Why “Writer’s Block” Isn’t Really Writer’s Block—And How to Fix It

Jun 9, 2021

In the 1994 book Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott dispenses advice legendary among writers on how to write a draft worthy of hitting send. Her key gem (and the only piece of advice I recall after nearly 30 years): “Just write a “sh***ty first draft.”

That short sentence is the mantra that informs every article, case study, white paper, and…er, today’s blog post that I create. Writing on command can be challenging, especially for marketing, PR, and media relations professionals who produce copy on deadline about complex healthcare topics. There are times when that first sentence just won’t come to mind, making us fall prey to believing we have writer’s block.

However, after writing for a living for 20+ years, I no longer believe in so-called writer’s block. Why? Because that tired phrase suggests I don’t have control of the writing process. Hundreds of well-received articles, reports, and other papers would suggest otherwise.

What I finally figured out is once I write those first 100 throwaway words (okay, 200 or 300), I need to trust that the creative process will kick in sooner—rather than later—and lead me to a final, polished, client-worthy draft.

Even so, the writing process is never as easy or linear as we would like it to be. If I still can’t produce quality work after writing that terrible first draft, as Lamott suggests, I know it’s time to stop and redirect as quickly as possible. I find there are two primary reasons why writers get stuck, which are relatively easy to fix with the right approach.

Zero creative inspiration. You just came off a 12-hour writing jag, and now it’s time to do it all over again with a 2,000-word byline. While you may have a strong command of the topic and direction, you are getting stuck with the lead, introduction, or headline. This is a common stumbling block for writers because this is where your words need that spark to draw in readers. When this happens, I stop, switch gears, and do activities that will inspire creative thinking.

This typically involves browsing publications from other industries. A few of my go-to pubs are Fast Company and Wired, both of which have punchy headlines, good pacing, and well-structured articles. I also read current healthcare news for inspiration and comb through a desktop folder of well-written articles and reports I have saved for this specific purpose. I may even listen to an audiobook for a few minutes or do push-ups and squats next to my desk. The activity doesn’t matter, it just needs to help you shift from an analytical to a creative mindset.

No direction, and it’s due end of day. You have three interviews to sort through, conflicting directions from the client, and the outline in your head is spinning out of control. Been there, and yes, there is a solution. Take another look at the assignment memo or creative brief for clarity. If it still doesn’t make sense, rewrite it in your own words until it does. If guidance wasn’t provided, quickly write a creative brief for yourself that includes a one-sentence objective and three key takeaways (one sentence each).

Still stuck? Take it next level and write a one-page outline resembling the basic four-paragraph essay you learned in high school. The four-paragraph essay includes the headline and four paragraphs with topic sentences (the intro, two middle sections, and a conclusion.) After you have committed to this outline, add more paragraphs under each of the four sections and give them topic sentences as well. Drop chunks of information into each paragraph, finish that bad first draft, rename it, and move into the writing zone.

I also write down ideas in my notes app on my phone as they occur (knowing I will never remember them later), usually after a shower or before bed when I am more relaxed. Some of my best writing starts this way. Finally, I keep an editorial cheat sheet crammed with writing goodies, including a list of words and phrases I can grab and use to polish that final draft.

Need more tips to fix your writer’s block? Check out this blog from my colleague Morgan Lewis.

Michelle Ponte

Michelle Ponte is an award-winning healthcare writer and editor with more than 20 years’ experience creating compelling and actionable content for diverse healthcare audiences, including senior executives, physicians, nurses, patients, and consumers. She has served as senior editor and senior writer for HealthLeaders, an award-winning national b2b publication. She also oversaw media relations strategy for Kaiser Permanente’s growing clinical research program and led marketing and communications initiatives for a Nashville-based startup delivering healthcare news and information solutions to physicians and industry professionals. Before joining Amendola, Michelle ran a successful healthcare writing and content marketing business, handling custom content projects for many companies, including HealthLeaders- HCPro, Bank of America, Healthgrades, GE Health, 3M, Optum, Elsevier, and Parallon. She regularly wrote and edited thought leadership packages, bylined articles, reports, case studies, and presentations on a wide range of topics, including healthcare finance, IT, operations, value-based care, patient experience, nursing, talent management, and education. Michelle has developed a unique and truly client-centric approach to content creation, earning her the trust of countless clients, publishing companies, and CEOs alike. As a healthcare journalist, she won numerous national and regional awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors. Michelle holds a bachelor’s degree in English, with an emphasis in language studies, from San Francisco State University.