In my previous Writers’ Workshop column, “Understanding Writer’s Block” (Talandis Jr., 2021), I discussed common reasons why we sometimes get bogged down in our efforts to produce academic prose. The causes are myriad, complex, and intertwined, but they tend to fall into three categories: lack of knowledge, workflow-related issues, and emotional/physical reasons. Once you understand the causes, the next step is coming up with solutions for overcoming the problem. That’s my aim for this column: providing a brief overview of some tried and true methods for unblocking your academic writing. In truth, there are many ways of dealing with writer’s block, more than I can fit into the small amount of space allotted to me here. However, I’ll aim to get you started with solutions which address the three categories of causes.
Start With Acceptance
Academic writing is hard, so a great place to begin is accepting this fact. While a degree of pain and discomfort is inevitable, recognizing this inherent struggle can, in fact, bring about some relief: “This acceptance of writing as an intrinsically challenging act seems particularly important for novice writers who often assume that the challenges come from their inexperience rather than from the very nature of academic writing” (Cayley, 2013, para 6). Evans (2013, p. 2) goes further, noting how blocks can lead to deeper insights: “Our writing blocks could be ‘signposts’ to new information about ourselves as writers and our material.” Viewing obstacles in this positive light can lessen their capacity to hinder our academic self-expression, making the overall writing process less fraught with conflict.
Gain Knowledge & Experience
Academic writing is a skill that needs to be acquired. Without basic training, it’s no wonder why some novice writers get stuck. Developing an academic voice that resonates truthfully and authentically requires a commitment of time, practice, and effort (Evans, 2013). If you’re prepared to put in the work to hone your writing craft, then you’ll naturally see gains in fluency and flexibility. A great way to acquire this basic knowledge is to get some formalized training, perhaps via a distance learning master’s degree program or a specialized online writing course.
In the meantime, reading as much as you can is one of the best ways to pick up academic style (Everitt-Reynolds et al., 2012). Reading various books, journals, and articles in your area of interest with a keen eye on the writing and presentation can give you a much clearer sense of what academic writing entails. In fact, reading a lot in general, not only academic works, is highly recommended. For example, reading fictional literature can improve creativity and the ability to process information (Djikic et al., 2013).
Finally, another excellent way of gaining the basic knowledge you need to overcome blocks is to find ways to help other writers. In other words, put what you do know to good use. JALT Publications provides numerous opportunities along these lines. For example, you could volunteer as a proofreader/copyeditor for one of its publications or join as a writing mentor with the Peer Support Group. Working on a team with more experienced writers to help would-be authors improve the readability of their papers teaches you the basics of academic style and structure—knowledge which can in turn inform your own writing.
Improve Your Writing Workflow
Blockages can also be exacerbated by inefficient writing workflows. Writers are often unaware of numerous tips and tricks that can smoothen the writing process by removing unnecessary obstacles that waste time and energy. For example, Cayley (2018, para. 4) recommends writing your way through blockages: “Writing can move from being the problematic thing to being a means to solve the problem.” She suggests a strategy of using a different font for signaling text that is exploratory in nature, for-your-eyes-only words written in-text to help you think through troublesome moments. Comments such as I’m worried about what I’m saying here... or ...is inconsistent with what I said on p. 37 enable you to keep moving through tough patches. Alternatively, margin notes can be used to similar effect. In the end, even if this process reveals serious problems, you can take comfort in having made progress by identifying what has gone wrong.
Similarly, keeping a journal is another strong approach to dealing with writer’s block. Whether you write out your thoughts and feelings by hand or on a journal app such as Day One, the private, unstructured free space can lessen anxiety, help you think through particular problems, or brainstorm ideas for new sections. The mental and possibly even physical benefits of journaling have received a great deal of attention (Phelan, 2018) and are best realized when done regularly. Cameron (2016), in her best-selling book The Artist’s Way, recommends developing a habit of writing each morning a set number of pages or words on whatever comes to mind. Even if you never read these daily musings, the act of writing each and every day will pay off when it comes time to produce your next academic project.
Additional workflow improvements, suggested by Fitzmaurice & O’Farrell (n.d.), include:
Make a set time to write: If possible, find a specific time each day for writing. Experiment with different times and then stick with one that works best for your schedule.
Recognize and label distractors, then ignore them: What breaks your flow? Figure out what gets in your way and work to minimize interruptions.
