Five Ways I Deal with Writer's Block

Some coping mechanisms I've developped over the years of staring at the blinking cursor.

28 April 2024

I never knew whether to think I’m an incredibly fast or a remarkably slow writer. Some days I can write pages and pages of scientific prose in a single sitting, and other days getting out a sentence or two is a major accomplishment. People in my life know better to ask me when I’ll be done writing something, as the answer is typically “I have no idea”.

Over the years, though, I’ve developped a few coping mechanisms that work really well for me that I want to share. Just know that I’m talking from my personal experience, and that what works for me very well might not work for you.

Fear is the mind killer

My writer’s block is often a manifestation of my anxiety, fear, or weariness. Here are some representative scenarios that have caused me to freeze up:

  1. I don’t feel confident about the subject matter or the quality of the prose I’m writing.
  2. I’m writing a proposal for a research project I worry won’t be able to complete.
  3. I’m burnt out or rapidly approaching it.

It feels a bit vulnerable confessing these thoughts I’ve had. I often don’t even fully acknowledge them while I’m writing because of the discomfort of looking those thoughts in the face.

This is the “knowing” the problem part of the equation. Nowadays, when I have a hard time putting words on the page, my first step is to take a deep breath and ask myself: “what’s really the problem?” and move forward from there.

Once we know what we’re up against, these are the tools I reach for.

Tip #1: Lean back, not in.

After I water-skiied for the first time, I couldn’t figure out why my arms felt like limp spaghetti afterwards. Later I realized that folks typically lean back while holding the bar that is towing you. Being the little ball of anxiety that I am, I was holding it to my chest the entire time.

That’s a folksy, roundabout way of saying that we sometimes think we’re more in control of something the more effort we exert, but often times all it achieves is wearing us out and making the situation harder to control.

When I spend a few hours in front of a text editor having produced nothing of note, my brain draws a flat word/hour trendline and decides I’ll never finish. Panic begins to set in, and it seems impossible to do anything but sit in front of that editor until I produce something of substance. Bleeding a stone comes to mind.

Now, when I can’t write for good amount of time, I know it’s time to change tact instead of doubling down. That typically involves taking a walk to plan next steps.

People had the whole "lean-back" thing figured out in the 1920s. Source:  El Gráfico/Wiki Commons

People had the whole "lean-back" thing figured out in the 1920s. Source: El Gráfico/Wiki Commons

A note on procastination

Now, leaning back can sometimes seem like the ever-dreaded procastination. Surely, procastination can be destructive, but it’s also a biological response to anxiety. Doing the same thing over and over and making no progress is an anxiety-inducing experience for me, especially when I feel the stakes are high. So paradoxically, spending time relaxing with friends and family is way more likely to result in a Productive Joseph rather than Procastinating Joseph.

Tip #2: Have a plan.

The most common advice I’ve gotten regarding writer’s block is to write an outline, and it’s great advice. I find it helpful not to stress too much about getting a super detailed outline. I like to outline my scientific prose into hypotheses or narrative arguments that lead logically into one another. This is the phase where I do the vast majority of my reading and research, tucking away choice quotes and citations. The research phase is often when/how I develop my narrative arguments. I honestly think this is the most fun part.

For this blog post, just writing out the tips as headlines was enough.

Other than that, I don’t have too much to add to this bit of well-worn advice.

Tip #3: Put pen to paper.

This One Weird Trick™ has genuinely made my writing experience a lot less painful and a lot quicker. I write my first draft on a pad of paper. That’s it.

When I write things with a text editor and keyboard, I obsessively write and rewrite the sam sentence over and over. I also shuffle paragraphs, audition alternate phrasing, and after a long while of furious typing, one could have mistken me for having written Moby Dick rather than a couple of half-finished sentences.

When writing with pen and paper that kind of “editing in situ” is a world more difficult. I need to pause for a second and think a few words ahead, lest I end up with a page that is entirely composed of scratche out words.

I prefer to write on a pad of very cheap, canary yellow paper. The low quality paper and “draft yellow” encourage me to embrace the “garbage draft” nature of the excercise. As I write, I might realise that I might prefer a different phrase or approach. The permanence of the ink encourages me to make peace with the imperfect draft and let future Joseph figure it out. Honestly, this first felt like it would be a nightmare, but it’s actually been a pressure valve, relieving my expectation of getting it right the first time.

