Writers Block vs. Idea Block

Most authors have “writer’s block” at some point, but I suspect we’re often suffering from something I call “idea block”.  The definition of writer’s block is “the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.”  But I think that raises two separate issues:

  1. Not knowing what you want to write; i.e., you don’t have an idea (“idea block”)
  2. Knowing what you want to write but being unable to (an actual “writing block”)

Writer’s block and idea block have different solutions and causes.

Idea Block

Sometimes “writer’s block” is really an issue of having nothing to say, not that you can’t find the words to say it.  What appears to be a writing issue is an idea one.  If you don’t have an idea, you have nothing to articulate, which is why you may find words hard to come by.

If you don’t have an idea, I recommend not sitting down in front of a blank screen, which many find intimidating.  It’s arguably better to brainstorm and let your mind wander, and if the blank screen inhibits that, walk away.  If you’re okay with the blank screen, then having a file of story ideas or notes – as opposed to the momentous manuscript file – takes the pressure off and lets you write stuff that doesn’t have to work, or where the actual writing is irrelevant because it won’t appear in the story.

Other times, we have some ideas but just not enough of them, or they aren’t thought out enough and we don’t realize it until trying to articulate them.  Again what appears to be a problem with words is really an idea issue.

Sometimes we’re indecisive about what should happen in the story, from whether to include or mention something like back story, or whether a character will/would do something or not.  Other times, we have several ideas for what should happen and can’t decide which one to pursue.  These are characterization, story structure, or plotting issues.  If you can’t decide, you can’t write it.  Recognize that these are the real issues and make a decision about what should happen and why.

Writing Block

To me, real writer’s block is when you know what you want to say but are struggling with the actual words to do it. No matter how you try, phrases don’t seem to work together, everything is awkward, or the lines you write just don’t inspire you.

Not being in the mood can cause it, as can fussing over wording too much and wanting to get it perfect the first time.  Common wisdom suggests just blurting it out and getting it “on paper”, then improving the writing later.

Grammar can actually be a cause, too, if your sentences are not really fitting together or you are using misplaced modifiers, for example.  It pays to be a student of English and have this aspect of writing firmly under control so you can focus on what your words convey.

If you know how something (a person, or room) in your story looks but can’t decide how to write it, or even if you should include it now, that’s also writer’s block.  One solution is experience, whether gained via writing or learning more about the craft of storytelling.  For example, most consider it a mistake to start your story with description.  If you understand why and why not, you can make faster decisions and not get stuck, or “blocked” by indecision.

Sometimes you really just don’t “have it” and need to come back later.  For this, I sometimes practice writing opening sentences to stories or scenes in my head, where they are easily discarded.

Coda

Understanding the difference between idea block and writer’s block can help you overcome whichever one is causing your lack of progress. Sometimes people beat themselves up over writer’s block, telling themselves they aren’t a good writer, when that isn’t even the issue, so be nice to yourself and just figure out what the problem really is, then solve it.

Happy writing!

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3 thoughts on “Writers Block vs. Idea Block

  1. Bobby Evangelista

    Dear Randy,

    I enjoyed reading your article on Idea/Writing Block. I find it very relevant because I often have this problem, especially regarding ideas.. I am a blogger for an outsourcing company and I am expected to update their site regularly. One way I solve this problem is to get ideas from my previous blogs but even then, I could only revise them for X number of times. Also, I feel I have exhausted every possible aspect of the outsourcing business.

    I hope you can suggest other ways I could come up with fresh ideas to write.

    Regards,

    Bobby

    Reply
    1. randyellefson Post author

      Hi Bobby. Thanks for commenting. You could always follow google trends in your field and then write articles on things you read about, giving your own take.

      Reply
  2. Cord

    With how I work I ONLY suffer from idea block, and it’s not really a “block”, I get ideas but I really kick the tires on them until I’m ULTRA sure it’s ready to take to the next step. I think people diagnose themselves with writer’s block when they just haven’t found the right idea. If I’m in the middle of writing and I lose interest in a big way it’s because I over-valued the concept. All in all, you really have to “sleep” with the idea, let it marinate. Put off writing as far as you can. The idea will either strengthen or weaken. Give it time. Thanks for writing this article.

    Reply

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