Do not aim for perfection in your first draft: This is a classic time waster. It is more efficient to let your thoughts flow, get them onto the screen, then polish later on.
Establish the overall structure before you write: Spend time designing and creating the frame that will hold your words, then tackle each section in turn, but not necessarily in order. For example, the Introduction can often be written last, after you have a firm grip on the content of your paper.
Do not stop writing when you come to the end of a section: Instead, write a few sentences in the next section before you wrap up. This will make it easier to get started the next day.
Do not stop to correct and revise: Do this later, after you have had some time to sleep on what you have written.
Reward yourself for meeting your targets: Treat yourself to something enjoyable after you accomplish a particular goal. This can add some fun into the overall process.
Practice Mindfulness Meditation
I mentioned previously how putting a positive spin on writing blockages can relieve some of the pressure they cause. This shift in attitude can be facilitated with mindfulness practice. Blocks can be likened to a ringing alarm clock, reminding you to return to the present moment. When you notice yourself staring at the screen and unable to produce much of anything, use that moment to take a 10-minute meditation break. There are various techniques available, and numerous guided meditations can be found on YouTube or apps such as Calm and Buddhify. No matter the technique or approach, mindfulness practice will allow you to be more present, observant of your thoughts and underlying feelings, and ultimately more creative as you move through moments of stagnation and return to a state of flow (Mulrine, 2019).
According to Rosenberg (2018), you will know you are “in the zone” when your full attention is focused, and the writing seems effortless as the words flow with ease. It is a similar feeling to riding a bike with a strong wind at your back—you can move easily and freely, with little resistance. In these moments, the writing process itself can be seen as a form of meditation. As you follow your breath, thoughts will naturally come and go, and you will gradually learn to observe them, as if watching yourself on TV. As the chime sounds to end your meditation session, slowly lift your gaze to the screen and begin writing as soon as possible. Do your best to maintain that centered post-meditation state as you re-engage with your project. If blocks still persist, do not give up. Simply write out your thoughts in a journal and reflect on what is happening from a deeper state of conscious awareness. You will no doubt learn a lot about yourself and can feel satisfied for having confronted whatever fears or emotions may have prevented you from writing at your best.
In the end, it is important to remember that there is no single or correct way to write—each of us has to find out what works and does not work in our own writing (McQuillan, 2021). Academic writing is therefore a personal journey of professional growth and development. As with any adventure, there will be obstacles obstructing your way and moments when you feel stuck and unable to continue. However, I personally believe this is by design. Without such challenges, how could we ever grow? With an understanding of the basic causes of writer’s block and a pocket full of viable solutions, you have everything you need to move forward. If you have been feeling stuck, hang in there! The frustration you feel is temporary, and with a bit of patience and perseverance, that magical state of creative flow will soon return.
Cameron, J. (2016). The artist’s way: A spiritual path to higher creativity. TarcherPerigee.
Cayley, R. (2013, September 11). Imposter syndrome and academic writing. Explorations of Style: A Blog About Academic Writing. https://tinyurl.com/bdendvp4
Cayley, R. (2018). 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/2p8mawxu
Djikic, M., Oatley, K., & Moldoveanu, M. (2013). Opening the closed mind: The effect of exposure to literature on the need for closure. Creativity Research Journal, 25(2), 149-154. DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2013.783735
Evans, K. (2013). Pathways through 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. https://eprints.dkit.ie/329/
Fitzmaurice, M., & O’Farrell, C. (n.d.). Developing your academic writing skills: A handbook. Trinity College Dublin. https://tinyurl.com/49yd7jpw
McQuillan, D. (2021). Forward. In D. McQuillan (Ed.) Peer-led Student Handbook Series, Handbook 3, Technological University Dublin. https://doi.org/10.21427/cec0-7f43
Mulrine, M. (2019). The secret to overcoming writer’s block: Meditation. Writer’s Digest. https://tinyurl.com/yc72frt8
Phelan, H. (2018). What’s all this about journaling? The New York Times. https://tinyurl.com/46fru8cj
Rosenberg, J. (2018). Train your brain: 6 steps for overcoming writer’s block through meditation. Writer’s Digest. https://tinyurl.com/48rxdf2n
Talandis Jr., J. (2021). Understanding writer’s block. The Language Teacher, 45(6), 58-61. https://doi.org/10.37546/JALTTLT45.6