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The Oxbridge Editing Blog 12th November 2020

How to recover from writer’s block

12th November 2020

This post has been written by our guest academic, Augustine Casiday

Writer’s block is a very common and extremely frustrating experience. It happens when you feel a loss of ability to express yourself in writing.

It doesn’t necessarily matter what you are trying to write. Writer’s block hits people who are writing dissertations. It recurs later in academic writing. But it also happens for bloggers. And I know that to be true because I’ve had dissertation writer’s block, academic writer’s block, and even (when preparing this) blogger’s writer’s block, too!

The reason writer’s block is so frustrating, for me at least, is because it feeds on itself. I’ll return to that point.

When I sat down to write this, I knew from experience that I’m a competent writer. I was confident that I could describe how I experienced writer’s block. I have a clear awareness of what causes writer’s block for me. And I knew that I had broken through writer’s block a few dozen times. So I created a new document, fingers to the keyboard, and stared at the blank page.

And stared.

And stared.

And stared.

I made a couple of false starts, deleted them, and then growled at the monitor for a bit. About twenty minutes passed.

With nothing to show for it.

If you can relate to that experience, chances are you’ve had writer’s block, too. The good news – as you can tell, because you’re reading what I wrote – is that I overcame it. 

My plan with this blog is to give you some workable ideas for how you can beat writer’s block as well. I will start by explaining what writer’s block is. Then I will identify some major causes of writer’s block. Those causes differ from person to person, or even for the same person they differ from case to case. All the same, an awareness of the causes is important. When you know what is causing a problem, you can develop a strategy to address it. With that in mind, this blog will conclude with some practical suggestions that may help.

What is writer’s block?

Suppose you want to write something. It could be a report for work, an essay for your course, an article for publication in a professional journal, the next chapter in a book, or your CV. Your motives for writing could be anything, or several things. It doesn’t matter what you want to write; it doesn’t matter why you want to write – all that really matters is that you want to write.

Call it commitment, determination or desire. One thing’s for sure; it isn’t naïve to want to write. You wouldn’t have that drive if you lacked competence. You can write. You might not always enjoy writing, but you are demonstrably able to write.

Let me give you an example that is only slightly fanciful. I am totally illiterate in Japanese: I can’t read it, I can’t sound out the words, I can’t write it. Even so, I enjoy Japanese cinema and think Rashomon is a masterpiece.

I wouldn’t feel writer’s block at failing to write a review of Rashomon in Japanese. I couldn’t write it in any circumstances. Frustration doesn’t figure into it. It’s called writer’s block for a reason. People who cannot write don’t get writer’s block.

Let’s return to the thing that you are determined to write. You are a competent writer. You already know at least in broad terms what you want to communicate by writing. Sure, you may need to verify the numbers. Maybe you’ll add a marginal note to look up that perfect line from Virginia Woolf that you can’t quite remember. Or you’re going to flag up a section that isn’t ready to be written up yet, so it won’t be complete. Even so, know what you are trying to say.

Yet, you are struggling to put it into words.

This inability isn’t caused by a lack of determination or ability. It’s something else.

Soon enough, you feel frustrated by that inability. Mounting frustration compounds the problem. It’s a vicious circle. Increasingly, instead of thinking about your writing, what you’re thinking about is how you aren’t writing. The writing process stops.

That’s writer’s block.

What causes writer’s block?

So much for what writer’s block feels like. Now what we need to consider is what causes writer’s block.

As I said earlier, being aware of causes will enable you to avoid writer’s block or else overcome it. We’ve seen, too, that writer’s block isn’t caused by a lack of commitment or a lack of competence. These are general points, much as the definition of writer’s block provided in the previous section is a general description.

There’s a problem in it. The problem is that people don’t feel writer’s block in general. It isn’t a generic or abstract experience. It is specific to the circumstances and it is specific to the writer who is in those circumstances.

In the next paragraphs, what I will do is identify some of the many causes that can lead to writer’s block. This list is anecdotal and, to a degree, autobiographical. But since the list is based on conversations with lots of people who have experienced writer’s block, I think it’s a reliable way to start.

  • The core experience of writer’s block is frustration. Whatever increases the likelihood that you will be susceptible to frustration is liable to contribute to writer’s block.
  • Fatigue immediately comes to mind. If you are tired, you are probably more prone to making trivial mistakes and to feeling dissatisfied with the writing. Maybe you’re tired because you are writing to an important deadline and you’ve been putting in long hours to meet it.
  • Anyone would feel anxious with a looming deadline. Anxiety can contribute to writer’s block. On a similar note, people who are panicky often freeze up because they don’t know how to respond. If they are feeling panicky about what they are writing and they freeze up, that’s writer’s block.
  • You might be preoccupied with other tasks or deadlines, which keep you from concentrating. Or maybe you feel pressured to produce something perfect and you really dread negative criticism or rejection.

Any single one of these factors can lead to writer’s block. Worse still, they can also occur together and aggravate one another.

How can I beat writer’s block?

Many people stop writing altogether when they are stuck with writer’s block, but writer’s block isn’t the be all and end all.

If you are prone to getting writer’s block, first take some time to reflect on the circumstances that lead to it. You may find factors that recur.

For me, anxiety about meeting a deadline seriously increases the chance of an episode of writer’s block. One strategy I have developed for avoiding writer’s block, is to give myself ample time for writing. Although time management isn’t a cure-all, it assuredly helps.

But, you say, there are only so many hours in the day. So what can you do if more time isn’t an option? And what if you’re already suffering from writer’s block?

There are as many solutions as causes. If you know the cause, you can try a corresponding solution. Remember: there may be multiple solutions.

  • Are you fatigued? Take a break. Rest. Get a coffee or a tea. Get a decent (at least 8 hours) sleep tonight and try again tomorrow, if time permits.
  • Are you a perfectionist? Despite what you might prefer, you don’t in fact need the Muses to sing to you. Set yourself a target that you will meet even when you feel uninspired. Write a draft. Revise it later.
  • Feeling anxious or listless? Do something that you enjoy: solve a crossword puzzle, sing along with music that you enjoy, meditate. Punctuate the time with moments of happiness. Exercise. Take a brisk walk. Find a way to channel your energy and burn off built-up anxiety.
  • Otherwise preoccupied? Attend to the other tasks to give yourself some assurance that you are getting things done: wash the dishes, take out the rubbish, or whatever (I’ve folded and put away all my clean laundry in the course of writing this blog).

The bottom line, in my experience, is simply this: take the steps you need to take in order to restore your sense of control over the writing. Maybe it won’t be your best work, but empower yourself to complete it. The satisfaction that comes with overcoming writer’s block is worth the effort.