• Kevin Hylton

Overcoming Writer’s Block

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

If you have ever tried to write anything substantial, like an essay or term paper, then you know that there is nothing worse than the blinking cursor staring at you as you fail to come up with words to write.

Before you sat down, you had a million thoughts running through your head; you were confident; you were ready to go! Then you sat down and nothing! You’re stuck!

Many students experience this same scenario when working on their dissertation. Almost all of the students that I have worked with had this experience.

However, sometimes it is more than just being a little stuck- it's a complete writer’s block.

It’s important for you to be able to identify the difference between being stuck and having writer’s block, in order to overcome them.

Symptoms of Being More Than “Stuck”

You are probably experiencing writer’s block if you have had more than one or two off days.

You can also tell you are blocked if you are lacking motivation or the ability to write for an extended period of time. Like, if you would rather be at the dentist getting a root canal over writing your dissertation, you might need to work on your motivation.

You may also be experiencing writer’s block if you have developed work avoidance behaviors. For example, do you find yourself continuously filling your writing time with other activities such as cleaning, online shopping or running errands? If yes, then you are definitely experiencing avoidance behaviors! (For some students it’s the laundry that just couldn’t wait to be folded.)

Another key identifier of writer’s block is the amount of time that you sit staring blankly at the screen without writing anything. If you are repeatedly unable to get a coherent thought down, even with a looming deadline, you are probably experiencing writer’s block.

I can absolutely relate to all of these feelings! Most Ph.D. candidates know that something is off after a few days of sitting down to write with nothing to show for it.

Why do I Have Writer’s Block?

There is a plethora of reasons why writer’s block occurs and once you can identify what is causing the problem, then you can work on finding the solution.

Read through some of the reasons below to see if any of these could be causing you to struggle with your writing. If you are anything like me, you can probably identify with a few or all of these reasons.

Distractions are probably one of the most common hinderances to the writing process that people experience. Writing requires focus and concentration and when you are distracted, whether by a person, event or device, it can take a while to recover and regain your train of thought.

Digital distractions such as social media and emails are at the root of most Ph.D. candidates’ writing issues. They often sit down to write but end up checking emails, responding to text messages and browsing the newest deals at their favorite online store. By the time they get through all of that, they lose interest, momentum, along with many of their initial ideas.

Another reason writing becomes difficult is because you just have too many ideas floating around in your head at the same time. One overlaps with the other and it becomes hard to decide which idea to develop first.

In addition, negative feelings or emotional worries can also cause writer’s block. Remember, it is important that you take some time to acknowledge and address your feelings to enable your mind to focus more on writing.

Get the Writing Started Again

So, now you know how to identify writer’s block and what causes it, but how do you get past it?

So, let me help you get over your writing slump with a few strategies that worked for most of the people with whom I have worked . . .

Make a Schedule

One of the things that students write the most when they experienced writer’s block is developing a writing schedule. If you are anything like me, then your life can be pretty hectic at times. As life continues to happen, it becomes easier and easier to say, “I’ll get to it later.” You can create a schedule time at the beginning of the week for the day(s) that you will write, or you can set a daily “to do list” that includes time for writing.

When you schedule time into your day to write, really schedule the time! Be sure to update your calendar- be it paper or electronic – with your writing time so that way the time is unavailable for anything else. Doing this will really help to make your writing happen consistently and also in churning out a product – be it good or bad.

Be Realistic

When you make your writing schedule, you need to be realistic about the amount of time you can devote each day/ week to writing. Writing goals that just aren’t feasible can lead to negativity and self-doubt. You will start to get down on yourself when you aren’t able to achieve your lofty goals.

Also, we know that the best outcomes we get come from planned and focused writing. It’s so crucial that you have a quiet workspace that is free of interruptions. When you sit down during your scheduled time, try your best not to multitask. Switch off your devices and let everything else wait.

For me, I know that there is was no way that it’s hard to concentrate in the afternoon or early evening due to time that I teach as well as interact with students, and everything else that comes interacting with family members. So, my scheduled time is generally in the morning when my mind is fresh and before my family and the rest of the world wakes up.

Revisit Your Notes and Get Inspired

If you are experiencing writer’s block, it can be helpful to review your dissertation outline and notes. This will remind you of what your original goal was when you started your writing- What questions did you want answered? What were your hypotheses? What was the purpose of choosing this topic?

If that doesn’t help, then take a break and try reading a few articles or chapters linked to your study. See if you can find some motivation or inspiration in others’ writing. You may also find some confidence or reassurance that you are on the right track. Just an FYI: If you do take the time to do some reading, make sure you limit yourself. This could easily turn into work avoidance, or send you down a rabbit hole, if you spend too much time going from resource to resource.

Start with What You Know

It is a good idea to start your writing with what you know. So, when you sit down to write, start with the section where you feel the most comfortable. Even if it is just half of a page that you are able to produce, this will get your mind going and focused on your writing again.

Starting with what you know, along with chunking your writing, can reduce the overwhelming feeling that comes along with having to create a substantial piece of writing. Trust me, I know that feeling and it isn’t a good one.

Give Yourself a Break

If you are still experiencing writer’s block, you may need to give yourself a break. Get up from your desk and go somewhere. Go for a short walk, fold some laundry, or meet a friend for coffee. Exercise is also a good activity for a break because not only does it get you away from your desk, it also reduces stress, relaxes you and gives your brain a break from academics.

You could also try a change of scenery. Gather all of your work materials and try working somewhere else, such as the library or park. This may give you new perspective and reduce distractions.

Find Your Support

When you are going through a writing slump, it is helpful to have someone to talk with. Find someone that you can trust and that is willing to listen. This could be your advisor, friend, fellow student, mentor, or dissertation coach.

If it’s possible for you to get a dissertation coach, they would be a great advocate and support to have. These coaches can help you structure a realistic work plan, assist in overcoming barriers, help you think through your research questions and study design, and check-in with encouragement and suggestions to keep you moving on the path towards your degree.

Ideally this would be someone who understands the process you are going through and that will provide valuable feedback on your work and hold you accountable.

Being able to establish some external accountability can keep you motivated to write, meet goals, and finally finish your work!

Beat the Block

The transition from taking an idea and transforming it into dissertation-style writing can be difficult. Most students experience writer’s block at some point during this process and it can happen for a variety of reasons.

The good news is that it doesn’t last forever.

Be patient and give yourself time to acquire new habits. The main thing is to not let this completely stop you from writing. Face the block, implement some new strategies, and keep going!

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