The Born Freelancer on Managing Writer’s Block

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.


It is probably inevitable. You yourself may face it one day if you have not already. Like death and taxes there may be no way to actually avoid it. And for a creative person it is perhaps even more to be feared than either death or taxes. I’m talking about the dreaded writer’s block. The turning off of the creative inspiration tap with which we all quench our freelance thirsts.

I’ve known a few writers who claim never to have had it. I would posit that they have had it but are either in deep denial about it or else have evolved such elaborate mechanisms to cope with it that when it happens they keep so busy they need never acknowledge its temporary effects.

On the other hand, I’ve also met a few who seem to almost wallow in the advent of a block. They use it as an excuse to go off the deep end and make some dramatic gesture like staying in bed all week or throwing out the clothes they wore on the day it all went bad. I don’t blame them, their irrational reactions at least make some kind of sense to them.

The creative process is at times a mysterious one. Where does inspiration come from? Where does a particular idea originate? Of course once inspiration has been granted by the creative muses it is often pure brute strength of will or craft skill that takes over to polish it into shape (writing ability, rewriting, editing, etc.) But that initial glimmer of light, that ray of magical sunlight that we wish to capture in a literary jar, is often as fleeting and elusive as any wonderful dream which evaporates upon awakening. So is it any wonder we often fear its absence in our life, especially when we have chosen to use it as our primary means of making a living?

To make a living out of creativity means accepting that you cannot always rely on its hourly or daily reappearance. It means recording any and all inspiration when it comes and then going back to those recorded impressions on the less-inspired working days and letting the craft of freelancing take over (by rewriting, editing, etc.) I have previously discussed my main tool for doing so – the making of lists. I use lists to capture all new ideas or inspiration and hold them in print until the day comes that I don’t necessarily get any. On that day I can rely upon my lists to see what creative gems (or otherwise!) await my review.



There are usually a few key elements that either separately or together (forming a “perfect storm”) set up the conditions for a creative blockage. Recognizing them ahead of time may well mean averting their worst impact and minimizing the delays until the creative process renews itself in your head.

Fatigue/burn out

Sometimes it is strictly an energy issue. There is a simple checklist to follow. Physically, are you eating well? Are you exercising, at least getting out for a daily walk? Emotionally, are you connecting with real life humans in your life and not just spending days in darkened workspaces hunched over a glowing computer screen? I believe in the organic approach to our freelance lifestyle. Every aspect sooner or later impacts every other aspect. Some of us may consider ourselves master compartmentalizers but sooner or later there will be leakage. Expect some and prepare for it by treating your health as your most valuable asset. Without your health, mental and physical, you cannot expect to work at full capacity.


When working from a home office it can be especially easy to become distracted by domestic issues and the million things that are going on around you. Do you have a designated workspace in your home? If not, can you set one up? If you are bored, remember that boredom is a self-inflicted wound. Think of yourself in the future as having done the “boring” piece of work you are currently bogged down in. Imagine awarding yourself some kind of enjoyable treat or reward. It is a form of positive forward-visioning. At the very least, think of the paycheque you will get when you have successfully completed your project!

Something is wrong

I am a big believer in “reverse engineering”. If a project has bogged down, it is possible that there is a good reason for it that I am missing. Your subconscious will sometimes be amazing at perceiving the bigger picture than your conscious self could ever be. Stop. Take a deep breath and step back. Look at the project. Look at where you are in the project. Is it going where you want it to be going? Is it going where you need it to be going? Have you made a misstep? Usually such a misstep will be recent if the blockage is sudden so look back over the output of the last day or so. Can you detect your initial instincts going awry? If the blockage has been vague and ongoing and has reached a kind of crisis point, look at the project itself. Is it the subject you want to write about? Have you done whatever groundwork is necessary to do it? Has your belief in the project’s core set of values changed in the process of writing it? These questions, once answered, may reveal key reasons that the blockage has occurred.



