A common thread in conversations about how difficult academic writing can be is the persistent feeling of not being ready to write. Or not being good enough to write. While academics and PhD students might not call this writer’s block, they talk a lot about procrastination and perfectionism. They list displacement activities – checking email, Facebook, references, doing the laundry, cleaning the room, mowing the grass, watching it grow – and they know that all of these involve not writing.
It’s a recognised problem. In his book Understanding Writing Block, Keith Hjortshoj says: “Writing blocks are most common among advanced undergraduates, graduate students, scholars, and other professional writers who are not supposed to need help with writing and do not need the kinds of writing instruction offered in the typical composition class.”
But why is writer’s block so common among academics? Is talking about procrastination just denying the need for help or instruction? Academics and PhD students are supposed to know all they need to know, aren’t they?
Would a request for help be seen as a critical weakness? Or is writer’s block caused by writing-related anxiety? Or unrealistic demands, leading to impossible writing goals? Or the absence of agreed writing time, creating workloads where written outputs are defined but writing processes are invisible? Or it is isolation? We write alone, and we don’t talk about it.
Given this mix of forces – emotional, cognitive, behavioural, rhetorical – we should use three strategies to deal with, or avoid, writer’s block.
1) Set realistic goals and monitor the extent to which you achieve them
Obviously! Perhaps that is the problem – the belief that writing is too complex to have such a simple solution. Surely high quality academic writing cannot be reduced to goals? But that is the problem – choosing not to use strategies that help.
There is a misconception that writing cannot be defined in the same way as other academic tasks, in terms of sub-goals and sub-routines. Once that belief takes hold, writing seems impossible.
Instead, think about writing in terms of levels of quality. For example, for writing a chapter, working on one level could involve writing about all the content, but not clarifying the argument. Working on another level could mean writing to make the line of argument explicit, but not adding or cutting anything. Another could be aligning the chapter summary and the contents. Each layer is a realistic goal.
This is not about lowering expectations – though it may feel like that at first – but defining writing in terms of sub-tasks. Working on all these levels at once would be an unrealistic goal. Achieving a realistic goal reduces anxiety and what one academic calls the “feeling of constant low-grade failure”, and prevents writer’s block.
2) Create dedicated writing time – when writing is all you do
Writers are more focused and less anxious when they are not multitasking. Even checking references – crucial as that is in academic writing – literally puts a stop to writing. The key is to write unplugged. Switch off all devices, quit email and internet and ignore other people’s writing (books, articles etc) for a specific time period. Set a realistic writing goal for 90 minutes.
Why does everyone not do this already? Probably because of anxiety about citing others’ work properly, not missing someone out and general anxiety about the quality of the writing.
3) Do social writing – write with others.
As with other academic activities, interacting with others about ideas and plans is valuable.
Social writing involves writing with others – not collaborative writing, but writing with others in the room. Writing with others, talking about writing-in-progress and sharing writing goals and achievements helps us to understand writing better. Social writing generates realistic goal-setting and dedicated writing time.
It also makes writing part of work and life. It is no longer something we only do in solitude. Discussing writing is interesting. Social writing reduces the main cause of writer’s block – anxiety – and stimulates writing. With social writing, there may be no need for help or instruction after all.
Professor Rowena Murray is director of research in the school of education at the University of the West of Scotland. She is author of How to Write a Thesis (2011) and Writing for Academic Journals (2013).
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Everyone has experienced writer’s block at some point in time – whether it’s while writing a college essay, a course research paper or a first-draft of a dissertation.
Whether or not writing comes naturally to you isn’t the issue – it happens to everyone and everyone needs to write something at some point in their academic career.
No matter what you’re writing about, writer’s block can literally put a roadblock in your path to success. Getting rid of it will help you continue your stream of productivity and allow you to move forward in your tasks.
Here are some helpful hints to utilize when trying to overcome writer’s block:
Create an Outline
Sometimes, you know what you want to say but don’t know how to say it. If you organize out your points in outline form, it’s much easier to fill in the blanks in between.
Divide your sections by topics or points, which will become your discussion paragraphs.
If you have any quotations you’d like to incorporate, add them to the relevant sections within the outline.
You can even add how you want to begin and end, so you’ll have everything laid out from start to finish.
Once you’re finished, you just need to add in wording to formulate clear thoughts, but all of the difficult work is already finished since you know what you’re going to say.
Stop Trying to Write
Walk away. Do something else that takes your mind off of trying to write.
It may be that your brain just needs a break and some time to recharge. There’s nothing wrong with stopping for a while and picking up where you left off after you’ve had a break.
Rest Your Brain
Maybe you’re tired. Maybe something else is on your mind. Whatever it is that’s blocking you clearly needs time, so let your mind work it out by resting and relaxing.
You can get back to writing when you’re recharged and the block has removed itself from the equation.
Do Something Creative
If you do something other than writing, but still creative, it’ll get your brain recharged in terms of creativity. It can help to inspire you and boost the writing process back into gear.
Have you ever needed to know something on cue? You may know it inside-and-out but, when it comes time to recite, you choke.
The same goes for writing. If you need to come up with something under pressure, it can hinder you speechless, so to speak.
While some people claim to write well under pressure, that’s likely not true for most people.
Avoid procrastinating so you have time to work through the writing process thoroughly, without pressure – if you can help it. If deadlines come into play, and you don’t have control over the situation, simply try another tip!
Write about Something Else
Just exercising writing – about your day, a story or anything else – will help get your brain into writing mode and help get you back on track.
Don’t Pressure Yourself
It’s not going to help if you put yourself down for having a block. It happens to the best of writers, so just take a break or try one of the above tips instead!
What helps you overcome writer’s block?
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