat them. Once you know what you are dealing with, you can start to build up your own personal bag of remedies that can help you deal with the problems you face.

What’s in your personal medicine-bag will differ from one writer to another. But going beyond the idea “I have writer’s block” to more precise diagnoses of the problems you are facing is an important first step in developing this folk healer’s art. And as you get more skilled at seeing the specific problems you face, and the remedies there are available, your development as a writer becomes smoother. Because then, when you stumble across difficulties and find yourself blocked, instead of being left with a general sense of malaise, you can hone your diagnosis and simply reach into your bag and pull out a cure.

Image: Yes or No. Charles Dana Gibson, 1905 pen and ink on paper. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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