I used to think that writer’s block was a problem for creative types. I know better now. Whether it’s a novel, a poem, or a research paper, everyone who writes faces writer’s block eventually. And since students spend much of their time writing, you know exactly what I’m talking about: sitting at your desk, staring at the screen with your hands hovering over the keyboard, nothing happening, the screen stubbornly blank. You’re blocked.
What do you do?
The problem with much of the advice that I’ve seen on how to deal with writer’s block is the failure to recognize the different kinds of blocks you might encounter. And dealing with each requires its own tool. Imagine that you moved to Chicago last year, right before one of the nastiest winters in memory. (I’m not sure who would do such a foolish thing, but just pretend.) You go out to your car one January morning and discover copious amounts of snow between you and the street. Would you address this obstacle by going inside and getting the plunger from your bathroom? I sure hope not. And I strongly recommend not trying to fix a clogged toilet with a snow shovel. Different blocks require different tools or you’ll have a mess on your hands (and probably your shoes).
The same is true with writer’s block. If you’re stuck, you need to recognize why you’re stuck and identify the right kinds of tools for getting unstuck. Otherwise, you might just make things worse.
Dealing with 5 Kinds of Writer’s Block
1. The “Blank Page” Block
I put this fist because it’s what everyone faces first. Whether you’re writing a 10-page research paper or a 200-page book, every writing project begins with a blank page. And it’s amazing how intimidating all that unbroken whiteness can be.
The key here is just to get something down on paper: write a paragraph summarizing your paper; jot down a couple of good quotes that you think you’ll use; outline some of the key ideas you’ll be developing. At this point, it doesn’t matter much what you write. You’re probably going to delete most of it as you make revisions anyway. You just need to break the blank page block, get the words flowing. Explaining her approach to writer’s block, Jodi Picoult explains:
“If it’s writing time, I write. I may write garbage, but you can always edit garbage. You can’t edit a blank page.” (Jodi Picoult)
The only way to break the blank page block is to fill the page. Worry about editing later.
2. The ” Well Is Dry” Block
One of the more common reasons you can’t write is because you don’t have enough material, content, research, or whatever. You’re stuck because you’ve got nothing to say. As Anne Lamott describes,
“I no longer think of it as a block. I think that is looking at the problem from the wrong angle. If your wife locks you out of the house, you don’t have a problem with your door.
The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.” (Bird by Bird, p. 178)
If this is your problem, the last thing you need to do is to keep staring at the screen. That’s like trying to fill a well by staring at the bucket. Step away from the computer and do whatever it takes to fill up again. For most students, that means more research. Hit the books for a while, and then try again.
3. The “Too Close to the Problem” Block
Have you ever had that experience where you’re trying to remember some piece of information and you just can’t dredge it from the dark depths of your mind. But the minute you stop looking for it, there it is! In his fabulous fantasy novel The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss calls this the power of “the sleeping mind.” Your “waking mind” is the one you use actively and consciously to deal with reality. And I’m sure it’s a fine mind. But the “sleeping mind” has a completely different skill set. It’s the one that works when you’re not paying attention, and it’s often quite adept at solving problems the waking mind finds so vexing.
During my doctoral program, I solved many of my writing “blocks” while walking home at the end of the day. I’d spend hours at my desk wrestling unsuccessfully with something. But fifteen minutes into a walk, I’d figure it out while watching some ducks splashing in a stream. (I had a rather nice walk home.) I’d routinely come home with notes scribbled all over my hand because I was too stupid to carry a notebook with me. (No, I didn’t have a smartphone then.)
If this is your problem, put the pen down, step away from the computer, close the books, and get away from everything for a bit. But keep two things in mind. First, make sure this really is the problem! I’ve often caught myself using this when I’m actually dealing with one of the other blocks. Remember, sticking a snow shovel into a clogged toilet is a recipe for unpleasantness. Second, don’t step away for too long. You’d be amazed what a 20-30 minute break can do for you, especially if you do something that allows your mind to wander productively. (In other words, taking a walk might help, playing Xbox or watching TV probably won’t.)
4. The “Writing Sucks” Block
Let’s face it, writing is hard. If you’re one of the gifted few who just loves to write and for whom words seem to magically appear on the screen all by themselves, go away and stop making everyone else feel bad. For the rest of us, writing is a pain. Even once you have an idea and all your supporting material, you still have to climb the mountain of actually communicating all of that in writing. It’s much easier to sit in the shade at the bottom of mountain and complain about how hard it is to get started.
If you’re facing this block, you just need to punch through. Taking a break or heading back to the library will not help. In fact, that will make things worse. Those are just ways of avoiding the real problem. As J. C. Herce advises,
“If you’re balking at the work, you need to stop playing around, sit down, shut up, go off-line, focus single-mindedly on executing the work, and make it real. In either case, if you try to solve one problem when you’re really having the other, you’re going to waste a lot of time.” (Breakthrough!: Proven Strategies to Overcome Creative Block and Spark Your Imagination, p. 91).
Duct tape yourself to the chair and start writing.
5. The “Communication” Block
Sometimes you have both material and motivation, but you can’t quite figure out how to say what needs to get said. You write, delete, and re-write the same paragraph over and over, but you can’t make it work.
This can be another kind of the “Too Close to the Problem” block, and your sleeping mind may well taunt you by solving the problem while you’re driving, taking a shower, or in some other situation where writing the solution down is next to impossible. But I think there’s a distinct problem here that comes from just not being sure how to communicate your idea clearly. You know what you want to say; you’re just not entirely sure how to say it. So you’re stuck.
This is where I think the individualistic way that we tend to approach writing and higher education in general tends to work against us. This block is tough for many of us because we’re wrestling alone with a problem that requires help from other people. If you’re not sure how to communicate your idea(s) to other people, maybe you should ask them. Just a thought.
So go talk to someone. Tell them what you’re trying to say. You’d be amazed how often verbalizing your idea to another person can eliminate the block. You just needed to communicate your idea through a different medium to see how to communicate it effectively. And this also means that you can talk to almost anyone. They don’t need to be experts in your field to be good sounding boards. They just need to listen. (Many people I know use their spouses for this, though I’m not sure that they’re always real excited about their role in the process.)
Right Block, Wrong Tool
Every writer will get stuck at some point. Recognizing that you’re stuck is the easy part. Understanding why you’re stuck is the next essential step. Are you stuck because it’s the very beginning and you’re having a hard time getting the ball rolling? Do you lack sufficient data/resources/ideas? Do you just need to step away for a while and let your mind wander productively? Are you struggling with how hard writing is? Or do you know what you want to say but you need some help communicating it effectively? Don’t stop with the fact that you’re stuck. Ask some questions. Diagnose the problem. Then pick the right tool.
[This is part of our Back to School: Tips from the Writers Guild series, focusing on things we can learn from professional authors about what it takes to thrive as a student in today’s world.]