You are sitting at your computer, attempting to work on an academic writing project, but nothing is happening. Hours or even days pass by, and you’re feeling completely stuck. As the deadline approaches and the pressure builds, you seek refuge in any sort of distraction, anything to take your mind off the task at hand. Time passes, the cycle of struggle and avoidance continues, and nothing much gets done. Have you ever experienced something like this? If so, then join the club!
Writing, especially the academic variety, does not come naturally to most folks. After all, as Evans (2013) notes, no one is born a writer—writing is an ability that must be learned, and in academia, too little attention is paid to acquiring the requisite skills. As a result, writer’s block, a term used to describe symptoms such as an inability to focus, mental fogginess, lack of inspiration, and general stress (Woodward, 2018), is an unwelcome guest in the professional lives of novice and experienced authors alike. What can be done about it? Given the depth and breadth of this pernicious problem and the limited space of this column, I’ll tackle the issue in two parts. Since the first step to overcoming any problem comes through understanding, I’ll begin by looking at common definitions of writer’s block and sort out some typical causes. This discussion will set the stage in my next column for more in-depth coverage of popular solutions, of which (thankfully!) there are many. My hope is that by facing what inhibits us head-on, we can develop the requisite insight and techniques we need to navigate writer’s block and do our best work.
What is Writer’s Block?
Simply put, writer’s block is a lack of any progress, when you feel overwhelmed with the complexity of the task at hand (Fitzmaurice & O’Farrell, n.d.). It’s actually a complex phenomena with many diverse moving parts and underlying causes. Kara (2017) sees writer’s block as an umbrella term that describes a wide variety of interconnected problems, each of which has a solution. As a result, risk is involved when using the term in a lazy, catch-all manner, as doing so could shift responsibility from the writer to the block. Regarding academic writing, writer’s block is not typically the result of psychological impediment but is born from the intellectual confusions that are a natural part of the process of communicating sophisticated research (Caley, 2018). All writing—academic or otherwise—is a creative act: “It may be that what we are naming a block—a moment when we are unable to put words on the paper or computer screen—is not a block at all. It is part of our creative rhythm” (Evans, 2013, p. 2). Acceptance is key to managing writer’s block and is a theme I will look at more deeply in my next column. For now, let’s look more closely at some underlying reasons for why we often get stuck when writing academically.
As mentioned, writer’s block is a complex phenomena with many entwined elements. As a result, it’s not possible to pin down its exact causes. In other words, the reasons for why we get stuck are unique to each of us. In the background reading I’ve done on this issue, I’ve noticed that causes tend to fall mainly within three distinct categories: lack of basic knowledge, problems with one’s writing process, and emotional/physical reasons. With the understanding that it’s never just one thing, let’s take a look at each of these categories in turn.
Lack of Basic Training, Experience, or Skills
Simply put, blocks may arise from a basic lack of academic writing knowledge. In other words, one reason why you may feel stuck stems from a lack of training or experience. Maybe you are new to ELT, or new to academic writing. Perhaps you identify strongly as a teacher, not as a researcher, or that you’re a non-native English speaker struggling with conventions that differ from your language. You find yourself now in a moment where you need to get published but have never really learned how.
Academic writing, as Fitzmaurice & O’Farrell (n.d.) note, is quite formal, especially when compared to other forms of writing, such as journalistic or creative writing. Novice academics often struggle with expressing themselves in a detached and objective voice when presenting arguments in logical order to arrive at conclusions. Academic writing aims to convey and explain knowledge and engage readers in understanding the subject matter (Everitt-Reynolds et al., 2012). As a result, writing can be hampered mainly by the challenge of sorting out what you think and reconciling that with how you think you need to come across, or with meeting the expectations of others, such as colleagues, supervisors, or editors (Caley, 2018).
Writers who lack experience have not had the opportunity to develop their own unique academic voice, which refers to how they present themselves within their written work, reflecting “what the author brings to, aims for, and does with the material” (Madi, 2021, p. 5). In other words, your academic voice is your scholarly identity (Potgieter & Smit, 2009). Like a fingerprint, it enables your original contribution to the literature (Sorour, 2021). As a result, developing the confidence to express yourself academically takes courage and time (Gardner, 2010).
