10 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block (Ought Experiment)
Welcome back to Ought Experiment! This week’s question comes to us from someone dealing with a bad case of writer’s block. Maybe.
I’m sure you’re going to say this is one of those problems everyone has, but I really struggle with writer’s block. It can hit when I’m just starting a new paper, or it can hit me when I’m already several drafts into a paper. Sometimes I can stare at the same sentence for literally hours, making stupid little tweaks that I keep erasing seconds later. But a lot of the time I can’t even bring myself to open the file because I just know nothing good will happen. I guess sometimes the idea is very clear in my head, but I can’t make it happen that way on the page. I get stuck so much I’m starting to wonder if I’m actually not good at this. Which is funny, because I think the problem is getting worse with time, not better. This email was easy enough to write, and so are a lot of other things, but when it’s time to work on one of my papers, it’s like a switch gets flipped and suddenly the words stop flowing. Please help me break through this wall!
It Escapes Me
Dear It Escapes Me,
I’ll skip right past the obvious joke about sitting on this column for a couple weeks because I had writer’s block. (Or will I?) ((Of course I won’t.))
I’m happy to offer some tips that work for me. And I hope that others will chime in with their own suggestions below, just on the vanishingly small chance that what works for me isn’t universal. Hah. But before I do, I want to ask you something: are you entirely sure the problem is writer’s block? Because it sounds an awful lot to me like a case of approach-avoidance.
Writer’s block is the temporary or intermittent problem of not knowing what to say, or how to say it. You get approach-avoidance when you know there’s something you ought to do, or maybe even want to do, but the actual doing of it is daunting, or high stakes, or mired in so much stress and other emotional baggage that your mind latches on to any excuse to temporarily abandon the task. And the moment you finally relent brings a wave of relief, legitimized by the solemn promise that you’ll try again real soon, and that it’ll be totally different when you do.
Sometimes chipping away at the same sentence over and over isn’t evidence that you’re stuck—it’s actually your brain’s sneaky way of ramping up your frustration levels until the task becomes intolerable, so you’ll go do something instantly gratifying instead. Not being able to open the file in the first place is another big clue, as is the fact that the problem is getting worse with time, and as is the fact that switching to other writing (like emails) resumes the effortless flow of words.
Given my suspicion, here are some strategies that I’m pretty sure won’t work. I know they won’t work because I’ve tried them all a statistically significant number of times:
- Fill up that dauntingly blank page by writing a list of your faults, with special attention paid to all the reasons why you, and only you, will never make it as an academic. Take that, blank page!
- Wail and gnash your teeth. Paw helplessly at your office dry erase board and ask why it has forsaken you. Bonus points if you stumble out into the cold night air, and shout at the distant and unfeeling stars. How they mock you.
- Since everyone knows that you can’t rush the creative process, watch Netflix. Assure yourself that doing so isn’t approach-avoidance, because you’re totally letting the ideas percolate in the back of your head while you binge old Xena episodes.
- Rent a thousand monkeys from monkeyrentals.com. Furnish them with a thousand typewriters (if money is a problem, ask some of them to double up). Wait.
Judgment and brooding and monkeys don’t help. Here are 10 tips that might:
- Stick the paper in a desk drawer. Feel free to give the drawer a good slam as you close it—papers are notoriously vulnerable to passive-aggressive behavior. Come back to it later, with fresh eyes and reduced baggage. Spend the interim wisely. Or joyously.
- Forget the Word file. Go tell your idea to the mirror, or to an unsuspecting stranger that’s trying to ignore you in the checkout line. Then dash back to your computer and write down what you said. Don’t try to make it sound professional or precise, and definitely don’t edit it mid-sentence. Just transcribe. Once you’ve got that colloquial paragraph, head back to the mirror—or track down that now-alarmed stranger—and tell them more.
- If other forms of writing work for you, try other forms of writing. Close down Word (again) and address a new email to a friend. Write to them about the paper. Tell them what needs to happen in the next draft. Be specific. Remember, you’re not trying to write the paper itself. You’re just talking about it. Right before you click send, change the ‘To’ field to your own address and enjoy your new revision outline. Voilà! Bait-and-switch FTW!
- Change things up. Trade your office for your home, or your home for your office. Go to a coffee shop, or a park, or a zoo, or one of those fun zoos where they give the animals coffee. Listen to music, or different music, or stop listening to music. Write in company, or alone. If you start each day by plopping down in the same chair (aka The Throne of Past Failures), you’re just forming a psychological association with failed writing.
