You don’t need to spend a long time writing before you experience writer’s block; that deeply frustrating state where you just seem unable to get words out of your head and onto the page.
Probably every writer has experienced writer’s block at some point or another, which is reassuring because it means that there must be ways to overcome it otherwise nothing would ever get published.
But before looking at solutions, we first need to understand what the problem actually is.
Writer’s block: a symptom, not a condition
There are many reasons why you might experience writer’s block, so it is perhaps better to think of it as a symptom of some other problem rather than a condition in itself.
If you only treat the symptom, for example by switching to write about something else or by telling yourself to just “write shit”, then this may not be an appropriate response to the underlying problems.
The post below covers 8 common causes of writer’s block and some partial solutions for different situations. You may be experiencing more than one at the same time!
8 causes of writer’s block
Please note, when I talk about writing, I refer to writing as a means of communication and presentation, rather than idea-generation and exploration. The two are very different!
Writing takes concentration. It takes time to solidify an idea into words, and any disruption to your train of thought can take a long time to recover from.
Distraction comes in many forms. You may be interrupted by people coming to talk to you, by stressful events in your life or just by random thoughts popping into your head. But by far the biggest distraction is the internet.
For me, it often starts with email (easily justifiable), but during the 3 seconds it takes to load I already have a tab open to check Facebook. And the news. 40 minutes later I’m watching videos of cats on YouTube.
Willpower alone is not enough to beat this. I strongly recommend removing the option of going online if you want to get writing done.
Before I started writing my PhD thesis, I cancelled my home internet connection so there was no way to get online while I was at the computer. I now use the program “Freedom” to block the internet for several hours at a time.
– Too many ideas at the same time
Sometimes there are simply too many ideas in my head to be able to write. It’s like having a crowd of 1000 people trying to get through a narrow doorway at the same time- they all get stuck. The best way to solve this is to slow down, hold most of the ideas back, and just let one through at a time.
It is extremely useful to do a brain dump by putting all those ideas down using pen and paper. This gives you a stock of ideas you can come back to, and is useful to help you decide…
– Not knowing what you want to say
If you don’t know what you are trying to say, then you won’t be able to find the words to say it.
But even if you have just a half-formed notion of what you want to say, you at least have a focal point for your attention and can spend some time engaged with the idea until it becomes clearer.
Then the challenge is to find the words to express that idea clearly to the reader.
– Difficult problems of expression
Writing is a process of solving problems of expression, and some of these problems are more difficult than others.
If you are writing about ideas you know well, which you have discussed many times and which you are confident in, then often the words can flow without too much thought. But not everything you write about will be so easy. Some ideas are more subtle, more complicated, more difficult.
This means that sometimes you will slow to a halt because you need to spend some time thinking about the idea and how to express it. This is an inevitable part of the writing process, and it is nothing to worry about. Slow down, take your time, and have the patience to try to solve these problems as they arise.
If you put pressure on yourself to keep getting more words down and switch to writing about something else, all you are doing is saving all the difficult problems for later. This leads to the all-too-common situation of trying to do all the difficult work at the end when you are under the most time pressure.
If you stay with the idea a little longer and manage to solve the problem, it feels really good and your writing pace will increase again.
But what if the problem is unsolvable? At least spending some time thinking about it can help you work out why.
– Missing knowledge
If you spend time on a writing problem but find that you can’t solve it, it may be because you are missing some knowledge or information.
If this is the case, no amount of thinking or “writing around the subject” will help. You need to identify what the gap is, decide whether it is important enough to your work to justify the time and effort to fill, and either cut it or go and get the information you need.
It my be that you need to do some analysis or some reading or go and speak to someone, but this needs to be done before you try to write about it again.
– Half-formed ideas
There will be times when you have an idea floating in your mind, but which isn’t quite solid enough to grab hold of and put into words. It’s like those times when you’re trying to remember the name of a song- you know it’s there but the harder you try the further out of reach it seems to get.
It’s frustrating, but sometimes the best thing to do is to try to relax and let your brain work. I will often spend 10 minutes staring out of the window while I think, or I’ll go for a walk but try to stay gently attached to the thought.
Sometimes the idea escapes, sometimes it leads to a new and deeper insight, and there’s no way to control or predict which it will be.
In this situation, it is absolutely crucial that you don’t go online. The internet is death for creative thought.
– Not knowing what comes next
Writer’s block can occur if you have reached a point where you just don’t know what to write next or what direction you want to take the writing.
Some degree of planning helps. As a writer your job is to guide the reader from one idea to the next, so knowing roughly where you want to go is a good idea.
One useful strategy is to type out four or five bullet points outlining the key points you want to cover next. These may change- you can add or remove points or change the order as you write- so it’s not about planning everything rigidly but rather giving yourself a flexible short-term plan.
If you have done a brain-dump on paper, then you can dip into this stock of ideas to select the next points.
Finishing a piece of academic writing usually means showing it to someone else for review, whether that’s submission to a journal, your supervisor, or for the final examination of your thesis.
This can be terrifying. What if it isn’t good enough? What if I have missed something crucial? What if it gets torn apart?
Sometimes it is easier to just keep revising a document rather than submit it, because as long as it’s unfinished you can’t fail. Sometimes it’s hard to motivate yourself to finish off those last few easy things, because it’s difficult to let go, to submit.
This is where a deadline helps, but it’s also good to get into the habit of finishing whatever you are working on. Get each section into a submittable state before moving on to the next. You may still be reluctant to submit, but it does help to lower the barrier somewhat.
Ultimately you can’t know what the result will be, you just have to be bold, submit it, and trust that whatever happens it will be OK.
I know you're probably busy right now...
Would you like to receive my top 7 articles to read in your own time? These are some of the most important principles I think every PhD student (or academic) should know. Enter your name and email and I'll send you one per day for the next 7 days.