The Biggest Factor That Causes Writer’s Block
Do you every struggle with writer’s block? Those days when you just stare at the computer screen not and the words just aren’t coming?
I went through a period of writer’s block this February. For weeks I was trying to come up with new ideas, but somehow the words were not coming together cohesively on the paper.
I tried all my old tricks that had worked in the past to get my creative juices flowing: free writing, reading other people’s writing, and meditating.
The results were mediocre, and I felt something was missing from my daily routine that had helped me to write articles in the past.
As I sat at my desk trying to figure out what my next article would be about, my yellow labrador, Shiny, started barking. “Oh yeah,” I remembered. It was time for her noon-time walk, but we had a a problem.
There was nowhere to walk.
The sidewalks were covered with snow, as New England was hit with a record of over 100 inches of snow this past winter. For the past two months, Shiny had to make do with our backyard. Her 20 minute noontime run, became a 5 minute excursion behind our house.
It then hit me – when was the last time I exercised?
In the summer Shiny and I went on long runs. As the weather became colder, I went to the gym and took Shiny on shorter runs. However, the heavy snowfall, made exercising more difficult for several reasons.
First, the gym closed every time we had a blizzard. Second, even when they opened up, the roads were slippery, and people were rushing on the roads to get in any form of exercise after weeks of sitting at home – drive at your own risk!
Finally, my daughters were home from school more days than any previous winter due to a record number of snow days. With all of these factors put together, I went through several weeks without hitting the gym or even giving Shiny a decent walk.
As I realized how long it had been since I broke a good sweat, I decided it was time for action. The gym was still closed, and there was no sidewalk where I could run, so I turned to my last resort: my collection of workout DVDs.
I found a brand new Jillian Michael’s DVD. I couldn’t remember when I bought it, or why, but I decided now was the time to do it. I never did one of her workouts (or watched the Biggest Loser Show that she became famous for) but for some reason I associated Jillian Michaels with an “insane” workout.
My gut instinct was right. Her video had 3 levels, and after 5 minutes of Level 1, I was in pain – a lot of pain, but the good kind. Somehow I made it through the whole 35 minutes of Level 1. While my legs felt like jello the next day (and my abdomen ached every time I sneezed or coughed), I finally started to put words on the page for my next article.
Even better, my next article had the highest open rate ever – wow, could Jillian Michaels have anything to do with this? I believe she did. Jillian Michaels’ workout, or any workout for that matter, helped me to let go of the biggest reasons that cause writer’s block: Fear.
Fears That Cause Writer’s Block
I was a second year graduate student the first time that I experienced a serious case of writer’s block . I had to write my thesis proposal, and I went through weeks of agony, only putting a paragraph or two a day on paper.
I set aside time for writing, but no I did not have much to show for the hours I spent at work. I realized that time-management alone could not beat writer’s block or any type of procrastination for that matter.
My gut instinct was that “I am just not smart enough for graduate school.” Now I am a thesis coach, I find that this is one of the most commonly held limiting beliefs among graduate students.
Limiting beliefs, as their name suggest, are just that: beliefs. They are NOT the truth.
In retrospect, the problem was not that I was not smart enough. The reason that it took me so long to write my thesis proposal was that I was over analyzing all the possible scenarios in which I could go.
Each proposal that I was considering had a draw-back: one had a risk of becoming a dead-end project, the other was so novel that there was very little known about it, and the third seemed so overwhelming that I was afraid that it would take too many hours to complete. In summary, the root cause of my indecisiveness was fear.
7 Types of Fears That Can Cause Writer’s Block
1) Overwhelm: Where do I start? There is just so much data and literature that I have to write about.
2) Prioritization problems: How can I handle all the other important things in my life?
3) “I don’t have any ideas”: Others are creative, but I am not.
4) Imperfection: What if my writing is full of mistakes? (grammar, style, content)
5) Failure: What if people think that my writing is awful? I will feel like a total failure.
6) Criticism: How will others critique my writing? What if they ask me about…and I don’t know the answer?
7) Success: What if my writing is good? Will I be able to handle more responsibilities? What if I am asked to speak at a conference? (Gulp!)
7 Practical Solutions to Overcome Writer’s Block
You may already know that you have writer’s block, or perhaps you think that you are immune to it.
Most writers I know (in person or through their writing) have experienced writer’s block. Here are just two quotes from very prolific writers:
”A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” -Thomas Mann
”Every writer I know has trouble writing.” -Joseph Heller
Symptoms of Writer’s Block
In order to overcome writer’s block, you first need to become aware of it. So, how do you know you have it? Symptoms include:
1) You fill the time you set aside for writing with other activities: cleaning, internet surfing, shopping. Some of these may be important. You need to clean and shop, but do you have to do it during the time you assigned for writing?
2) You are not producing any writing: either you stare at the screen blankly without writing much, or you put something hastily together right before the deadline.
7 Practical Ways To Overcome Fear of Writing
1) Aerobic exercise – We all know that aerobic exercise is good for cardiovascular health and weight loss, but a study at Harvard showed that aerobic exercise also improves memory, learning, and reduces anxiety.
Aerobic exercise reduces stress and this will help you to lessen the fear of writing and help you get words on the paper. Furthermore, exercise will help you to get away from your desk and prevent burnout which is so common in graduate school.
2) Chunk your writing down into more manageable sections – By far, the most common reason that graduate students have trouble writing is that they feel overwhelmed by the amount of literature and data that they have to put into a cohesive document.
Working on one chapter or section at a time can help you to make progress without the overwhelm. You do not have to write the chapters of your thesis in order – in fact, leaving the introduction and abstract for last is a common practice.
3) Set very small and concrete goals for each time block – Did you ever write “Work on thesis in your calendar”? Such a vague phrase is guaranteed to set you up for disappointment. How about “Finish Figure 1”, or “Read 10 papers for literature search”?
These goals are specific and achievable in a few hours, and will give you a sense of accomplishment.
4) Set yourself up for success the next day – Just when you get into the flow of writing, thinking that you finally overcame writer’s block, you might sit down at the computer one day, once again out of ideas.
The solution I found for this “morning rustiness” is to write down a few ideas the night before. This way you will have a starting point to get your into the flow every morning.
5) Write first – Creativity peaks in the morning, and fades away quickly once you allow yourself to be bombarded with emails. Commit to writing first, before doing any other work-related activity.
This might be a tough one if you are used to checking email or social media first. If it is tough to follow through, write for just 15 minutes first, and gradually increase the time you write.
6) Free writing – Writing is a skill, and to strengthen this skill you need to continuously practice it. If you cannot do “formal academic writing” just do free writing. Write about anything, whether or not it is related to your thesis.
You can even write about why it is so hard to write. After a few pages of free writing, you will discover ideas you did not even know you had.
7) Talk to someone -Your supervisor, another student, or a postdoctoral fellow can help you to gain a new perspective when you feel stuck. They may be able to help you find new references or decide between two research plans.
Remember that in order to overcome writer’s block, you will need to acquire new habits. In general establishing a new habit (such as writing before email) takes 3-4 weeks, so developing a new writing process will be a gradual process.
Try one or two of the suggestions above this week (I would definitely recommend starting with daily aerobic exercise), and keep track of how your writing improves. While we all want to produce high quality writing, if you are just beginning to get over your writer’s block aim for quantity, and set a daily quote for number of words (250 or 500).
Once you are in the flow of writing the editing process will help you to become more concise and pull the pieces of your writing together for a quality manuscript.
What strategies have helped you to overcome writer’s block? Please be specific as we have readers from all over the world looking for inspiration!