- Sensory deprivation! Physically distance yourself from all distractions. I like to sit in an empty bathtub with a pocket notepad, listen to the white noise of the bathroom fan, and sketch an outline of things I’d like the stubborn section of my paper to do until some of the details start to fill in. Notice I said ‘empty bathtub’ and ‘pocket notepad’. Don’t mix water and laptops. Spark of inspiration: good. Other sparks: bad.
- Give your paper to a colleague and tell them you’re not sure how to revise it. Marvel as they then tell you exactly how to revise it. Repay the favor later, so you’re not a selfish jerk. Perhaps start a draft-circulating group with friends or similar stage academics. If you don’t have a presentable draft, find a venue where you can give a short presentation on the idea, and then capitalize on the temporary creative surge that follows. Sometimes just giving yourself that artificial deadline can help.
- If you’re feeling stuck or anxious, don’t hurl yourself at your computer and defiantly insist that today not suck. Mood matters. Go for a walk first. Meditate. Find a dog and pet it. Laugh with a friend. Listen to some music. Grab an instrument and make some music. Watch that YouTube video where the sloth eats carrots on its back. (Try not to compare yourself to a sloth.) Find ways to take the edge off, and ease yourself into the task.
- You might find your attention drifting away from the sentence at hand, and toward how much work the paper as a whole still needs. Like, don’t do that. Forget about the paper as a whole. Give yourself the goal of writing exactly one sentence, or writing for one minute. You can do that. When you’ve done that, celebrate. No, really. You would be remiss not to stand with your knuckles on your hips, chin raised. Then give yourself another sentence/minute goal. Do enough of those in a row, and you’ve got momentum.
- Try to write first thing in the morning. Literally first thing in the morning. Leave your laptop or notebook next to your bed. Open it up to where you left off, and write one paragraph. Write it before you check your email, or read the news, or load up Twitter. (It’s okay to check Daily Nous first, but only briefly.) Write it before you get out of bed, before you shower, before you eat. This might sound like a demented, fanatical version of those “Shouldn’t you be writing?” memes, but the opening moments of the day can set the tone for what follows. Wait, and the day and your will can both get away from you.
- Mimic that instant gratification impulse by rewarding yourself throughout the day, not just eventually. Create incentives to do the next bit of writing. Share cool sentences with patient friends. Tell people your idea on Facebook, so that their excitement becomes infectious. Keep a running tally of the progress you’ve made. Above all, leave judgment at the door: editing can come later, and beating yourself up for the past can come never.
Those are just some suggestions. What strategies did I miss, readers? What works for you?
— Louie Generis
Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! You can also follow Louie on Facebook. And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.
Advice for New Faculty Members, by Boice, changed my life.
One thing he suggests: if you find yourself stuck in a mindset where writing is painful and it is extremely difficult to get anything out, just stop. For a few weeks, do not do any writing. Instead, pick a time during the day when you can just sit and think about writing. Try to stay calm during that period of thinking, and make the time of day you pick a time when you, later, can actually write. Imagine the writing going well. Imagine coming across a difficulty or challenge and (here’s the kicker) imagine working through that challenge without feeling distraught. This is all psychological training. It is meant to get you out of thinking “OH MY GOD WRITING IS HARD AND I’M GOING TO DIE” and into a peaceful mindset where you think, “Writing is challenging, but I am prepared for that challenge, and I will be okay.”
That’s just one small bit of his advice. Read the book.Report
That might work for faculty, but it doesn’t work for students who would fail a course if they were to do that. What should students do?Report
I’d suggest thinking of it as an activity to try out next time you have the chance. It’s early in the term now: maybe you have enough time that you could try doing it now? Or maybe you’ll have an opportunity during Winter Break, before the next round of classes starts up? Or maybe you’ll have to wait until summer to try it.
It’s not a method intended to help with some particular project that one is stuck on. Instead, it’s advice about how to re-shape your entire mindset regarding writing and research. If you find yourself regularly struggling with writer’s block, anxiety, and frustration related to writing, you unfortunately will just have to soldier on until you have a break sufficient to try out Boice’s suggestion.Report
11. Remember that writer’s block is a malady faced by every philosopher (well, if Martha Nussbaum is reading, perhaps she can tell me if I’m over-universalizing). Try to let that make you feel better for a little while.
