Dealing with writer’s block
8 strategies that can help
Nearly all of us have been there: sitting in front of the blank page not knowing where to start, a growing knot in our stomach and the temptation to get up and do the laundry instead, since then at least we’d be doing something useful.
In our last blog post, we wrote about #AcWriMo and speculated about why academics find it so difficult to write that they need the external push of AcWriMo to get them going. In this post we want to take a closer look at one of the biggest reasons – writer’s block – and possible solutions you can try if you experience it.
Writer’s block is indeed a common experience among academics. Although statistics are scarce, one recent study in Turkey found that only 6% of the first-year students surveyed never had writer’s block. 24% nearly always had writer’s block and 70% of students experienced writer’s block occasionally. Among graduate students in the U.S., it’s also common: a decade after starting 55-64% of PhD students still haven’t finished their dissertations (Ph.D. Completion Project as cited by Schuman 2014).
Although it’s common in academia, writer’s block is surprisingly hard to define. Some people even contend that it’s not real.
Does writer’s block even exist?
There’s a surprisingly large contingent of people who argue that writer’s block doesn’t exist. One popular quote attributed to the journalist Roger Simon states that “there is no such thing as writer’s block. My father drove a truck for 40 years. And never once did he wake up in the morning and say: ‘I have truck driver’s block today. I am not going to work’.”
Many in academia agree, including Dr. Paul Silva. In his popular book for academics How to write a lot, the psychologist contends:
Writer’s block is nothing more than the behavior of not writing. Saying that you can’t write because of writer’s block is merely saying that you can’t write because you aren’t writing. It’s trivial. Giving a fancy name to feeling frustrated with your writing makes your frustration seem more grave and complex than it is. The cure for writer’s block— if you can cure a specious affliction— is writing (42).
While academic writing instructor Dr. Rachel Cayley admits that many graduate students have trouble writing, she thinks the cause lies elsewhere. As she sees it, “most graduate writers who are struggling with their writing are actually struggling with their thinking” (Cayley 2018). Cayley worries that mislabeling the problem as writer’s block can keep graduate students from feeling capable of doing the one thing that can help with working through the intellectual problems causing the block – writing.
Writer’s block: one term, many different problems
Just because “writer’s block” as an overarching concept may not exist, that doesn’t mean that problems surrounding writing don’t.
There are many different flavors of writer’s block, and each person will experience it differently. According to those who have researched it, writer’s block can be caused by psychological, emotional, behavioral, biological or external factors.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of well-designed scientific studies on writer’s block and the results from the few small studies that do exist can’t necessarily be extrapolated to the population at large. So what’s a sufferer to do? Flaherty (2004) explains that until science catches up, you will likely have to do a bit of experimentation to find out what works best for you, since “even treatments that clearly work well on average may not work well for a given person. The multiple aspects of block show how specifically tailored an effective treatment— behavioral or medical— should be” (140).
We’ve taken a look at some of the literature out there – from book-length treatises and Master’s theses to blogs and short articles and pulled out some of the advice that seems most promising for some of the most common symptoms. This list isn’t exhaustive, some of the categories below are very similar or overlap, and often you might experience multiple causes for a case of writer’s block. It might be worth trying a few of the options that seem closest to the problems you’re experiencing.
Specific writing problems and possible solutions
- You’re not capable of writing
You sit down at your computer, open up your document, and then…nothing. You simply can’t get the words out.
→ Try this:
When the words just won’t come, it can help to remind yourself that you actually can write – as long as it’s something else. For example, write an email to a friend or a summary of a book you’re reading. Start a journaling habit. Or, if you want to still be productive on your current project, use the freewriting technique or write with prompts. This can help remind you that you actually can write and that the root of the problem likely has something to do with one of the other causes below.
- Feeling overwhelmed
Your writing project is bigger or more complex than anything you’ve attempted before. When you sit down to write, you feel paralyzed and can’t get going.
→ Try this:
Use any strategy that can help you feel that you’re in control of your writing again. You’ll want to break the huge task of writing your thesis down into small tasks you can easily achieve in an individual writing session. Use the Pomodoro Technique®, which we describe in this blog article, to break the time spent writing into smaller, concentrated blocks. Or use the one-inch picture frame method to focus on one very small writing goal at a time, such as writing one paragraph in your literature review or 50 words for your discussion section. The trick for you is to just get started so that you can then build some momentum and keep writing.
- Not knowing where to start
This feeling often goes hand-in-hand with being overwhelmed. You might feel ready to write but feel that you don’t have a firm enough grasp on your topic yet or know how certain ideas relate to one another.
→ Try this:
One thing that can help, at least in academic writing, is good preparation. Having an outline and your notes and sources at hand when starting to write can help keep you from getting blocked.
