Understanding Writer's Block

This article, by Christopher Edwards, originally appeared on the Stillpoint Coaching website.  It’s primarily aimed at people who write scientific and academic pieces for journal publication, but the ideas presented here about the roots of writer’s block are equally applicable to any author.

You’re stuck, damn it. You can’t even imagine starting to write your grant or article without a twinge of terror or resentment. Even if you can manage to drag yourself to the computer, the words just don’t flow. At one time or another, most everyone who needs to write suffers from writer’s block. It’s a devastatingly painful experience, and it can kill a career.

I have known research professors who left academia for industry to avoid writing, professors denied tenure because they could not publish, and Ph.D. candidates who bailed out of graduate school because they could not write their dissertations.

However, both the scholarly literature and my own client work convince me that most scientists with basic language competence can overcome writer’s block. This article will identify some major sources of writer’s block, particularly the most harmful attitudes toward writing, and will suggest a few solutions. In a follow-up article, I will describe some detailed strategies one can apply to break or avoid writer’s block. I will also suggest instances in which writing coaches or even psychotherapists can be helpful.

Anxiety and boredom are two major emotional sources of writer’s block. As with other productivity problems, overcoming writer’s block requires that scientists work within the zone of emotional arousal where they are neither bored nor overly anxious, setting realistic goals they can accomplish with concentrated effort. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a productivity specialist at the University of Chicago, defines this zone as the dimension where people experience pleasure, productivity, and flow in their work.  As with laboratory work, success with writing depends upon having enough challenge to stretch one’s abilities, but not so much that one lives in fear of failing.

If you struggle with the task of writing, take a close look at unrealistic, crippling attitudes you may hold. Psychologist A.C. Jones concludes that writer’s block occurs when grandiose but fluctuating expectations of success combine with a vaguely planned project. Perfectionism may be the greatest of all attitudinal blocks. I have seen scientists labor over every single word of the first draft, crawling toward the end of each paragraph by constantly switching between writing and correcting.

If you lower your expectations about earlier drafts and stop editing while you write, you can raise your productivity. Outline the main ideas and use the first draft to test what you will include in the submitted work. A writer invites paralysis by expecting anything close to a finished product in early drafts. With scientific writing, as with other writing, there is never a perfect text. To paraphrase poet Paul Valery, an article is never finished, only abandoned.

Writer’s block can be a reaction to boredom as much as perfectionistic fear. Boredom can occur when scientists view writing as merely a mechanical transmission of their truly creative work. If one feels this way, the challenge is to create enough novelty and interest to finish the writing task. As writer Dorothy Parker quipped: The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. 

Writing up research can be an interesting way of refining as well as communicating one’s science; if you can treat it as a challenge, it can sharpen your thinking. For example, I have watched scientists develop a better sense of the larger significance of their work through their writing, since composing and editing force one to confront what may be important for others, not simply oneself.

Task inflation can be another source of writer’s block. It occurs when one makes a project seem more daunting than it really is. Two types of task inflation can plague scientists when they write: overvaluing the importance of getting a current article published, and overestimating the role of one’s prose in the work’s acceptance for publication. No matter how important an article may be, it is only a limited communication of a portion of one’s lifetime scientific achievement.

Many excellent papers are published in Nature, Science, and Cell, only to be added to the list of hundreds of good scientific papers published each year. When one does publish in top journals, the writing is far less important than the science about which one writes. In reality, good journals accept even very poorly written scientific papers, if the science is novel and significant. One can conquer task inflation by learning to focus on the work one is reporting, instead of on imagined reactions to the paper.

When the above-mentioned attitudinal problems are combined with major misleading myths about writing, writing becomes a painful, frustrating bore of a chore. Three of the most debilitating myths, well described by Jerrold Mundis, are: writing should be fun and easy; one can only write when one is inspired or otherwise feeling enthusiastic about a manuscript, and writing requires some type of special genius. 

Scientists who write as a part of their jobs can learn something about the fun and easy myth from full-time writers. Many of the best professional writers dread writing. It is never easy. For many, the real pleasure of writing only comes with submission of the text – there is a sigh, a moment of relief from the tension of composing and revising that has been mounting for weeks, months, or years. Writing is lonely, hard work with few intermediate rewards. It can become more enjoyable over time, but only if one is willing to sit in front of the blank screen and plug away at a draft in the midst of fear or boredom.

Interestingly, the act of writing is rarely, on its own, the source of agony. Avoidance of the task, along with the cycles of fear and guilt that follow, is often the greatest cause of frustration.

Read the rest of the article at Stillpoint Coaching.