I normally enjoy writing with a fountain pen, but for this practice, I like something less distracting. I use a Zebra Sarasa Clip with a 1 milimetre ball point which’ll run you $1.75 USDI sometimes like use a Paper Mate medium sign pen but it’s better for sketching ideas than writing long texts.. It writes smooth and thick without bleeding.

The first draft of this blog post.

The first draft of this blog post.

I first came upon this idea this when I saw some text editor with a “typewriter mode” which prevents you from use the backspace buttonI’ve entirely forgotten which, I think I might have seen it on HackerNews but it would have been a million years ago. It might have also made typewriter noises.. I can’t find that original editor, but I’ve not been super impressed with the distraction-free editors I’ve seen since. The biggest problem is that I’m on a computer, only a millisecond away from a million videos about 3D-printed clock escapements.

I’ve toyed with the idea of doing the George R. R. Martin thing and getting an old PC running DOS and WordStar, which would solve the YouTube problem but not the editing in situ problem.

But I Need a Computer to Write the First Draft!

I was at first hesitant about writing first drafts away from my computer, especially writing scientific manuscripts. “What about research?” or “How will I cite things?”… Honestly, this turned out not to be a big deal for me.

Before setting out on my first-draft, I’ve already a vague outline and read a good amount about the topic (see “Tip #2: Have a plan”).

I always wondered how Don Draper wrote any ad copy without a computer.

I always wondered how Don Draper wrote any ad copy without a computer.

Tip #4: Get out, get down.

I feel like I often get a lot of work done when I’m not reminded that I’m doing work. Now that we’ve embraced the pad & pen, we’re now untethered to power outlets and unburdened by battery capacity and screen glare. You can venture forth into the bright, shiny world away from your office’s walls.

I’ve taken my writing to the yard and the park in the summer, to airports and the Montreal metro, cafés and libraries. Even though I’m doing the same task, doing it somewhere else (outdoors especially) feels like doing something new. I love, especially, bustling areas (which I know is a polarizing preference). The busier a diner or the sidewalk near my park bench is, the better. If you prefer minimal stimuli, maybe considering library-hoppingIf you’re in Montreal, the McGill Islamic Studies Library is probably the quietest, prettiest spot I know. Far too quiet for me..

I also pretty much need music to write in the absence of ambient noise, favouring loud and up-tempo, driving rhythyms (Six Demon Bag and Cope have gotten me through a lot of writing).

Sometimes, buying a new album is a great excuse to get a writing session in. Snagging a Gladie album last Bandcamp Friday got me through my last deadline.

Tip #5: Write often.

This is the hardest bit of advice I’ve found to follow but it does help. Writing something, anything, at a regular interval is a great way for one to gain confidence in one’s writing. As I’ve said, one of my greatest writing blocks is lack of confidence and fear. Throwing myself at “the white bull” every monthI only started in January and already have skipped a month. I said it was the hardest one for me to follow! for my regular blog post has, however, made the process gradually less of an ado and give me confidence that I can write effectively even when I don’t initially “feel it”.

It’s also a great way of getting to know what works. These tips came from trying different things. I’ll probably adopt some more and modify the four I’ve come to rely on. The best way to figure it out is to do it, and do it often.

If you’re lacking subjects for your writing excercises, start with an account of your week or a paragraph on something that caught your eye in a private journal or public blogPseudonyms can be freeing for this use-case..


I hesitated writing this, not because I was experiencing writer’s block, but because I didn’t want it to come off as self-help-y. I don’t have everything figured out, I very much still struggle with writer’s block. Earlier this month it took me nearly two weeks to write a two page abstract. During the process, however, I realized that I had adopted the above methods of coping with writer’s block and it really underlined how far I had come with dealing with it.

The writing process for my last manuscript was a breezeThe experimentation, on the other hand, took forever., which is a stark departure from where I started as a graduate student.

Regardless, my hope is that this was somewhat helpful to you, but also know I’m just talking about my personal experiences so your mileage will almost certainly vary. Let me know what works for you in the comments below!

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