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On writing blocks and getting unstuck

Leonid_Pasternak_-_The_Passion_of_creation

Have you ever experienced a writing block?

Last February, I attended a special lecture by Visiting Professor Deborah Britzman. Professor Britzman holds the York Research Chair in Pedagogy and Psycho-Social Transformation. Her lecture was on a topic that is close to my heart – writing blocks. I believe that I have experienced writing blocks from time to time. Also, based on discussions with my peers, I think that writing blocks are typical among graduate students.

Here are my 6 takeaways from Professor Britzman’s presentation:

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  1. A writing block is an emotional situation (and not a mental illness). It is most often self-diagnosed.
  2. We can experience writing blocks without knowing it. Those who are experiencing writing blocks experience several contradictory emotions:
    • An anxiety about writing and a desire to write
    • A sense that what we are doing is important and not important at all
    • A sense of freedom (having the liberty to express ideas) and unfreedom (being confined to a topic)
  3. A writing block begins to unfold with a series of rants by the writer. These rants occur because there is anxiety and frustration about writing – issues that are looming on one’s head. These rants turn into harsh judgments of oneself. Then, the belief that one is fooling others of one’s intelligence. The process culminates when the writer is missing, preferring other activities such as checking Facebook or cleaning the house.
  4. Woman_Writing_in_an_InteriorWriting blocks may be caused by the following problems: isolation (writing is personal), boredom, desire to be the perfect writer, anxiety that one is being judged through writing, perception that one is not intelligent enough, perception that one is a boring writer, perception that the act of writing will fail the writer, fear that one is plagiarizing, and fear that one is not being original enough.
  5. In general, those who experience writing blocks are unable to begin or end their writing. Writing blocks often manifest into the following behaviors: no writing (blank pages), continuously undoing what has been done (e.g. erasing, moving texts around, endless editing), keeping writing to oneself, and endlessly preparing to write (e.g. continuing to read with very little to no writing altogether).
  6. Universities intensify writing blocks because universities often inflict undue pressure (e.g. deadlines, judgment by others), and arouse feelings of grandiosity that one has to live up to.

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Based on personal readings and a group discussion during the last dissertation bootcamp that I attended, here are a few strategies to let you power through when you feel stuck:

  • Set a timer for writing. Start small (e.g. 5 minutes), and make small increments to the length of time until you are satisfied. You may want to read Virginia Valian’s personal experience, which is related to this strategy.
  • Provide guidelines for yourself. For example: pose yourself a question to be answered, write around a topic sentence, mind-map your ideas then expand, use bullet points then expand, or create tables/figures then describe them. This strategy is about creating a skeleton for your writing.
  • Try free-writing. Set a timer for yourself (between 5 to 10 minutes) and write non-stop. You can free-write on a computer or paper. My personal preference is to set the timer for 6 minutes and free-write with pen and paper.
  • Keep a ventilation file. You can read about this strategy here.
  • If you are writing on a computer, try changing to pen and paper. Writing on a computer can make you feel that you are writing your final draft (and that it needs to be perfect). Using pen and paper feels less restrictive, allowing more ideas to flow.

As a side note, I’ve been wanting to write this blog post since I attended the lecture. I never got to it until now, which is about 4 months later. I was experiencing a writing block when trying to write about writing blocks – go figure!

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Pen and paper photo by Asadabbas on Wikimedia Commons

Have you experienced a writing block? Share with us your strategies to get unstuck.

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One comment on “On writing blocks and getting unstuck
  1. Colette says:

    NIce summary of ways to tackle writing blocks

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