Conquering Writer's Block

Get Your Writing Flowing Again

Hi there grad student!
Picture this: You are sitting at your desk, notes neatly organized, outline in hand, your mind nicely overflowing with all the relevant knowledge you need right now, fingers posed on the keyboard and ….nothing comes.  You write not a word. Yesterday, today, tomorrow, perhaps ad infinitum.  It’s a terrifying thought.

The Symptoms

That fresh, virginal page on your computer screen remains stubbornly fresh and virginal. Writer’s block has struck: that excruciating condition during which you are ready to write, you need to write, you have the time to write and yet, nothing comes. Nada.

It’s like the protagonist in George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying who is unable to complete an epic poem describing a day in London: “It was too big for him – that was the truth.  It had never really progressed…it had simply fallen apart into a series of fragments.”  It feels like the dissertation that devoured its author.

The Origins

Some attribute the term Writer’s Block to the Austrian psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler in 1947 who claimed that the malaise was caused by oral masochism or a precarious love life.  Take your pick.

Chances are, however, that you have other factors affecting your writing productivity. This includes all of the ramifications related to confronting a worldwide pandemic which may have you locked down and locked in.  You may be dealing with work and financial stresses or have a dissertation supervisor who is less than supportive for all kinds of reasons. Let’s not even get into defence committee politics.

The Effects

Whatever the cause, you are blocked. You begin to recognize that increasingly familiar sense of panic that strikes every time you sit down to your computer. It’s a sense of resistance that makes you want to flee, to do anything but stay and write. You find yourself cleaning, exercising, chatting, shopping, snacking, Netflix binging, social media rabbit-holing…anything to avoid the deadly dissertation. And the more frequently you obey that desire to resist, the more challenging it becomes to write. You are ostensibly caught in a cycle of disengagement, guilt and avoidance.

The Solutions

Perhaps you’re asking too much of yourself at this particular point. You may have committed to a solid, longer block of writing time each day – say three hours. It seems reasonable and productive, but perhaps it’s currently too formidable. Consider reducing your expectations while you’re re-engaging with your dissertation so that you can get started again. A limit of thirty minutes to one hour per day for the next week may help make the project approachable and less intimidating. After the one hour is up, you’re finished for the day. The result is a small step forward without any accompanying guilt.

Think of it as the Hemingway Approach: this highly prolific and acclaimed writer set a goal of 500 words a day, no more and no less.  He stopped at 500 words, even if he was in the middle of a sentence.  And then, later in the day, he edited those 500 words.  You may also find that the constraint of a time or word limit may reduce the pressure enough to ease you back into the writing process. When you sit down to write and experience that usual sense of discomfort/resistance, feel it fully and remind yourself of the short time you have committed to.

Or, perhaps you’re too much of a perfectionist and believe that each sentence or paragraph needs to be ideal before you can move forward. Attempting to simultaneously write and edit can be debilitating. Instead try the James Thurber Approach and free-write. Let it all come out as it wants to come out without worrying about precise vocabulary or perfect sentence structure. Then correct later when you work on successive drafts. This can actually be fun and much more productive than if you’re frozen trying to write the perfect first draft.

Another option is to change your writing tool: close your laptop and use a lovely yellow legal pad and an actual pen for awhile. Or record yourself pontificating about your dissertation ideas using a recording to text app. If the internet is the problem with its tantalizing distractions, try using an app like Cold Turkey. It turns your computer into a simple typewriter while you’re using it.  Voila, goodbye to the seductive outside world.

Writer’s block can be a real problem and it’s likely you’ve suffered from bouts of it as a graduate student. Take some solace knowing that the experience is common among writers and that there are proven strategies to address it. If you’re looking for extra support in moving past writer’s block, contact me for a complimentary coaching call. We’ll tackle it together.