Writing Process Problems
Another source for writer’s block stems from problems associated with writing workflows, the actual nuts and bolts processes of putting words on a page. According to Evans (2013), writing difficulties often arise when we are unfamiliar with the mechanics of our own individual creativity. For example, if you could only notice that you tended to work better at a particular time of day, perhaps that would be enough to help you get unstuck. It is important, therefore, to pay attention to the details of how you go about your writing and seek ways to make it smoother and easier. Investing some attention to these procedural matters can pay off down the line.
What are some specific process-oriented causes of writer’s block? Van Dyk (n.d.) mentions the following common problems:
- Linear composing
- Premature editing
- Personal distance
- Poor planning
Linear composing refers to problems arising when forcing yourself to write in structural order, introduction first, conclusion last. In fact, it may be easier to jump around and produce your paper out of sequence and begin with whatever section is easiest. Ironically, the introduction, the first section of your paper, is often best written at the end, once you have a firm grasp on the entire project. Writing can be a messy process, so understanding that going in can help you work with greater flexibility.
When you don’t allow yourself to write freely at the start of a project or struggle to complete a sentence without fixing it, you’re engaging in premature editing, which is the result of a perfectionist mindset (more on this in a bit).
Complexity refers to a lack of understanding many novice writers have about the work involved in producing a finished, polished paper. It’s thinking you should be able to do it right the first time then finding yourself stuck when realizing you can’t.
On the other hand, perhaps you do understand the work involved in producing an academic paper, so you break the process down into smaller tasks, which is a sound approach. However, if you take this too far, there is a risk of losing touch with your main message and getting bogged down in a sea of disjointed notes or paragraphs. Van Dyk (n.d.) refers to this predicament as incrementalism.
The degree of personal distance you have from your project can also lead to blockage. For example, if you’re too far away, you may lack enough motivation and energy to see it through. If you’re too close to your topic, you may struggle to find the right words to appeal to a wider audience. Overall, it can really help if you’re both interested and objective when you begin writing.
Finally, another workflow-related cause of writer’s block stems from poor planning. This one seems clear, right? You get stuck because you don’t know what you’re doing, where you’re going, as you did not create an outline or take any notes. Or, maybe you collected so much data you have a hard time figuring out how to use it.
Emotional and Physical Causes
Underlying all of the above are numerous multifaceted emotional and physical causes of writer’s block. For example, fear often appears in one of its many guises to put a stop to our best laid plans. As Lachs (2018) notes, while completely normal, fear becomes problematic if it prevents you from creating anything new. What are some forms fear takes with regards to writer’s block? Kara (2017) mentions the following:
- Fear of failure
- Fear of success
Fear of failure is self-evident. Writing for publication can be quite terrifying, especially if you have not done much of it. Putting yourself out into the world can leave you feeling vulnerable and open to criticism. As Van Dyk (n.d.) adds, it’s quite overwhelming to write with confidence if you believe your audience is smarter than you or will judge you harshly if you make a mistake. This emotional state is related to imposter syndrome, a self-belief that you are not qualified, entitled, or competent enough to produce academic prose but have somehow managed to fool people that you are (Cayley, 2013).
On the other hand, fear of success can also be a problem. Everyone wants to produce successful writing, right? But success can also bring change, added scrutiny, and greater expectations. Sudden success may cast an unwanted shadow as it disrupts carefully balanced work-life routines. For example, say you have finally managed to publish in a peer-reviewed journal. Okay, great! Now, what will you do next? Many famous writers have suffered from writer’s block after a big breakthrough (Woodward, 2018).
Perfectionism is the urge to have everything just right. In small doses, this can be a positive force, giving you energy and motivation to do your best. Taken too far, however, it can stop you from ever getting anything done. Perfectionists typically lack the willingness to write poorly at first, a necessary step in the early stages of a project. As a result, all progress grounds to a halt. At its core, perfectionism is a protection mechanism against harsh critique of failure (Lachs, 2018).
