What to do about writer’s block (Katherine Firth)

Photo by Nick Fewings | unsplash.com

“Writer’s block” is a loose term we often use about a period of being unable to write, or hardly able to write. 

Usually, it emerges at the liminal moment of sitting down to face the blank page and add new words to our manuscript…but the blank page stays blank.

Writer’s block is generally understood to be a psychological experience. There are plenty of other things that might stop you from getting words written—lack of time, constant interruptions, ill health, or technology failures. But once we have made time for writing, found our focus, feel fine in our body, and got the computer working…we might still not be able to write a word.

It can feel like writer’s block is unknowable and unsolvable, so writer’s block can be associated with emotions of frustration or shame. I prefer to see the feeling of being blocked from writing as a moment when our subconscious is sending us a signal. 

If trying to power through the feeling of being stuck isn’t working, it might be time to honour that feeling and listen to it. What messages might your writer’s block be sending you?  

  • It’s okay if it’s hard to write sometimes, writing is hard. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have writer’s block, it might just mean that you are trying to put a totally new and complex idea into words in a way that other people can understand.
  • Are you facing a more practical reason you aren’t writing? Do you need a room of your own? Do you need a sandwich? Do you need a nap? Some of these are easier to solve than others but identifying them can at least send your energy in the right direction.
  • Maybe it’s too early to write. We can be tempted to feel that if we are working on an academic project, we should always be producing words towards our publications or thesis. But there is a need for research, reading, thinking, and analysis, too, and these things take time.

Your brain may also know exactly how long it will take for you to produce a draft, and be totally unmotivated to start work on Tuesday when it knows you can start on Thursday and easily make your deadline.

Do check in with reality though! 

Towards the end of a project, feeling ‘not ready to write yet’ may actually be JOMA Syndrome (for ‘Just One More Article’), as we call it in Your PhD Survival Guide (2020). Gardiner and Kearns (2010) call this ‘Readitis’. Keep note of whether your brain is correct in judging how long it needs to produce work. 

If you are always late (beyond normal academic lateness!), then you might have a different challenge: 

  • Maybe you are facing the writing head-on, and it would be better approached from the side. Free writing, handwritten drafts, writing on your phone, voice-to-text and story-boarding are all ways to make progress towards a draft, even if you aren’t yet adding to your word count.
  • Maybe you know there is something seriously wrong with your project but you can’t put your finger on exactly what yet. Often, your instincts will kick in before your conscious mind can catch up. Sometimes, this works the other way: you already know what is wrong or dangerous or problematic about your project, and you haven’t yet worked out how to solve it. The solution is the same either way: give it time, turn it over, play around, and allow an answer to emerge.
  • Maybe the project is finished. Sometimes, we can’t write anymore because our instincts know that the project is done. It may be time now to move to editing, polishing, asking for feedback, or rewriting.
  • Maybe the block is something you need to talk to a professional about. Academic writing can involve our identities, emotions, values, and futures. If you have experienced bullying, trauma, burnout, anxiety, or damaging procrastination around your writing then the psychological block may be an adaptive strategy to keep you safe. The best way to work through it is with a trained professional.
  • Maybe the block has a message just for you. We all have our own journeys, writing processes, experiences, and contexts. The blocks I’ve listed above are the common ones I see when working with writers, but this list is not exhaustive. Your block may be unique but you don’t have to identify it alone. You can talk it through with peers and mentors, and analyse your writing obstacles. For graduate researchers, try talking to an academic advisor, join a Thesis Writing Circle, or a coaching program like the Accelerated Completions Program. Talk to a supervisor or mentor.

Whatever the reason, whatever the solution, writer’s block should be approached with kindness to yourself and to the resistance you are experiencing. Writer’s block is dilatant, the more force and shear you place on it by trying to plough through, the more viscous and even solid it becomes. Back off, try again with different speed or a different angle. Sometimes, you need to shake it up, go slow, stop, or start moving (in case your writer's block is thixotropic or rheopectic instead). 

Writer’s block is a message from your writing, so take the time to listen and try to understand what it is telling you.


Steve Walton said…
Thanks Katherine. As always, clear and helpful. I like the way you show that writer's block isn't one thing, but has a number of possible sources and causes.