Núria Jar, a science journalist based in Barcelona, was struggling to write a script for a segment of the Catalan radio show Catalunya Migdia about the 10th anniversary of the discovery of the Higgs boson. A whole day went by, but Jar was stuck; she couldn’t figure out how to start her story. It wasn’t until she went for a motorcycle ride that the idea came to her: She would start the program off with a clip from a press conference in which a scientist exclaims, in English, “I think we have it!” followed by an enthusiastic reaction and applause from the audience (skip to 27:27 for the clip). “You don’t need to know English to be situated there,” Jar says. With this one scene, Jar could hook her listeners. To capture the idea before it evaporated, Jar stopped at a red light, quickly pulled off her helmet, and recorded an audio message for herself.
The inspiration you need to get past writer’s block can strike at any moment, but “it does not come from heaven. It’s your conscious and subconscious working,” Jar says. She finds herself thinking about her stories everywhere—on her motorcycle, in the shower, even in dreams.
The struggle with writer’s block is familiar to even the most seasoned journalists. When Mark Johnson, former science reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, was trying to write a story on resilience, he simply couldn’t. Johnson, who now works for The Washington Post, doesn’t encounter writer’s block often, he says, but when it does hit, it hits hard. “I tried writing probably fifteen to twenty ledes. And none of them worked,” he says. “There was a point at which I almost despaired.”
Writer’s block can have many causes, some of which may not be directly related to writing itself. For instance, it can be a sign that the premise of your story is off, in which case you may need to tweak its angle or find a new one altogether. Or you may struggle to start a draft simply because your reporting is incomplete. You might realize your story is missing a key voice, for example, or that a question you had hoped to address remains unanswered.
Even when these problems are solved, though, writing itself can sometimes remain—let’s face it—a painful process. Eventually, you have to look up at your screen, where a blank page stares back at you.
Write Yourself Out of It
When dreading a blank screen, it can be tempting to put off writing until inspiration strikes. Sadly, that strategy is not very effective. “Avoiding writing has no curative power,” says Rachael Cayley, who teaches academic writing at the University of Toronto. The remedy for writer’s block, she argues, is to write yourself out of it. Make a habit of writing often, including in the early stages of a project. How early? “People should be writing all along,” she says.
Even when your ideas are not fully formed or the material needed is incomplete, writing can be a way to sort through information and determine what might be useful.
Even when your ideas are not fully formed or the material needed is incomplete, writing can be a way to sort through information and determine what might be useful. This process, which Cayley calls “writing as thinking,” helps us view writing as not just a final product, but as the personal process of clarifying our ideas, long before we turn in a “good” draft to our editors. It also removes the self-stunting expectation that what you first put down on paper should be your best work.
Many journalists employ mental tricks to help them get their ideas onto the page without having to think of themselves as actually (gulp) writing. For example, after reviewing reporting notes and interview transcripts, try setting them aside and writing out the main ideas of your story. Focus on what may later turn into your nut graf: What is the point of the story? Why should we care? Why now? The key here is to write without rereading, without care for aesthetics. For Canada-based freelance science journalist Dan Falk, this process leads to a string of bullet points. With further fleshing out, these ideas “eventually become the article,” he says. Once you have words to work with, the task becomes more like editing yourself, which can feel less intimidating to some writers.
Talk It Out
When writing out even rough ideas feels too daunting, an alternative is to talk to yourself. Literally. Just as Jar did at the red light, Steven Strogatz, science writer and mathematics professor at Cornell University, likes to record his ideas out loud when they are still unpolished. “I have found using dictation to be one of the best ways to get over the writer’s block,” he says. “I go for a walk with my dog and just start dictating. I talk and talk and don’t worry about what’s coming out.” Most of what comes out is “garbage,” he says, but the goal is to generate a ton of raw material.
Talking through your story with others provides a sense of distance and exposes your ideas to scrutiny beyond your own.
Talking with others, such as colleagues and friends, can also help with writer’s block, says Aleida Rueda, a freelance science journalist in Mexico. For Rueda, overcoming a block is a social process, and it helps that most of her friends are also journalists. “Inspiration often strikes me with the exchange of ideas,” she says. “It is almost never a solitary process.” Social settings help Rueda find new ideas, too. When promising story leads come up, Rueda scribbles the central ideas on a napkin or types them into her phone.
But even if you don’t have journalist friends, talking through your story with others provides a sense of distance and exposes your ideas to scrutiny beyond your own. This process may help you clarify key points you want to get across and, thus, jumpstart your writing. Natalie Wolchover, a senior editor and writer at Quanta Magazine, says she often bounces ideas off her wife, who is an art historian, to detect which threads in her stories are exciting and worth pursuing and which ones are unclear. “Those kinds of private conversations can sometimes help when you’re really in the weeds with a piece,” she says.
Giving unwritten stories an audience can be especially helpful for writers who aren’t used to outlines or feel too caged by them. Author Álvaro Chaos, a self-declared disorganized writer, likes to tinker with ideas alongside his biology students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Once his ideas have been tested in the company of others, Chaos says he feels more prepared to start writing.
Try Something New
Some writers find that refreshing the writing process in some way can help them get going again. Try switching to a different writing device or platform, for example. When Wolchover feels stuck, she starts writing on her phone instead of her computer. “The change of how the text looks can, weirdly, make a big difference,” she says. Similarly, when I find it difficult to start writing, I switch from Microsoft Word to iA Writer, a paid writing app, which is quite minimalistic. The lack of complicated menus and formatting options lowers my anxiety and helps me focus on what I’m writing rather than how it looks.
Taking breaks can reset your mind and body, as well as boost your confidence in your skills as a writer.
Switching to a different type of work, such as an easier story or administrative tasks, may also be enough to boost you out of a block. This may be especially helpful for journalists whose work incorporates different forms of media. When Rueda hits a wall on a writing assignment, she turns to her video projects. For her, writing video scripts is easier because the main task is piecing together expert comments (which, of course, comes with its own challenges). “When I’m in front of the computer and nothing is working,” she says, this strategy gives her “renewed encouragement” and an overall sense of progress.
When the blank page stubbornly persists, perhaps it’s time to step away altogether for a short time. Taking breaks can reset your mind and body, as well as boost your confidence in your skills as a writer. The simple act of going for a walk, for example, can help writers find solutions to writing problems. Finding new surroundings, even if all you do is move to a different room, may help you generate new ideas. “Changing locations gives me a break, not only by changing my physical place, but also my creative mindset,” Rueda says.
Try experimenting with different types of breaks to see what works best—what helps one writer may not necessarily be useful to someone else. When the pandemic forced Johnson to move from working in the newsroom to his home, for example, he found new ways to take breaks. He’s gotten into birdwatching, which he can do from his kitchen window. “I find it very calming,” he says.
When writer’s block strikes, it helps to remember that there’s nothing wrong with you. Everyone encounters this at least once, if not many times, in their career. You have editors and colleagues to lean on. You can revisit your notes and your sources until something sparks an idea. And writing itself can often help you find your way out. “Only by sitting down and writing can you reject some ideas, accept some, and build some of them into something useful to you,” Cayley says. Trust yourself, keep writing, and eventually something good will come tumbling out.
Pedro Márquez-Zacarías is a Purépecha biologist, currently working as an Omidyar Postdoctoral Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute. Pedro holds a doctorate in quantitative biosciences from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he studied the evolution of life cycles and biological complexity. He is a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and a bilingual science communicator interested in written and audiovisual media, in Spanish and English. Pedro dabbles in guitar and soccer, and he enjoys Purépecha food and tacos. You can find him on Twitter @PedroM_Z.