12. Procrastinate wisely. http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/
13. Write down some sentences or pictures or something on paper. (I feel confident that computers somehow contribute to philosophical writer’s block, though I have no theory about why.)Report
Nussbaum joke got an outloud laugh from me 🙂Report
I’m writing this at the moment instead of working on my book, so take what I say with appropriate grains of salt. But it’s very useful to end your writing day by listing some starter questions or discrete tasks that will initiate your next day’s writing.Report
Turn off the internet and keep it off for at least 30 minutes.Report
Right. Except for Daily Nous.
(Sorry, I’m contractually obligated to say that at least three times today.)Report
(i) Have several projects at different stages going at the same time: one where you are still reading stuff and jotting down informal notes; one where you are writing the main body of the paper; one where you are making the final touches (maybe changes in response to referee comments) on a paper that’s largely written. If you are blocked at one of these levels, switch projects.
(ii) If you are giving a talk somewhere, use it as an opportunity to try to organize a paper. You don’t need to write the entire thing, just have enough notes to give a coherent talk. Arrange to have your talk recorded. (I don’t recommend this for a job talk, or other high stakes talks.)
(iii) Be self-aware and observant about what works for you, and what your writing style is. Don’t try to do things a certain way because that’s what others do, or that’s how you were taught to do it. I know some people who set aside a fixed amount of time each day, and will polish each page before moving on to the next. I couldn’t work that way. I spend a lot of time reading, thinking, jotting notes; then I wait for a period in which I have a week or so that is relatively free and have an intense binge in which I get the ideas on paper (actually computer) in something like the form of a paper; then I ignore it for a while; finally, I come back to what I’ve written with a fresh eye and revise it.Report
Virginia Valian’s “Learning to Work” http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/genderequity/repository/files/gep-workshop-materials/1977workingItOut.pdf is one of the most helpful things to read for people with severe blocks and even not so severe.Report
Switch from Word to LaTeX. Be amazed how much better your paper actually looks. Will want to write more of it.Report
Often writer’s block or chronic procrastination is a sign that you’ve decided to embark on a particularly unprofessional piece of writing. If that’s the case then no amount of well-meaning advice that would otherwise prove fruitful will be able to help you. Here are some signs that you might be writing something unprofessional:
1. Instead of writing a paper that aims to show that a pre-existing debate in a sub-literature might be furthered slightly (in fact, through the consideration of a minor point from a neighboring sub-field) you’ve instead tried to come up with an original and attractive position that would involve changing assumptions in a larger-than-corner-of-a-sub-field area. No wonder you’re getting stuck! Stick to professional, achievable goals and you won’t freak out so often.
2. Instead of formulating every possible objection, no matter how trivial or insane, against a slight alteration to a famous contemporary figure’s position, you’ve made some exploratory points based on an exciting thesis the exact consequences of which are not yet clear to you, or indeed anyone. A word of warning: Exploration is for naive fools. The path to a tenure-less future is paved with original intentions. Bin them!
3. More generally, if you’re finding writing difficult it might be because you’re a little afraid, even excited, that you’ve got something really wild and interesting to say. Your difficulties may well be an over-reaction on the part of your super-ego, reacting against what it perceives as a dangerous outburst of id-fuelled exhibitionism. Remember: Trust your super-ego. Imagine what a fool you might look if you write the wrong thing! No one ever got mocked for a literature summary. Play it safe. After all, you wanna spend the rest of your life grinding lenses?Report
I don’t think it’s that useful to see writer’s block as a sign that one’s project is not particularly professional. That’s a pretty big judgment to make! It’s an inference drawn about the product from evidence about the producer’s psychological state. Especially in a profession that has such a close relationship with anxiety and depression, that doesn’t seem like a reasonable inference.
Furthermore, what work doesn’t start out particularly unprofessional? Expecting the first draft of a project to have the look and feel of a particularly professional piece, rather than something half-baked and poorly formed, is probably not a good idea. Let yourself write out unprofessional gibberish, so that you then have the opportunity to polish it into something good.
The reason why I’m so inclined to criticize that first claim of yours is because, at least in my own experience, that kind of reasoning causes incredible misery and horrible work. For me, and I would expect for most writers, one of the absolutely worst things you can do is hold your work up for judgment before it has even made it onto the page.