Ideally, of course, you want to avoid creative blockage. However, I do recognize from time to time it may be almost useful to have a temporary one to fight against; building up your energies and willpower to get on with it until you reach such an internal pressure point that you can just smash through whatever it is holding you back. Then you can creatively ride on the rising crest of energy and positive emotions that you have just harnessed and let loose. I call it “reaching critical mass” and it can be very exciting to indulge in, if you are of a suitable temperament, but it can take its toll if you resort to its usage repeatedly. And as a tool for making a living out of creativity, it is at best unreliable and at worst capable of rendering you thoroughly exhausted. There are other, less all-demanding techniques to try first.


I find it extremely helpful avoiding creative blockage to have a regular routine. Routines offer lubrication for the creative engine. I prefer writing my notes in longhand and posting them on my bulletin board of lists. Once through that phase I like to write first drafts on a favourite computer at my special work desk in my home office. I like to write first drafts first thing upon awakening (but after I’ve eaten). Rewrites and edits I like doing late at night when the world is quiet and I can pause and look at what I have written and decide if it is any good or not. Often it isn’t until later that evening that I can readily tell the difference.

Keep stimulated

Paradoxically, it is also necessary within that routine to keep intellectually and emotionally stimulated. Routines can dull our senses if we do not keep our brains engaged with stimulating activities. If I am working on a particular story for a long time I will take time out and walk to the library to read up on the subject. I will go online to see what the latest buzz is on the topic in the various chat rooms and forums. I also like to arrange my schedule so that even on deadline I have enough time to pursue other interests in my life. Again, taking the organic approach to my freelance lifestyle, if one area is stimulated and engaged in positive interaction with the outside real world, that should get reflected back into my body of work.

Keep writing

The most pragmatic advice I ever had on the subject was from an older writer who denied that there even was a thing as writer’s block. He said it was just sheer laziness; the secret was to keep writing. Write every day. Write anything. Write everything. Write what you’re supposed to write about even if tomorrow you throw it all away. Write about what you’re not supposed to write about, it will keep the juices flowing. Like an athlete, a creative person has to stay in shape, keep flexing and testing those creative muscles and never stop hitting the keyboard. If I feel the slightest bit bored or disinterested in what I’m writing, I’ll stop and check emails. A brief time out to email a friend in need of a little moral support halfway across the globe will do wonders for refreshing my perspective on my work and my own life. It enables me to usually get right back to the job at hand without any further delay.



Despite all your best intentions, sometimes you just feel the energy drop, the creative vault doors closing and dreaded creative inertia setting in. I still have a few tricks left up my sleeve to deal with that kind of development.


By using handwritten lists of ideas (as outlined in my previous post) I can push the pieces of paper about and look for unexpected connections. Creativity has often been identified with that simple concept, the juxtaposing of unexpected ideas. Are there parallels or similarities that I had not noticed before? Can two dissimilar ideas on the same topic collide and smash my preconceptions apart thus creating a new approach to a particular subject matter?


I will often use the time I’m not feeling very creatively inspired to do more research and/or more administrative activities relating to the project at hand. Going back to my theory of “critical mass” it may be that I just haven’t compiled enough research upon which to comment or extract whatever new angle I wish to pursue. In which case, I need to acquire more raw data in the form of books, magazines, online material, personal interviews, etc. Talking to experts in the field or even interested bystanders in an area new to me will often yield staggeringly useful flashes of inspiration that will set the mental engine roaring and my creative drive back into top gear once more.

Get away

When all else fails, get away. Stop. Get something to eat. Go for a walk. Take a nap. Set yourself free; even on deadline you can take up to an hour or two or three. Just stop thinking about the problem blockage and get on the rest of your daily life. I am amazed how often the creative blockage or problem will have resolved itself – especially after a invigorating walk. It is as if some background mental computer program was running and analyzing the problem much more effectively than my brain’s foreground computer could ever do.



If a creative blockage hits don’t panic. It could be a blessing, a chance to reimagine your project and revitalize yourself. If you feel it slipping into something more serious, of course, it could be indicative of a clinical depression which you should have professionally checked out. But for most of us, a creative blockage is only a temporary setback and part of the price we willingly pay having chosen the freelancing lifestyle. Prepare for it as best you can and – trust me – you will survive it and live to write another day.


Posted on October 9, 2013 at 9:06 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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