Overcoming Writer’s Block: How to Outsmart Your Inner Critic

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Have you ever left writing an essay until the last minute because you didn’t know what to write? Or perhaps because you were overly harsh and critical of your writing?

An empty word document can bring up all kinds of uncomfortable mental and physical states such as anxiety, self doubt and overwhelm.

“Is it going to be any good?”, “Can I do it?” and “I don’t know what to write” are thoughts that may come to mind thanks to your inner critic.

In case you’re wondering, your inner critic is the annoying little voice in your head that has a negative comment about everything you do.

And it’s often this little crippling voice that is the cause of writer’s block and makes sure you leave writing essays until the night before they are due.

Writer’s block is rooted in two unrealistic expectations. These are:

1. You expect that you can write the essay all in one go.

2. You expect you need to write the essay perfectly the first time.

The reality is good essay writing doesn’t just happen in the first draft. It’s the result of many drafts.

Dr Particia Huston, author of the journal article “Resolving writer’s block” advises:

“It is important to relinquish your perfectionistic streak and set yourself more realistic goals. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect. Tell yourself that you just want to write a first draft. Reassure yourself that it is OK that your first effort is not great; you can improve it later”.

Often we can feel intense anxiety about starting a piece of writing. But the sooner you start writing the better. Even with just a few words (e.g. a title and some headings) you can experience a big decrease in anxiety around the writing task you need to do.

What other strategies can you use to overcome writer’s block? I’ve listed a few below.

Pretend to be someone else

If you think you can’t write then pretend that you’re someone else. Imagine you’re an expert in the area you’re writing about or an accomplished writer and ask yourself–

How would they tackle the writing task?

This simple strategy allows you to get out of your mental rut and focus directly on the subject matter.

Start your own writing bootcamp

One study tested the effectiveness of an intervention to overcome writer’s block and increase writing outputs amongst a group of academics who were stuck with their writing. 26 academics enrolled in the intervention which involved committing to doing the following –

  • Establish a good writing environment
  • Have 5 writing sessions per week in which they would produce 3 pages of new writing
  • To graph the pages produced over 22 weeks
  • Failure to produce 3 pages per day would result in the participants having to pay $15 to an organisation in which they hated.

    Sounds harsh?

    Well, it worked!

    Out of the 20 academics that stuck it out (6 dropped out) 17 had published significant works after the intervention was complete. New writing habits were established.

    You may not want to donate money to organisations you don’t like but perhaps consider making writing a regular part of your day and imposing some targets (e.g. minimum number of new words or pages) to achieve each day.

    Outrun your inner critic

    Don’t give your inner critic a chance to get a word in with two effective writing techniques: free falling and free writing.

    Free falling is a writing technique that involves zooming your word document down so you can’t make out the words (40% usually does the job) or turning off your computer monitor so there’s a black screen. Once you’ve made sure that the cursor is placed in the word document then you start writing.

    Free writing involves setting your timer for a set period of time (e.g. 20 minutes) and writing down whatever thoughts come to mind. If you can’t think of what to write, write “I can’t think of what to write”. If your mind goes blank then all you need to do is write “Blah blah blah blah…”. The aim of the game is to keep your hand moving until the 20 minutes is up.

    Both techniques stop your inner critic in its tracks because your inner critic can’t see what you are writing (free falling strategy) and doesn’t get a chance to make a negative comment as you are moving too quickly (free writing).

    The reality is you inner critic will always be with you. But there is comfort in knowing that there are techniques available that can outsmart your creepy inner critic, help you overcome writer’s block and have the words quickly flowing into your word document.

    4 thoughts on “Overcoming Writer’s Block: How to Outsmart Your Inner Critic

    1. Thanks a lot. Really of great help to me. I’m regaining confidence and my self-esteem.
      Brain: “Blah blah blah. How to tell her how profound, I feel concern and … . What to write next? Okay the essential is said. But … (can’t type everything). Time to hit the button now

    2. Here’s my problem: I seem to be able to spill out a whole lot of great, pertinent stuff (mostly good reasoning and ideas) in giant chunks on paper for a writing assignment, but when it comes down to putting it all together, I make a mess of it. I have natural structure, when I’m not being overly critical, but when I have to think about the structure, as with larger writing assignments, I can’t seem to hack it.

      Honestly, I feel like I’ve only met (seen the works of) two kinds of writers: the good and the bad (I really wanted to acknowledge the ugly, too, but I think it can easily fall under ‘bad’). But I feel like a good writer trapped in a shell of incompetency.

      It’s probably just my ADD, but I would really like to learn that I’m not alone with this and that there is a solution.

      Having said that, I do find it easy to argue a topic when I’m directing it in writing to an actual person, but I can’t seem to fool myself like that anymore. Hmm.

    3. The writing boot camp sounds interesting. I imagine if you have any kind of competitiveness in your nature, this would be very effective. Thanks for the post, this is good info.

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