Self-sabotage is another form fear takes. This is when you act in ways contrary to your goals and desires. It’s a common human trait that connects back to fears of failure or success. “If you say, think, believe that you want to write, but you’re not writing, then you are in some way sabotaging your own desires” (Kara, 2017, para. 8).
In addition to fear, other emotional causes include boredom and burnout. The former can set in during longer-term projects, such as a thesis, dissertation, or longitudinal study, when you simply get sick of your topic and have nothing more to say. Similarly, it’s hard to put words on a page if you’re under stress from an imminent deadline or dealing with other kinds of pressure.
Finally, there are physical impediments to consider as well. As you may well know, it’s quite difficult to write if you’re feeling unwell. Writing requires focus, concentration, and a sharp mind. If your back is aching or you’re suffering from a cold, it can be near impossible to get anything done. In addition, undiagnosed medical conditions such as diabetes or an underactive thyroid, not to mention side effects from a new medication, can make it hard to produce quality work (Woodward, 2018).
When tackling writer’s block, it’s helpful to begin by highlighting some basic causes. Emerging from a wide range of practical and emotional roots, the exact reasons why we get stuck are unique to each of us. Fortunately, writer’s block can be managed and overcome. I’ll dive more deeply into how in my next column. Until then, I’ll end with a quote from Cayley (2013, para. 6) which points to the key to unlocking your academic writing ability—acceptance of discomfort as an endemic part of the writing process:
In particular, I am troubled by the notion that we ought to feel comfortable about academic writing. Writers must learn to live with a great deal of uncertainty and vulnerability. Exposing our ideas to public scrutiny is uncomfortable, and recognizing that discomfort as inevitable can actually help make us more comfortable. The recognition of discomfort acknowledges the inherent and ongoing challenges of academic expression. It helps keep us humble, which matters if we are going to produce interesting and honest work. It makes us work harder than we might otherwise do. Academic writing is a struggle and not a realm in which confidence and complacency are ever likely to predominate.
Cayley, R. (2013, September 11). Imposter syndrome and academic writing. Explorations of Style: A Blog About Academic Writing. https://tinyurl.com/kdu6ajzv
Cayley, R. (2018, March 23). Writer’s block is not a struggle with your writing but with your thinking. Write your way out of it. LSE Impact Blog. https://tinyurl.com/afk9rhkm
Evans, K. (2013). Writing blocks in the academic environment. Sense Publishers.
Everitt-Reynolds, A., Delahunt, B., & Maguire, M. (2012). Finding your academic voice: A student’s guide to the art of academic writing. Dundalk Institute of Technology.
Fitzmaurice, M. & O’Farrell, C. (n.d.). Developing your academic writing skills: A handbook. Trinity College Dublin.
Kara, H. (2017, May 10). Writer’s block debunked. https://tinyurl.com/ars9kf6r
Lachs, J. (2018, March 16). The psychology of writer’s block (and how to overcome it). InformED. https://tinyurl.com/2b6bxbhd
Madi, I. (2021). Academic voice as a social and cultural construction. In D. McQuillan (Ed.), Finding your voice in academic writing. Peer-led student handbook series, Handbook 3 (pp. 5-7). Technological University Dublin. https://doi.org/10.21427/cec0-7f43
Potgieter, F., & Smit, B. (2009). Finding academic voice: A critical narrative of knowledge-making and discovery. Qualitative Inquiry, 15(1), 214-228. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800408322792
Sorour, T. (2021). Academic writing as a fingerprint of identity. In D. McQuillan (Ed.), Finding your voice in academic writing. Peer-led student handbook series, Handbook 3 (pp. 38-40). Technological University Dublin. https://doi.org/10.21427/cec0-7f43
Van Dyk, C. (n.d.). Writer’s block. Nature of Writing. https://tinyurl.com/65nhx337
Woodward, G. (2018). The most common causes of writer’s block. Dudley Court Press. https://tinyurl.com/644jjkc4