If you’ve never had trouble starting, making progress on, or finishing a writing project, then this blog post isn’t for you. Also, please introduce yourself and tell us your secret, because I’ve never met anyone who could say this. For most of us, especially those of us who write in some way for a living, the struggle to produce high-quality writing effectively and efficiently is a constant. I’ve been a writing professional for almost 30 years (not counting graduate school!), and over that time I’ve worked with thousands of student writers. One of the few universal truths I have learned is that writers face all kinds of challenges.
Unfortunately, another big truth is that many writers feel that these challenges are proof that they are lazy, stupid, lacking in creativity, or otherwise unworthy. I blame the nature of the writing process for this. Writing is a lonely process. Even if you are working with a co-author or a whole team, eventually it’s just you, the keyboard, and a blank screen. Of course, many of us gravitate toward writing-heavy careers for this very reason: we like working alone. A big downside of working solo, however, is the lack of feedback about what is normal and what isn’t. It is easy for writers holed up in their cubicles or offices to encounter problems and not realize how common they are. Alone with their troubles, people often beat themselves up for their perceived shortcomings and failures, which makes grappling with writer’s block just that much more challenging.
As experienced writers will tell you, the phrase “writer’s block” is actually a misnomer, because it comes in an infinite assortment of forms, for any number of reasons, only some of which actually have to do with writing per se. Writer’s blocks also crop up throughout the writing process. Writer’s block can strike right at the beginning of a project, for example, when you don’t know where to start or maybe even what to write about. I see this sort of block quite often among graduate students who are paralyzed by the prospect of picking the topic that will define them as scholars. I see it among fellow faculty who are bored of their usual topics and have no idea what to do next. And many people have trouble getting started simply because they hate writing or find it boring or difficult (this explains why so many undergraduate papers are written the night before they’re due).
Writer’s block can also appear mid-project, whether from boredom or frustration, sucking all the wind from your sails and making it impossible to write another paragraph. These sorts of challenges are especially common on long projects when it’s easy for “topic fatigue” to set in. I have also suffered mid-project writer’s block thanks to plain old exhaustion. Asking your brain to deliver at too high a level for too long turns out to be a great recipe for writer’s block.
For many writers, the home stretch of a report, manuscript, or thesis is actually the single most stressful period, and the time at which they face their most severe writer’s block. I have seen students get so nervous about finishing their theses that they’ve developed health conditions or an inability to walk into their study space at home. More commonly, when writers worry about whether their work will be good enough, their productivity slows to a crawl. Projects that should take a month or two to write take six months, or even a year. Sadly, but understandably, many writers give up in the face of this kind of stress.
In short, writer’s block affects everyone for all sorts of reasons, and it can strike during any phase of a project. It doesn’t mean you are a bad writer, that your project is no good, or that you should quit and find a new job. Writer’s block is simply an unavoidable reality that people who write for a living must face.
On the other hand, just because everyone suffers from writer’s block doesn’t mean that there aren’t strategies for coping with it. Before you can devise strategies, the first step is to engage in some honest root-cause analysis. Rather than just beating yourself up for not writing faster, ask yourself what are the specific obstacles and factors slowing you down? Are you dreading your boss’s review of your work? Do you hate the project? Are you having trouble getting organized? Do you feel unprepared or unqualified to do the work? Is your work schedule too busy to leave enough time to write?
Once you have identified the root causes, you will be in a position to devise strategies for overcoming the specific sources of writer’s block that you’re facing. Rather than just “trying harder” to make your current approach to writing work, my suggestion is to rethink your writing process from the ground up and accept that feeling challenged—and even overwhelmed at times—is part of that process. All writers face challenges, but writers who understand themselves and create a custom writing process that fits their working style are likely to be more productive and happier writers.