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Writer’s Block

Some people define writer’s block as a condition only professional writers can experience.  Let’s go with a looser definition that allows even student writers a claim on writer’s block when they are stuck or struggling to get words down on a page. 

The good thing about being a student with writer’s block, rather than being a stuck professional writer, is that you are in school precisely to learn to write more easily and express your ideas more accurately.  You are not trying to write the great American novel.  Your income and reputation do not depend on the history paper you are cranking out this week.  You don’t have to be a genius to get this paper written.  After all, there is room for a number of A grades on history papers in your class on any given assignment, and if you miss the “A” bulls eye, you have a fair chance of hitting the wider B circle.  If you don’t get a B, then you will at least have learned something that will improve your later efforts.

What are the causes of writer’s block?  Inertia, distraction, boredom, lack of interest, depression, perfectionism, anxiety, low self-esteem, or a hyperactive inner critic can all bring it on.  Sometimes the inability to write has a connection with the would-be writer’s general mental health; sometimes the causes are situational.  Obviously you can’t write if you are incapacitated by depression or anxiety.  It is difficult to write when you have too many obligations, or when you are overwhelmed and time is running out for the assignment to be completed.  It is also difficult to write when you have distracting worries such as the illness of a family member or a romance gone sour.  Some people writing on computers feel the constant magnet of their internet friends or of computer game possibilities pulling them away from their writing.  Sometimes, as in cases of ADHD, your distractibility is just part of who you are.

How does one avoid writer’s block?

First of all, choose a topic you care something about.  If it is an assigned topic, see if you can personalize it somehow so it holds more importance for you.  Look at the topic from an atypical perspective.  Make it interesting.

Don’t start cold. Do the pre-work. Brainstorm, outline, cluster, scatterwrite, talk with friends or teachers.  Make your paper an active part of your thought-life before you ever sit down to write it.  Or, if you are the type who thinks best at your computer or with pen in hand, freewrite wildly.  Ignore the inner critic.  This is the time to play and be creative, not to judge.  This isn’t your paper, just your prework; no one will see it.  Just write as you would talk; spill out all relevant thought possibilities without inhibition.

Some people swear by the ten-minute freewrite spurt system.  Centering on your general topic, try four ten-minute freewrites in an hour with five-minute breaks in between. Dance all over your topic in words, then set those pages aside.  Go to dinner or go to class or take a longer break.  After your break, go back to your freewrites with a marker or colored pen.  Read through the pages, underlining every sentence or thought that has energy, originality, or color. You might loop out from these energy hotspots in more focused freewrites.  Select what you’d like to work with and draw a wild map connecting these thoughts into a whole that makes sense.   Now you are ready to begin the real writing.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be excited about what you have to say.  That’s the real heart of it: find a way to care about and to believe in what you have to say.  Connect this paper to what is exciting to you, what might be useful to you in later life or career.

The freewrite spurt method is only one generative possibility; there are many invention strategies.  Try a think tank with classmates.  Try asking endless questions of the text you are to write about; write your questions in list form.

Argue with the text, with characters in the text, or with the author.

If you find spelling or grammar daunting, or are a stickler for the precise word, do not bog down your thinking speed by trying to get everything perfect in your first draft.  Check the spelling and hone your word choices later.  

The first draft isn’t the final draft, but unless you write there is no draft at all.

Writer’s block can hit you before you start writing, or you it can bog you down when you are already in the middle of a piece. If it is the introduction that hangs you up, leap over it and begin in the middle.  Write the easiest parts first.  If you are in mid-piece when you get mired, leap over the sticky place. 

