Writer’s Block: What to Do When the Words Won’t Come

From Joe Hagan’s new book Sticky Fingers—The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine:

“…a new hire at Rolling Stone was a former Los Angeles Times writer named David Felton who was part of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning team that covered the Watts riots in 1965. A talented comic mind with a blond nimbus of hair and a brush mustache, Felton was assigned a report on the Summer of Love….But then he developed a speed habit, grew a long beard, and fell apart. Colleagues famously dubbed him “the Stonecutter” because he was so slow to finish a story.

Almost all writers have “Stonecutter” periods when the words come very slowly. One Washingtonian writer, a very smart guy, started out well with us but then had the worst writer’s block I’ve seen. His time was running out and one day he came in, looking happy, and said, “Jack, we’ve figured it out. I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist. He says it’s either fear of success or fear of failure.”

He went on to be a good writer and editor at two weekly magazines in New York. He could handle weekly deadlines but monthly deadlines gave him too much time to brood about whether he could write the story.

My first four years in journalism were at United Press International where they liked to say there was a deadline every minute. Anyone with a hint of writer’s block wouldn’t have lasted a week at UPI but the goal at wire services was mostly just be fast and accurate.

A tip for handling writer’s block that I got from one Washingtonian writer: Pick up the work of a writer you admire and start typing out his/her words. Something about that takes the edge off the blank screen syndrome and it gets you closer to hearing the rhythm of the way a good writer writes.

Another Washingtonian writer: Try starting a piece in the middle or at the end. I often spend way too much time fretting about the lede and not writing anything at all.

Or just start writing something like “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’s back” in hopes your moving fingers will help your brain come up with the right words to get your story started.
Some writer’s block memes from Angela Scott.

Or seven ways to deal with writer’s block from Writer’s Digest.



  1. Dear Jack,

    How coincidental that your story about writers block should appear at this moment.

    A few days ago, a good friend and excellent writer, Cara Caddoo (Envisioning Freedom ~ Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life, Harvard University Press), was caught in the clutches of writer’s block. Herewith the letter I wrote to her and her reply. Perhaps a few blocked writers will find it helpful.
    Dear Cara,

    As you already know, the business of writing is a very dear privilege, like good looks and good luck.

    I know of one rule for the professional writer: Write every single day you live, however so many words you commit to, or more, no matter how much you feel like sleeping, or playing pool, or shape changing into a green tree monkey on a Caribbean island.

    Much of what you write in those sacred hours (celestial dawn until nine o’clock is sacred to me), plus any other moments you can manage, will be meanderings, but at times you will unearth gems.

    If you get stuck, don’t retreat to “research” except to clarify or expand. Bovine rumination is forbidden.

    As I’d calculate it, you will have at least 29,000 days ahead to write, let’s say, 300 good words a day, every day. That amounts to roughly 8,700,000 words in your fabulous career, especially if you distill your dreams by 10,000 times to get those classic cognac phrases and champagne insights.

    That’s all I know about “writer’s block” which I once truly thought was a street in Greenwich Village.


    From Cara:
    . . . thanks so much for this advice. . . Just now catching up and was about to write. It seems like you’ve read my mind, though. I’m printing this line of advice ~ “don’t retreat to research “ ~ and taping it above my desk. Yes, really needed to hear that!

    hugs, Cara

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