Every writer will experience writer’s block. We’ve all stared at the screen or paper, not knowing what to do next. Sometimes it’s a lack of ideas; sometimes we can’t find the right phrasing. On this page we’ll diagnose the problem and suggest some possible remedies.
The first step to beating writer’s block is to examine what’s actually bothering you. Even experienced writers sometimes get blocked, and in fact the more you know–about grammar, audience expectations, or even your subject matter–the more you may struggle to know where to start. It’s a good idea, then, to determine what is causing your writer’s block, so that you can be more purposeful in addressing the problem.
Lacking confidence is a downward spiral. The more you stare at a blank page, the less confidence you’ll have.
Often people think they have to write from beginning to end, when they’re better off starting in the middle, with what they know. Writing is messy, and it’s okay to jump around and connect your ideas later.
Rules can be constraining. When writers know their writing will have to conform to a million different rules (from punctuation and mechanics to essay structure), they may be hesitant to “just write.”
When you don’t allow yourself to write freely, you end up perfecting each sentence before moving on. This kind of premature editing will not only slow you down but can also make you lose your train of thought. In fact, it may even make you afraid to write down any unfinished thoughts.
Some writers worry that words will not be able to capture the complexity of an idea. Or at least they know that it will take several sentences or paragraphs to fully explain what’s on their mind. They’re worried then that as soon as they start writing they’ll have to make changes to qualify their initial point. At the back of their mind they think they should be able to do a perfect first draft, and they’re frustrated by the reality that their first attempt may need significant revisions.
It can be daunting to write with confidence when you believe that your audience is smarter than you, or will judge you if you make a mistake.
Writers are often encouraged to split the assignment into smaller tasks (something we also encourage), but this practice may also make it difficult to see the whole picture. Writers are blocked when they have to start connecting the dots, when they have to create some kind of overall story out of their disjointed notes or paragraphs.
If you don’t have any emotional or personal interest in a writing project you may not experience much motivation to get started. On the other hand, if you’re too invested in your writing you may have a hard time knowing how to reach a more general audience. It’s important, then, to be both interested and objective when you start typing.
Finally, without proper planning you will not succeed. It’s a good idea to create a rough outline and make some initial notes before you get started. On the other hand, if you collect too much data you may have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees.
The main way to beat writer’s block is to be active. You’re better off to write half a sentence than to worry how you might finish it.
In addition, many of us may need to change our conception of how writing works. In the preface to his massive Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin famously quotes Augustine, another prolific writer, who confesses, “I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn and learn as they write.” In other words, even great writers recognize that writing and learning are intertwined, that writing is the process through which we learn. We don’t always come up with a thought and then write it down. We often start with some vague idea and write until the whole picture emerges like a sculpture from a block of stone.
With that in mind, here are some techniques to help you overcome writer’s block.
If writing is part of the thought process, then it’s okay to start with whatever you are thinking about your topic. Imagine that you’ve been assigned to write a paragraph about your philosophy of leadership, and all you can think about is how your boss at work is a lousy leader. Then start with that. Write a list of everything you detest about your boss. Vent a little. Have some fun. Even if most of this material won’t make it in your final paragraph, the exercise will get you thinking about what does make for good leadership.
In this digital age we’re all easily distracted. If you can’t write a sentence without checking your Facebook status, perhaps it’s time to write by hand for a while. You can also set a timer or turn off your internet connection.
For longer assignments a good strategy is to make a schedule for different tasks. For an academic paper you might start by just making a list of useful sources. Then you might read each one and make some notes. After that you can brainstorm what your own argument or thesis might be. If you spread these tasks out over successive days (and plan them out in your calendar), then the whole task will seem less overwhelming.
All writing is an answer to some imagined question. When you get stuck, start asking as many questions as possible. What made you pick your topic? Why should anyone care? What do others think? Have you always thought the same thing or has your thinking changed? How do your ideas connect? Can you think of other examples or facts? What might someone who does not share your perspective say? If you regularly struggle with writer’s block, come up with a list of questions and force yourself to write out the answers.
When you’re stumped, talk to someone. Sometimes it’s easier to explain your topic by talking with a real person.
Even the most analytical essays tell some kind of story. Indeed, it may help you to think of your writing as a narrative that relates an ever more complex series of events. And just like a storyteller cannot introduce all the facts at once, so it’s best to start with a few details or ideas and move gradually from the known to the unknown, from a consensus view to what is contentious, new, and difficult.
In the world of sport, consistent practice allows you to build up muscle memory, so that in a game situation your body knows what to do. The same is true for writing. Start by writing short paragraphs that include a topic sentence, some examples, and a conclusion. Once you master the paragraph, write two and connect them. A good writing instructor should be able to help you start small and build up your confidence gradually.
Writing is difficult when we either have too little direction or feel constrained by the demands of others. With too many rules we lack the freedom to be creative. Without any guidance we are left to flounder by ourselves. That’s why giving students an open topic may be the worst thing an instructor can do. Students feel lost, and may view their teacher as acting like the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: … So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.
The problem is that we might not have the time to go on walking. Yet when we’re truly stuck, when all the solutions described above don’t work, perhaps it is time to go for a walk, get some fresh air, and come back when we’ve had a chance to think things over. Writing is never easy, and even taking a break may be part of the process.
If you’d like to read more, we recommend the following two studies:
Evans, Kate. Pathways Through Writing Blocks in the Academic Environment. Sense Publishers, 2013.
Rose, Mike. Writer’s Block: The Cognitive Dimension. Southern Illinois University Press, 2009.