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How do you know for sure if a writer is blocked?

Like the answer to many, "How do you know if someone is...?" questions, the answer is, "Ask them."

No one will ever know better than themselves even if any given essayist may claim otherwise. If a person's method of expression is hindered in some way, they will probably deduce that they are blocked and rationalize their solutions around that conclusion.

Donald M. Murray prefers to make a distinction between his experience of blocking and his experience of waiting, which is equally valid. He waits and takes in different elements of the world around him, and while he considers the possibility that he might be blocked, upon further reflection, it's not the right time for him to write for some reason.

This experience isn't an unusual one. Factors within a writer's internal or external environment can prevent them from writing for any reason whatsoever. While I can recognize a myriad of experience on a wider scale as blocks that some might not, I can also recognize that "block" has a degree of finality to it.

Some writers feel that they have to commit to something once they've typed it or written it down. Even if they theoretically understand that this isn't the case, the air of finality can either hold someone hostage or force a necessary decision. For some writers, if they tell themselves that they are blocked, that is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that's okay. It's also okay for a writer to just be waiting.

An effective writer, according to Murray, writes with information, insight, order, need, and voice.

Sometimes, it takes time to achieve these qualities. It's okay to be blocked from them and it's okay to be waiting for them.

Murray's takes on these are what I would describe as "artful." I don't ask for a concrete stance because, given the subject matter, sometimes there isn't one to be had. However, I can't always pin down his intentions. If you've read many of my posts up to this point, you'll know that intention matters a great deal to me. That said, I do recommend reading this essay as it is very engaging. It begins and ends with an interesting narrative and I like the overall tone that is taken throughout.

I think that information, insight, order, need, and voice are presented as vague enough and abstract enough qualities that should ideally be there in some form, but that they don't need to [and shouldn't] always present in a formulaic manner. I'll explain "information" and "need" in my own words.


Writers need to know what they are writing about whether they need to plan what they are writing about or, generally, need to better understand what kind of conversation that they are contributing to. Not every writer does this, and it's usually easy to tell whether they are coming from a knowledgeable place. Usually.

Sometimes, a work or presentation can seem knowledgeable when it isn't. A viewer might notice, for example, how information is presented over what information is presented. The burden is passed to the viewer to analyze that content and determine its credibility. This sounds as though it strictly pertains to nonfiction, but this can apply to fiction too.

Fiction writers create worlds that surround a situation that has to be made to work. This is incredibly difficult. It takes very little prodding for even the most intricate of those worlds to crumble regardless of how the cracks are filled. A missed crack, as many would agree, isn't necessarily a sign of a bad writer, just an imperfect world or a world that wouldn't fit the situation posed. Any information that can help a fiction writer in this journey is worthwhile.


Murray indirectly acknowledges the complications of this term, but it applies to several different situations that a writer may face. I think that "motivation" could have had its own section, but I'd like to focus on the portion that discusses autonomy and ownership.

Murray discusses a struggle that he was facing with his editor's criticism of this essay, which is also a chapter in his book. A writer produces a set of thoughts in the way that they feel is appropriate, "creating an illusion" that they own their own writing. They do. They also internalize the editors suggestions and make them their own, which is appropriate. An editor can offer guidance that a writer can and should execute in their own way. The problem is that the editor has their own illusions. Well, yes. Kind of. It depends on the editor.

I admit that I'm clouded based on the way that I work and the shared notes with my colleagues.

An editor-writer relationship relayed as a struggle for power is a myth that doesn't sit well with me. Both parties have communicative needs. A writer, through their work, has opened a conversation that the editor is engaging in and helping the writer to effectively engage in. That isn't to say that editors can't or haven't overstepped their boundaries. That isn't to say that writers can't be difficult or have a lack of understanding.

I've seen editors that have warped writers' work to the degree that it's unrecognizable as being a product of that writer.

I have worked with a writer who was very combative about how semi-colons worked. That project was memorable for that reason, and I have a personal joke about how the ending of that project can be somehow likened to the separation between independent clauses.

Tension aside, it does feel like not everyone can see this communicative framing or use this communicative framing, and that can perpetuate myths about an editor's role in a writing project and complicate that relationship for other writers. All in all, an editor's contributions don't dictate ownership of a piece of writing. To my mind, a piece of writing is owned by the person who writes it regardless of whether the author is known or who the author chooses to include in their conversation. It's their conversation.

If the proverbial tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, it does make a sound and a sizable impact.


Thank you so much to everyone who has provided me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far!

My collaborations with my colleagues will have to wait as of right now, but I am excited to share them with all of you when they are finally finished. I had a lot of fun reading this essay, and I highly recommend it. It's fairly short and some of the advice is dated, but it's worth the time if only for a study in style.

If you would like to get updates on my latest posts and activities on Purposeful Prose, you can become a member and interact with my blog and participate in my forum. I also recommend following my Purposeful Prose LinkedIn page for any further content including articles, tips, and picks!

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Murray, D. M. (1985). The essential delay: When writer's block isn't. When a writer can't write: Studies in writer's block and other composing-process problems, 219-225.

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Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
Feb 04, 2022

Really like Muray's distinction between blocking and waiting. You also did a wonderful job in describing the potential dynamics between and author and an editor and clarifying the purpose and function of each. Excellent work!!!


Feb 04, 2022

Nice to see attention paid to Murray. I read him as a young writing instructor and found him very useful. I also enjoyed your take on the writer-editor relationship, about which I'm sure you have much more to say.

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