Writer’s block is usually caused by some form of anxiety, sometimes by an odd mixture of anxiety and boredom.
Whether your situation is academic or professional, the blank page can create a mirror of blankness in your mind, and words or ideas just don’t come easily when you need them to. The strategies below can help you blast through that big blank wall that separates you from the rich material you want to generate for your project.
Roadblock: Perfection Expectation
You think (or hope) that an organized, original draft should just spill out of your mind, course through your fingers and appear on the screen. So you’re frustrated when the ideas or phrases that occur to you don’t seem good enough to actually record.
- Recognize that good writing doesn’t come easily (for you and basically everyone else). Accept the fact that you’ll have to write a shitty first draft. It’s the shit of the first draft that fertilizes the good stuff that will grow in your next draft.
- Preliminary brainstorming will help to get you started. List ALL your ideas about your topic—primary, secondary, etc. Try writing a few paragraphs without worrying about the spelling, grammar, punctuation, or even logic—you can fix that stuff later. Just let your ideas flow—the good the bad, the ugly, the mediocre—whatever. It will be A LOT easier for you to write a decent draft once you have some raw material to work with.
Roadblock: Ghosts of ‘Failures’ Past
You’ve had problems with grammar or logic that make you self-conscious about your writing. The flaws of your past efforts loom large in your mind and make you feel that you won’t be able to express yourself well in this new project.
This roadblock is related to the first one listed here. In both cases, you’re worrying about issues that aren’t important in a first draft. Your purpose now is simply to get out some material to work with—it doesn’t have to be brilliant or even all that coherent. Plus, ‘failure’ in the past simply provides you with feedback to use to improve. Try these strategies:
- Discuss your project with a friend or a tutor.
- Break up the project into steps. First give yourself an hour or half-hour to address the general purpose. Make an appointment with yourself the next day to spend another hour fleshing out your points.
You’re bored with the topic you’ve been given, or you’ve lost interest in the topic you’ve chosen.
- If you’ve been assigned a topic and you can’t switch it, try to find some aspect of the topic that connects to your life, or to a subject you’re interested in. A little research might help you find an angle on the topic that will reboot your enthusiasm.
- You could also ask your instructor about shifting the assignment a bit. Maybe you’re supposed to write a literacy narrative about a mentor who helped you learn important lessons, but you don’t really have an interesting mentor story. Maybe your brother or your best friend had a learning experience that would make for a more compelling paper—ask if you can write about that instead.
- Talk to your teacher about the possibility of shifting the project focus slightly or even switching to an entirely different topic. If you feel you have some great experience or knowledge of another topic, you might tell the teacher that. Suggest that you could produce a much more compelling paper if you were allowed to write on something in which you had more personal investment. Instructors prefer to read papers that are interesting, so in many cases they’ll give you some latitude with the topic for this reason.
Usually talking with your teacher about an assignment has an additional bonus: you come across as motivated, interested, and an active learner. This can only help you in the long term (i.e. term grades), and in the short term you’ll be getting your teacher on board early, so they have some sense of what you’re trying to accomplish in your writing. This will make it easier for them to understand your final draft, and see it through your eyes…a subtle way to build support for your argument or main point. If this feels like cheating, it isn’t. Especially if your questions are authentic. Just don’t take a whiny, “I wish I didn’t have to write this paper” approach. Go in with some suggestions/ideas of your own. The same thing is true in the working world: never take your boss a problem. Always bring some potential solutions (they don’t have to be perfect) or you’ll seem like a negative, downer, whiny type who’ll be the first to go when the layoffs come.
Roadblock: I’ve Read the Assignment Five Times…
You don’t understand the assignment.
- First, make sure you’ve read through the assignment thoroughly. Instructors or workplace supervisors give a lot of complex, challenging assignments these days, so a quick, casual read-through often won’t give you a chance to fully comprehend what you need to do.
- If you still have trouble understanding the project, ask your instructor, supervisor, or a tutor to clarify the points you’re having trouble with.
- Sometimes it’s your own consuming worries that impede your understanding. Check out the strategies for assuaging anxiety listed below.
You have anxiety about tackling this project. Your anxiety may be caused by a looming deadline, insecurity about your writing, troubles with the class, the teacher, the job. But when you’re just starting, train yourself to forget about all that crap. You have sub-personalities of the Creator, the Editor, the Workload Manager, etc. The Editor and Manager will have important roles later in the process, but not right now.
- Banish the Editor. No one is allowed in the room except the Creator, who has total freedom regarding how to address the assignment. No critical thoughts allowed.
- Focus your creative energy by rehearsing the task in your head.
- Start writing. No restrictions. Lose control. Turn off your computer monitor and just type in the dark. Be like a Jedi…
- Any time the Editor tries to bust through the door (any time a critical comment comes into your head), toss that naysayer out again.
- Try creating some rituals that help you to put you in a creative frame of mind—you could use music, clothing, candles, coffee, soda, etc.
You’re so friggin’ stressed out you can’t even think straight!
Obviously you need to calm down a bit so you can think more clearly.
- First, remember that while you need to get this project done, the pressure you’re feeling from it and from your other work is all temporary. Probably you’ve been under similar pressure before and you’ve found ways to get your work done successfully. Have confidence that you’ll find effective ways to tackle your current workload as well.
- Try to some deep breathing exercises to relax. Breathe from your belly instead of from your shoulders or chest. Don’t force your breath—let it settle into a natural, relaxing rhythm. As you breathe in, visualize a loose, relaxed peace flowing through your body. As you exhale, imagine that you’re breathing out all the tension. Follow this process consciously for a few minutes and let go of all the stressful thoughts.
- Imagine that you’re sitting on a riverbank and all the worrisome thoughts are boats moving down the river. You don’t have to get into these boats—just let them pass by. Watch the procession of anxious thoughts continue past as you sit on the serene bank. Then start looking for the boats you really want—creative, interesting ideas about your writing project.
- Get some exercise. Nothing like a good workout to clear the mind.