Using a software program like Scrivener or Citavi can help, too. With Citavi, you can simply insert the information and ideas you’ve extracted from your sources along with your own ideas into your Word document. Once you see this information on the page, you can start making connections and the writing process should feel a bit easier. Of course, the prerequisite is that you’ve already done a lot of work in Citavi.
- Lack of deadlines or other forms of accountability
Do you often find it easier to write when a deadline is near? For many of us the fear of missing a close deadline can finally make it possible to overcome the difficulty of writing and get something on paper. When we don’t have a deadline, projects can languish for weeks or months at a time.
→ Try this:
If you don't have any short-term deadlines for a larger project, you'll need to create some form of external accountability so that you don’t have to rely on your own willpower. #AcWriMo is a great example of this, since you would rather share successes with others than failures, and at the end of the month you’ll want to post about your achievements. During the rest of the year, you may want to join a writing group that has accountability as its main purpose.
- Waiting for inspiration
You’re the kind of writer who can write easily once the right idea has struck, but sometimes it can take a while for inspiration to hit. If you try to write when not inspired, you often feel blocked.
→ Try this:
Silva calls your type of writing “binge writing”. His solution? Make a schedule and commit to regular writing sessions. Forming a habit of writing could even lead to more regular inspiration. One study asked three groups of college professors to write regularly, spontaneously only when inspiration struck, or not at all, unless they absolutely had to. Those who wrote regularly reported being inspired more often, and the group who only wrote when they felt like it barely wrote more than those who were told not to write unless they absolutely had to (Boice 1990 as cited by Silva 2019). By keeping to a schedule you not only will write more, but you also will be inspired more often since the act of writing will trigger new ideas.
- Your inner critic gets the best of you
Whenever you write, you start second guessing yourself. Your inner critic says things like “You call that writing? How did you even get into a PhD program?”
→ Try this:
Take the focus away from “good” writing. Instead focus at first on objective goals, such as word counts. Once you’ve achieved those, use the questioning technique espoused by Cayley to bring your inner critic on board. Put your doubts on paper by writing sentences like “I’m not sure if this section is working, but what I want to say is…”. This will help you get your thinking on paper and can help you better pinpoint problems than you could if you tried to solve everything in your head before writing.
- You have very high standards for your writing
You want nothing less than for your work to dazzle anyone who reads it. Your ideas are brilliant and your writing should reflect that. When you feel you’re falling short of your own expectations, you find it hard to write.
→ Try this:
Practice writing “shitty first drafts”. Brilliant writing rarely emerges in a first take, but during the editing process it can. So, try and get a draft typed out as fast as you can and don’t edit too much while you write. Once you have something on paper, it’s much easier to shape it into what you want. Sure, you will end up discarding a lot of what you wrote, but that’s normal. Don’t look at discarded words as a waste of time, since they will still have helped your thinking process and your final product.
- Your writer’s block is related to another condition
In The Midnight Disease, physician Alice Flaherty lays out good evidence to support her thesis that writer’s block, at least in some people, can have a physiological component. For example, depression and anxiety often go hand in hand with difficulty in speaking, and there’s some evidence that the same brain regions are involved in these conditions and those in which people have trouble expressing themselves in words. Certain types of medication or other therapy that help with these disorders could then potentially also help with writer’s block.
→ Try this:
There are no studies yet on medication for writer’s block, but if you do have anxiety, depression or another condition, it may help to make sure you’re keeping up with your therapy, whether that’s medication, behavioral therapy, daily exercise, light therapy in winter, etc. Even for those of us without psychological conditions, it can be helpful to go back to basics. Make sure to get enough exercise and sleep and eat well, since these seemingly mundane factors can have a big impact on mood, which in turn can have a big impact on how we feel when we sit down to write.
As an academic, not being able to write can be a very uncomfortable and emotional state. But, as the popularity of AcWriMo suggests, you’re not alone. We hope that some of the tips in this article will give you a starting point for breaking through your block, but if nothing seems to work, you can also seek help from trained professionals, such as your campus writing center or university counselors.
We’ll leave you with one last inspiring thought as well at the end: there is some evidence that writing regularly can help with writer’s block and that seasoned writers suffer less from writer’s block than inexperienced writers. So, no matter how hard the blocks seem now, they likely will get better over time.
What did you think about our tips? Did we leave anything out? How do you personally deal with writer’s block? We’d love to hear from you in the comments on the Facebook post for this blog article or by email.
For further reading
Flaherty, A. (2004). The midnight disease: The drive to write, writer's block, and the creative brain. Houghton Mifflin. http://www.loc.gov/catdir/description/hm031/2003051143.html
Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life (Second Anchor Books Edition). Anchor Books.
Rachel Cayley. (2018, March 23). Writer’s block is not a struggle with your writing but with your thinking. Write your way out of it. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2018/03/23/writers-block-is-not-a-struggle-with-your-writing-but-with-your-thinking-write-your-way-out-of-it/
Silvia, P. J. (2019). How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing (Second edition). American Psychological Association.