Twelve ways to overcome writer’s block - Composing

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

Twelve ways to overcome writer’s block

There are various definitions of writer’s block. For professional writers - and especially those who are at their most creative as novelists, poets or playwrights - various psychological factors can cause them to abandon writing for weeks, months or years. Here, I am not talking about this rather grand kind of writer’s block, but a more mundane one. Writer’s block is the temporary inability to write, for psychological or organisational reasons. It is often associated with anxiety. Professional writers - and that includes academic writers - rarely have the luxury of this kind of writer’s block. They have tight deadlines to meet and they have to keep their writing projects moving forward. There is always something practical they can do - whether it is planning, researching the subject matter, asking advice, thinking, composing small sections, or reviewing and editing. In other words, they can always find time somewhere to move the overall writing process forward. And there are various ways to reduce the anxiety associated with writing.

It is never too early to develop habits that help you overcome writing blocks. Here are twelve suggestions:

1Be aware of where you are in a writing process. For a piece of writing, are you engaged in planning and researching, composing, or reviewing and editing? If you are finding it challenging to get started ask yourself: What is the best thing to do next? What am I avoiding? What needs to happen before I am ready to move forward?

2Plan the various activities in the writing process around your preferences. When is the best time in the day for you to compose, review and edit, plan, or research and read the literature? If you can, match your daily activities to your preferences. Trying to engage in any one of these activities for many hours in a single day may be counterproductive. You may become bored, inattentive and uncreative.

3Make sure you have understood the task. Have you understood the requirements for the writing assignment? If not, the lack of clarity may well give rise to indecision. If necessary, seek help in order to gain clarity about the nature of the task (see, for example, Section 3.1 Questions to ask your assessor ).

4Be realistic and plan ahead. Panicking is a great way to induce writer’s block. To avoid this happening, plan your writing task well ahead (see Chapters 1 and 6) and set yourself short-term writing goals. You can use SMART or a similar model. Reflect on your practice afterwards. With experience, you will become better at setting realistic goals and will more often reach them, giving yourself time to get the work done to a standard for which you can be proud.

5Practise. It is a truism that you only get better at writing by writing. Thinking, on its own, is no substitute. So, get plenty of writing practice. This need only be in small chunks - writing daily notes or reflections. But the more you get used to starting writing, whether for yourself or for various readerships, the easier you will find it to get started in the future.

6Set up a place to write. With practice, you can learn to write almost anywhere. But make it easy on yourself. Create an environment that supports your writing. For many of us, this includes an uncluttered writing surface where you can spread out your work, a computer with a high quality visual display, a chair that provides the right kind of support, lighting of high quality, and the absence of interruptions or distractions. Once you have established your writing environment, return to it or recreate it when you wish to compose, review or edit. Over time, you will come to associate the environment you have created with the act of writing, and sitting down in that place will act as a trigger to get you started.

7Freewrite. Write for 5-15 minutes in an uncensored way without stopping, to develop the habit of composing and not holding back. If you are ’blocked’ when composing, you could freewrite about the experience. Write down ’I’m stuck’, and then respond to the statement in freewriting. More often than not, the act of freewriting will loosen up your writing, help you feel better and give insight about what you need to do to move forward.

8Use ’writing to a prompt’. Rather than struggling with the blank page or trying to write the perfect first sentence, make what you are writing about the prompt to get you started; for example, ’In this introduction I will outline ...’ or ’This introduction outlines ...’.

9Discuss your writing with someone you trust. Any of the issues mentioned in this list can be helped by talking the matter over with someone else. Talking about writing issues with others helps at many levels. For example, you may gain greater clarity, and confidence in the process and content of writing, by seeking to explain the problem to someone else, even before you benefit from their response.

10Take a break and get into the ’right state’. Go off and do something else. Return rested, energised, or whatever for you is the right state to start writing. I’ve known students who’ve stood on their heads in yogic positions, gone for a run, meditated, played heavy metal or classical music, walked in the park, made coffee, or taken a nap, to shift themselves into the right state for writing. They tend to do one of these things, not all of them! But don’t use taking a break as an excuse not to write. Rather, use it as a way to get into the right state to write - a combination of relaxed but alert.

11Do something completely different! If your writing is becoming stale, break out of your normal patterns. Try going to a park bench and writing longhand, rather than sitting at a computer screen. And sometimes the best thing to do is take a day off.

12Recognise what you have achieved. In those dark nights of the soul, when you find the going tough, remind yourself of what you have achieved so far. You’ve overcome writing challenges before and you will do so again.

Key points in the chapter

1The process of writing involves conscious and unconscious processes, both of which need to be nurtured.

2The first draft is often best written swiftly, after thorough research and planning. This creates the opportunity for plenty of revision, without too much time being invested at an early stage.

3Writing to a self-written prompt is a way of getting over the problem of slow starting.

4Freewriting has many benefits, including encouraging self-expression, generating and connecting ideas, getting into the habit of writing quickly, clearing one’s mind before writing more formally, or shedding light on a writing block.

5The ’no composing’ approach, in which text is gradually assembled in a series of small steps, is one strategy to use when composing does not flow smoothly.

6Managing composing can be done holistically, taking into account factors such as environment, time of day and state of mind, and employs a wide range of strategies, including goal setting and wise reflection.

7Writer’s block, often linked to anxiety, can be countered successfully in many ways.

Cited references

Brande, D. (1934, 1981). Becoming a Writer. London: Macmillan.

Dennison, B. and Kirk, R. (1990). Do, Review, Learn, Apply: A Simple Guide to Experiential Learning. Oxford: Blackwell.

Elbow, P. (1973). Writing Without Teachers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Elbow, P. (1981). Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. New York: Oxford University Press.

Flower, L. and Hayes, J. (1977). ’Problem Solving Strategies and the Writing Process’. College English, 39(4), pp. 449-461.

Gibbs, G. (1988). Learning by Doing: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods. London: Further Education Unit.

Lepore, S. J. and Smyth, J. (2002). The Writing Cure. Washington: American Psychological Association.

Locke, E. A. and Latham, G. P. (2002). ’Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and

Task Motivation: A 35-year Odyssey’. American Psychologist, 57(9), pp. 705-717.

Wade, D. T. (2009). ’Goal Setting in Rehabilitation: An Overview of What, Why and How’. Clinical Rehabilitation, 23(4), pp. 291-295.

Further reading

Conrey, S. M. and Brizee, A. (2011). Symptoms and Cures for Writer ’s Block. West Lafayette:

Purdue University, Purdue Online Writing Lab. Available from: [accessed 10 August 2017].