Other tactics suggested for breaking through writer’s block:

  • Try changing your voice, assume a role, write as someone else. 
  • Write to someone else.   You might write the paper imagining it is a letter to someone you trust; in this letter explain what your paper is about and why the topic matters.  Say what you have to say simply and directly in your own natural voice.
  • Consciously challenge any negative thoughts your mind throws up about your talent or ability as a writer.  Write an aggressive letter to your inner critic.  Yell and storm in written words, but outside of the paper you are stuck on.  Expressing your feelings in writing might loosen the idea flow.
  • Lower your standards — just write.  You can always go back later and revise.  When you are in the writer’s block frame of mind, you will see most things you write as junk anyway.  “Press on regardless.”
  • If you know that anxiety and stress are playing a strong part in your writer’s block, take breaks and stretch, practice deep breathing, or meditate; do yoga, take a walk.  Try tensing then releasing specific muscle groups consecutively. Take a shower.  Follow whatever calming strategy works for you.
  • Open a window for better ventilation.  Turn off your loud music, shut the hall door against distracting noise.  Turn you light higher.  Make certain your desk conditions are optimal.
  • Writing block coaches sometimes recommend that you take breaks when things are going well so that you will return to the paper with energy.  See if that works for you.  Some people work most effectively when they keep writing while they are on a roll and take breaks only to release tension and renew energy when it flags.
  • If your writer’s block seems connected to serious depression or anxiety, do seek professional help.  Don’t let your health and/or a mood disorder jeopardize your academic career.

Writers on Writing and Writer’s Block: 

"Writing is not hard. Just get paper and pencil, sit down, and write as it occurs to you. The writing is easy--it's the occurring that's hard."  ~ Stephen Leacock  

"In writing, there is first a creating stage--a time you look for ideas, you explore, you cast around for what you want to say. Like the first phase of building, this creating stage is full of possibilities."  ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

"The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."   ~ Mark Twain

"Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."   ~ Barbara Kingsolver 

"Of course the writer cannot always burn with a hard gemlike flame or a white heat, but it should be possible to be a chubby hot-water bottle, rendering maximum attentiveness in the most enterprising sentences."  ~ Paul West 

“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly: sometimes it's like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges."  ~ Ernest Hemingway

"Writing is just work--there's no secret. If you dictate or use a pen or type or write with your toes--it's still just work."   ~ Sinclair Lewis

"English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education--sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across the street."  ~ E. B. White

“I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” ~ Joan Didion

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”    ~  E. M. Forster

"Writing is like everything else: the more you do it the better you get. Don't try to perfect as you go along, just get to the end of the damn thing. Accept imperfections. Get it finished and then you can go back. If you try to polish every sentence there's a chance you'll never get past the first chapter."  ~ Iain Banks

"The writer learns to write, in the last resort, only by writing. He must get words onto paper even if he is dissatisfied with them. A young writer must cross many psychological barriers to acquire confidence in his capacity to produce good work--especially his first full-length book--and he cannot do this by staring at a piece of blank paper, searching for the perfect sentence." Paul Johnson

"What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure."   ~ Samuel Johnson

"People have writer's block not because they can't write, but because they despair of writing eloquently."  ~ Anna Quindlen

"If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word."  ~ Margaret Atwood

"The easiest thing to do on earth is not write."  ~ William Goldman

"Every writer I know has trouble writing."  ~ Joseph Heller

"Don't get it right, just get it written."  ~ James Thurber

"Lower your standards and keep writing."  ~ William Stafford

"You fail only if you stop writing."  ~ Ray Bradbury

References and Resources for further study:

Acocella, Joan.  “Blocked: Why Do Writers Stop Writing?” The New Yorker.  14 June 2004.

Flaherty, Alice Weaver. The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Leader, Zachary. Writer’s Block. Baltimore:The John’s Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Pack, Robert, and Jay Parini. Writers on Writing. A Breadloaf Anthology/ Middlebury College Press.  Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1991

Rawlins, Jack. The Writer’s Way. Boston :Houghton Mifflin, 1992, 68-73.

Straw, Jane Anne, PhD, Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer’s Block. Boston: St Martin’s Press, 2003.

Symptoms and Cures for Writer’s Block 

Advice From One Writer to Another

Writers on Writing