Writer's block

Find out more about some of the underlying issues which can cause writer's block and how you can combat them.

Being a student involves the constant application of a number of mental skills, and at some time during your course, you may have difficulty in writing. Here are some thoughts if you ever encounter writer’s block.

Possible underlying issues

Personal factors

  • Anxiety - students can be afraid to make a start, fearful of making mistakes
  • Burden of success/ failure
  • Changes in motivation: why has your energy dried up?
  • Depression: not seeing the point of things
  • Difficulty in shifting one’s focus or style, ie. from extroversion to introversion
  • Fear of being revealed
  • Fear of not being smart enough
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Issues around the future/fear of finishing uni
  • Low self-esteem/little confidence in own ideas
  • Perfectionism: are you trying too hard?
  • Postmodernism: no yardsticks of validity or worth
  • Procrastination: you’ve got to start some time
  • Sense of self too closely linked to achievements and feedback
  • Wanting to express self in another way or another medium
  • Writing creatively, then being afraid of encountering emotions, so not finishing.

Interpersonal factors

  • Competition with peers, i.e. feeling other people are simply better at writing
  • Difficult relationship with a supervisor, feeling harassed by supervisor
  • Disillusionment with the academic environment
  • Fear of criticism, both external and your own
  • Loneliness/ isolation of writing;: dealing with solitude
  • Sense of responsibility to subjects/research participants, fear of offending them.

Environmental factors

  • Physical state: poor sleep, diet, exercise, constant anxiety, headaches
  • Poor goal/task management
  • Poor writing conditions: little privacy, noise.

Skill development

  • Difficulties with the act or process of writing
  • Focusing on output, not looking at the process
  • Inexperience in writing/ summarising/researching
  • Not knowing your learning style
  • Time management
  • Unfamiliarity with the process and requirements of academic writing.

Strategies to combat writer's block

To start off with, ask yourself a basic question:
Do I really ‘identify’ with writing, or with my uni course, or with my professional future? What can you do about writer’s block? What strategies/changes might be useful?

Personal factors

  • General stress management
  • Noticing achievements
  • Practise positive expectancy.

Interpersonal factors

  • Have a friend/ fellow student take notes while you talk about part of your thesis/essay
  • Really ‘own’ the role of writer
  • Set up writing groups
  • Talk to someone you trust about what you intend to write before writing.

Environmental factors

  • Alternative writing spaces
  • Not using computer all the time.

Skill development

  • Change focus; don’t sit and stew
  • Dialogue with the work
  • Do ‘second order’ tasks, e.g. look up references or weblinks, both when beginning or when ‘blocked’
  • Explore the meaning of words, writing, self-expression
  • Reduce interruptions (eg. email, phone calls), to maintain focus
  • Re-name chapters
  • Review when writing flowed or was not blocked
  • Start with a quote
  • Start writing any time, then extensively correct/revise
  • Visualise structure
  • Work on habit/routine rather than impulse/inspiration
  • Write for 10, 20 minutes, regularly, in blocks, with mini-deadlines, with planned breaks and earned rewards.

What strategies and resources does the University provide?

Many resources to help with writer’s block and other academic issues can be found at the University’s Academic Skills site. They offer individual appointments, and conduct study skills seminars.

See also

Useful books

  • Victoria Nelson On Writer’s Block
  • Nick Repak Coping with Academic Pressure
  • Tricia Vilkinas The Thesis Journey: Tales of Personal Triumph

If you'd like more support, come along to one of our workshops or make an appointment for individual counselling.

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