My best tip for overcoming writers block

Especially if you're on a deadline


Emily VanDerWerff

May 23 2021

10 min read


Writers block is a huge struggle for a lot of writers I know — and a lot of non-writers, honestly. Especially if you're on some sort of deadline, watching that deadline creep ever closer can cause greater and greater paroxysms of anxiety.

The worst thing is that there's no way to just fix it. You kind of have to get through the block to begin writing again, and sometimes you just don't have the time to wait.

A word of caution: That time you spend not writing isn't time wasted. Writing, like any art, is something that should be nurtured just a bit, at least until it's your profession. The idea that you must write every day to be a writer is kind of true, but it's also incredibly harmful and stress-inducing. You shouldn't write every day. You should give yourself mental space. If you have writers block, it's probably your brain trying to tell you something, and you should listen.

But let's assume you don't have that luxury. Whatever you have to write has to be written right now, or you're in the middle of a project and feeling just stymied enough by it to be blocked but also wanting to finish it before you leave the project's headspace. What do you do?

You set a timer.

This advice is the only surefire way to fight back against writers block that I've found. I heard it from director and screenwriter Courtney Hunt back in 2009, on the Creative Screenwriting podcast Before the Q&A, hosted by Jeff Goldsmith. (The episode appears to be lost to the mists of time.) Hunt was speaking about her then-new film Frozen River, for which she received an Oscar nomination for her screenplay. The host asked her how she overcame writers block, and she offered the advice that lodged in my brain.

Hunt said she would sit down at a predetermined time and set a timer for 15 minutes. (I usually use Online Stopwatch.) Then, for those 15 minutes, she would really work at writing. She would sit and stare at the blank page and try to summon the words to her fingertips. Then the timer would go off.

What happened next was crucial. If the words hadn't come in those 15 minutes, she would go about her day and return to her writing the next day. Usually, I have found, writers block stems from your brain being starved of input, taking in information from the world around you, which means it can't output anything. Hunt's method confronts this head-on. If the words aren't coming, then you head out into the world to do your chores or go for a walk or whatever, and your brain will be receptive to input that will help your writing output. Paradoxically, the longer you spend sitting there and trying to write, the worse off your brain will be for taking in new ideas, simply because it will enter a stressed-out, anxiety-ridden state about all you didn't get done.

But if the words do start coming, then just keep going as long as you're in the flow (or until you have some other appointment on your calendar). I usually set another 15-minute timer, because it helps me focus, but you probably don't have to if you don't think you need it. You repeat this as necessary.

The genius of Hunt's method is that pretty much anybody can spare 15 minutes here or there, and it laser focuses your brain on the task of writing for a small chunk of time that (if you're like me) will typically grow to a larger chunk of time. And if your brain just doesn't want to be doing the writing that day, it will let you know, so you can do something else.

I actually find this method is especially helpful on deadline, because your brain will know that shit just needs to get done, and the timer will help it set aside all of the stress and anxiety to focus on the work. Then you can set another timer and another until the work is done.

I don't need to set timers as much anymore, but I tend to do my best work when I do. And the people I've told about Hunt's method have typically found it helpful and effective. It doesn't work for everybody, but it tends to really work for those it works for.

So there you have it: my best advice for defeating writers block. Good luck!

Talk back to me: Do you have other writers block advice? Post about it in comments! Or reply to this email! I'll see it.

What I've been up to: It was a busy week for me at Vox, with a recommendation of HBO Max's wonderful new comedy Hacks, thoughts on Hollywood's nascent attempts to get its asshole boss problem under control, and a review of the (disappointing) third season of Master of None.

Because [Aziz] Ansari shoots Moments in Love in a narrower, slightly boxier aspect ratio than we’re used to seeing on modern television — a 4:3 aspect ratio, which was dominant for most of the medium’s history, up until widescreen TVs became more prevalent in the 2000s — scenes often look a little crowded, especially when there are more than two people in them (and, honestly, sometimes when there are only two people in them).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and at times, Moments in Love benefits from it. But the overall effect holds viewers at arm’s length throughout the season’s 4.5-hour running time, and that works to Master of None’s detriment.

What you missed if you aren't a paid subscriber to Episodes: Last week, Jessica Gentile explored why Gritty (yes, the mascot) is so popular with some non-binary and trans hockey fans, while I wrote a lot about how hard it is for me to cry while watching TV, as a way of reviewing some tremendously emotional episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Until I was 9, I cried all the time. I remember how embarrassed I was to cry as much as I did, how people used to stare at me having meltdowns, how harshly my parents would treat me when I couldn't seem to stop crying. But I didn't know another way to deal with the world.
There was an immense gap inside of me, and instead of trying to fill it, I tried to empty it instead. So I cried, and I cried, and I cried, in hopes that someone would hear me and realize these sobs were actually echoes, bouncing off the walls of a canyon deep inside. I didn't want people to soothe me; I wanted them to see that if given the chance, I would never stop crying. My tears were not shed because of their proximate cause. They were shed because when I was tiny, I told the wrong person I was a girl, and there were consequences.

Read me: My friend Kat Bailey is one of the best video game writers out there, and her IGN piece on the recent high-level departures from famed studio Blizzard (of Warcraft, Diablo, and Starcraft fame) is terrific culture journalism.

In an effort to understand what’s been happening at Blizzard, I spoke to multiple current and former Blizzard employees, some on the condition of anonymity. I was also able to speak on the record with three veteran Blizzard directors, all of whom have been with the company for more than 10 years now, as well as analysts and investors familiar with the company’s current circumstances. The picture that emerges is complicated. Many of the developers I spoke to are still loyal to what Blizzard represents in their mind, even if they are more mixed on some of the changes to it over the past few years.
But even if they are fond of Blizzard’s history and culture, many are still choosing to leave. Some of the departures are a natural consequence of the burnout that comes with working on the same game for more than a decade, others are because they sense an opportunity to chase their dream project in an industry currently awash in venture capital. And some are because they feel Blizzard has been on the decline over the past three or four years amid layoffs, budget cuts, and a lack of major releases, and that it’s time to move on.
This has left Blizzard at a crossroads, and it’s unclear what this will mean for the beloved publisher as it tries to chart a return to the glory that defined its best years.

Watch me: I am finally seeing press screenings in theaters again, and while I don't entirely trust my reactions to the movies I've seen in that fashion (it's still too much for my pandemic-ravaged brain to process!), seeing Cruella did remind me that I am probably the American critical hivemind's biggest Craig Gillespie stan. The Australian director started out in commercials (which shows), but I do dearly love his 2007 feature Lars and the Real Girl, and while his other films are messier than that one, I love how intricately he constructs his worlds. It really feels like you could move into every one of his movies, and I like that! Anyway, watch Lars and the Real Girl. It somehow simultaneously leans into and subverts its icky premise of a man falling for a sex doll.

And another thing... If you're into short tabletop RPGs designed to be played in a session or two, Escape from Dino Island does the job. I would tell you more about what the game is about, but it's all right there in the title. You are escaping from a Dino Island. Buy it here.

Opening credits sequence of the week: One of the most obscure Emmy winners for Outstanding Comedy Series is My World... and Welcome to It, a one-season series that ran from September 1969 through March 1970. Based on the writing of James Thurber, it's a show I've never seen, but I hope these opening credits convey its tone accurately, because I would like if the show were about an animated dog.

A thing I had to look up: It took me ages to figure out the name of the podcast on which I heard Hunt's advice. It was a good podcast! I'm sad nobody can listen to it.

This week's reading music: "Brutal" by Olivia Rodrigo

Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.



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