So, anyone who may read this: I would suggest not doing that. Let your writing be bad. A crappy first draft is the first step to a stellar end result.Report
Michelle, I appreciate your remarks, but I do believe that Aspiring Professional Philosopher was giving satirical advice in order to criticize the current state of the profession, as he or she sees it.Report
Find a friend who is not a philosopher, but who is nevertheless willing to put up with occasional philosophical conversations. Once you’re sure she won’t bolt, try to talk her through the paper, focusing especially on the part you’re having trouble writing. See how she responds, where she gets confused, and what she needs more help understanding. Take her questions seriously.Report
For me, S in on the best track, except I would suggest that you substitute yourself for a friend who is not a philosopher.
Learn to talk to yourself.
Not in some self-consumed muttering about affairs of the day (Jeez do I do that; many do)–learn to situate yourself apart from anyone else but as if you had an audience, though they are not actually there. Essentially this is like teaching, but it’s teaching yourself (actually BTW I also think this the key to what is good teaching–learn to welcome the moment to teach yourself first and foremost–a surplus recommendation). Find some activity–working out, cleaning the house, cooking (my favorite)–and learn to talk to yourself while you are doing this something else. There’s an audience while you do something pretty otherwise automatic–your future readership posed as your blank interlocutor all the while–and there’s you–saying what you think makes sense, and if you’re lucky, imagining retorts and rejoinders from you as representing your own interlocutors. Get this back and forth in your head, repeat it with varying nuances of changed meaning and resulting logic of an internal dialogue, and repeat it enough that you could teach it as a pattern of back-and-forth argument to an actual audience. Now you have the basis of an actual paper, at least as learned by experience with yourself in an internal elenchus.
This actually just replicates in your own subjective experience the richness of the classroom as an environment where you present your thoughts to an audience where your have a very heightened awareness of the reception of every word you are trying to communicate.
Write like you are teaching to a real class, where, as many must admit, real inspiration of insight and example comes from. The better you can get to that mind-frame, the better you can write. Writing is as only good as your best and most reflective speech, after all, and the good interactive classroom is the social furnace for that forged product. Put that scenario into your head, and talk to yourself as an audience while you are doing something else. Then write that down after the rehearsals. FWIW.Report
I do this, but it always feels a little crazy. I’m glad to hear that others do this! I find it helpful to record myself using Evernote (or whatever audio recording app) to help simulate having an audience. Plus, I can go back to it later and review. That way, I don’t have the background fear that I’ll hit upon a worthwhile thought but forget it, driving me to take notes, which then disrupts the whole ‘talking to an audience’ flow.Report
I have found that co-authoring papers is also helpful in dealing with writer’s block. When I get stuck I can talk to a writing-partner or pass the paper off to her for a bit. And having another person’s take on the work often checks my tendency to imagine that the stuff I’m writing is worse than it is.Report
My ProTip for beating writer’s block is structured procrastination: Always have more than one project going (preferably ones of different cognitive levels: E.g., I might have a paper to write, a theorem to prove, some Latin to translate, and some 12th C charters to transcribe all that the same time. No matter how bad the first three are going, I can always work on the fourth because it takes basically no mental energy at all), so that when you get stuck on one you can move to another and still be productive. Then when you get stuck on THAT one, go back to the first, and the problem may seem less daunting.Report
Take a walk or do some other form of physical exercise. Writing is an embodied process. If your “block” is not due to some other underlying issues (e.g., writer’s anxiety, fear of failure), try “working your topic out” through physical movement. Your movement exercise should be devoid of external distractions (i.e., no Ipod with ear buds) so you can allow your mind and body to connect on your topic through your movement. It helps to take mini-breaks during your composing process too in order to allow your body to process what your mind is working on. Movement especially helps on longer and more complex projects. You can walk, bike, swim, do yoga, tai chai…the movement possibilities are limitless.Report
Excellent tips. Getting up and moving in particular helps me. On an unrelated note, I want to express my profound disappointment that monkeyrentals.com is not a thing.Report
Seconds after writing the joke, I paused in hopeful awe, then went straight to monkeyrentals.com, daring to believe. I was similarly disappointed. At least Xena is real.Report
One thing not mentioned yet, I think: have a nap. Or at least close your eyes and relax, with the option of sleeping. Things may come to you when you relax fully, when you let go, or when you wake up (if you sleep). And if you do sleep, you will at least have more mental energy when you wake up, which may enable you solve your problem.Report
Turn the brightness of your screen down so you can’t see what you are typing into that document. Save it. Keep going. Save again. Repeat several times even if you find that you are only writing about how bad a typist you are. Just keep circling back to the points you know you want to make- or discover during the process that you want to make or refute. Don’t worry about what you are typing just try to get those thought onto the document.Report