Got writer’s block? [Find science-based cures here]

Science-based cures for writers’ block.

OMG, you guys. I spent SO much time last week staring at a blank screen and going down Facebook and research rabbit holes. I’ve been working on this new free mini-course − ironically on this very subject − and to finish the first draft, I had to pull out all the stops. 

Since I know you face this too, I decided to research the science behind a few of my favorite ways to get unstuck. And yeah, it was another way to procrastinate. ;-) But I think you’ll like what I found.

Change the scenery.

Although neurobiologists are still trying to determine precisely why, they have long known that novelty stimulates exploration and learning. If you can swing it, travel is all-but guaranteed to produce a breakthrough, but changing scenery can be as simple as switching rooms in the same building. I first noticed this phenomenon when I was a magazine editor writing at least six of my own stories per issue. If I’d been in the office too long, I’d make more progress if I spent an afternoon writing from home, and likewise, if I’d been writing a lot from home, I’d be more productive if I went back to the office. I suspected the slight novelty helped stimulate my mind, and I got confirmation one day when I felt stifled behind the door of my office but couldn’t leave. I tried writing in the lunchroom. It worked! Although I don’t recommend writing from a lunchroom full of dirty dishes, I do recommend a new environment. Normally write at the kitchen table? Try the bedroom or the patio. Or the library. Or a coffee shop. Or join a co-working space.

Write on Paper.

I’ll admit that I spend far too many hours in front of my computer, but I’m also a sucker for writing on paper. I’m sure it drives my husband bananas, but I’ve got pens and spiral notebooks and legal pads littered all over the place — my purse, my nightstand , the kitchen island, the car. That’s not just because literal notebooks are less distracting than an internet-capable laptop (there are apps for that problem), but it’s also because writing by hand increases creativity, and idea generation. Researchers at Indiana University and the University of Washington have found that writing by hand increased neural activity and idea flow. And, according to a Princeton University study, writing longhand is also better for learning, so it’s ideal for note taking. Deciphering my messy scribbles later? Now that’s a problem I’ve yet to solve.

Take a shower, mow the lawn, or go for a drive.

Ever notice how your best ideas come when you’re unable to write them down? It’s not Murphy’s law. It’s science. According to Mental Floss, when your prefrontal cortex is distracted (read: your internal editor is occupied), your unconscious mind is uninhibited and free to wander and to create. While any monotonous task can work, showers are especially fruitful because they are relaxing and spur alpha waves and dopamine release, both excellent catalysts for creativity in their own right. I’ve never tried capturing my ideas on the shower door with a dry erase marker, but if you try it, let me know how it works.

Hopefully next time you’re stuck, one of those techniques will spark a burst of inspiration. (Here are a few additional suggestions for reawakening your creativity.)

Ditch the perfectionism

Perfectionism is not a good thing, not even as a faux weakness in a job interview. It’s a true weakness. It’s something I still battle even though I know that multiple studies have shown that people with perfectionist tendencies are less successful and less likely to finish what they start.

I’ll give you my two go-to solutions. First, if you’re telling yourself you’re not good enough, you can try to outrun your evil inner voice by typing as fast as you can. For help with that try setting a timer and writing without hitting backspace. Or better yet, check out the Write or Die app.

Second, you can counteract that voice by reminding yourself of the things you are good at. Research shows that positive affirmations are good for more than our confidence. They also make us more receptive to fixing mistakes and refining our work with less anxiety. To be clear, we’re not talking Stuart Smalley fake affirmations. We’re talking about facts that are specific and true. For example, one of my most talented grad students used to beat himself up about things he sucked at. Instead of saying “I suck at description,” I coaxed him into saying, “I’m working hard at description,” which was true. He was busting his butt on it. This guy was also a master of dialogue, so I told him to fight his inner critic by quoting me. “Tiffany Hawk says I’m freakishly good at dialogue.” 

How about you? How can you flip your negative self talk on its head? What are you good at? Let me know in the comments.


If you’re raring to go on a novel or memoir and want some help reaching the finish line, take my free course: