Scaling Writers’ Block

Writers’ block can feel like an impenetrable obstacle holding back your writing, but it can be overcome.

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You’re writing and everything is going well. The characters are strong, the plot is compelling, the scenes are unfolding before your eyes and the words just flow. Then, out of nowhere, everything just stops.

You’ve got writers’ block.

You stare at a blank page, waiting for the words to come, but nothing does. You will yourself to write but you just can’t.

Maybe you try a few sentences but they just don’t fit. Perhaps you delete them and start again. After a while, you stop trying. You just do nothing.

Then what?

Writing is not a sprint, but a marathon. More, it is climbing a mountain. At the start, the going is relatively easy. You can see a little way ahead, you have the first few scenes planned out and your route is clear. The weather is fair and you’ve got all your gear, mentally speaking, so you can just move forward. When the terrain starts to incline, when the angle of your climb gets steeper, that’s when it gets trickier. You can’t see so far ahead—whether you’ve plotted your path in advance, which some writers do, or you are making it up as you go along, as others prefer—and you’re in the lower clouds. The mountain is still there, but the way to the peak is no longer visible. Your next step is unclear and you will either move up or fall into the abyss, yet you cannot take the step as you can’t see where to place your feet. You’re afraid.

It’s alright to be scared at this point. That space before you is either a cliff or a void, but you need to keep going regardless. Embrace the fear.

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The thing about mountain climbing is that once you have passed the lower clouds, you have a clear run. For a while, at least. Then you get stuck with another layer of cloud, then more still. The air will get thinner and the ground steeper and you will be scaling a sheer vertical to reach the peak, but you will get there. And that is because you have a safety rope.

Unlike climbers, writers will not die if they take a misstep, or a wrong turn, or slip. Writers don’t perish from a bad decision; instead they improve. Writing it wrong means next time you will write it right, and by next time I mean the next draft. Writers’ block tends to only occur on first drafts of stories, and there is a reason for that: it is the first time you have to scale this mountain.

The first time a climber tackles a peak is a test of their physical endurance; the first draft is a test of your mental prowess. After all the struggles and dead ends and falters and frustration and battling and pain and self-loathing you will get to the summit, and when you reach the peak you get to admire the view: I did this, I got here, this is my achievement. Then you take a little while to get back down, have a rest at base-camp, and start the whole climb all over again. The second draft is less difficult than the first as you have already climbed your mountain, you have a much clearer idea of where you are going, and you’ve already been there. The third is easier still, and the fourth even more so. By the tenth, you are just fine-tuning your route to avoid slight trips, rather than stumbling blindly in the dark like you are now.

So keep writing, take that step. Who cares if the next sentence or paragraph or scene or chapter is not your best? It’s a first draft. Next time around you can sort that bit of the journey out, as looking back at where you came from is much clearer than looking forward at a path you are yet to establish. Just keep climbing.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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