Dealing with writer’s block, tip 15: Don’t stack anxieties, or one thing at a time

One writer I work with sometimes gets stuck thinking about what needs to be said (written), and sometimes gets stuck thinking about style. These two concerns can stack on each other and amplify each other: feeling stressed about how to include certain ideas in a manuscript, her concerns about poor writing style get activated. Then, some awkward sentence or phrase comes up and she gets stuck trying to come up with a really good version of that one sentence. 

Insofar as dealing with anxiety-related writer’s block is concerned, a good first step is to try to separate out the different anxiety-provoking concerns, and to try to deal with those concerns one at a time, and especially deal with those concerns by focusing on one at a time. But I don’t really want to talk about the general dynamic of how anxieties can stack on each other, but rather about this specific case in which worrying about two important but independent dimensions of writing—content and style—slows progress and a writer can benefit from assigning those issues to separate drafts in the process of writing. 

In the long run, it’s good to want to improve writing style; it’s an issue worth some effort. But if the figuring out what ideas to include and how to present them is causing anxiety, don’t add to the pile of stress by also worrying that your style needs to be better. First, focus on getting the ideas down, however sloppy and awkward. Style comes later. If you’re struggling with writer’s block, the first thing you want to do is make sure you’re writing. Writing style only matters if you are producing and finishing works that you will give to other people.  First, get ideas into words on the page.

In the long run

Ideally, in a productive writing practice, ideas flow onto the page with enough ease that there is emotional space to think about both the message and the style.  If you can regularly write hundreds of words in an hour, it doesn’t really matter if you spend a minute or two thinking about style. It doesn’t even matter if you occasionally spend 10 minutes or more getting one sentence just right. But if you can regularly write hundreds of words in an hour, you probably also have some comfort with your own writing style, and probably produce decent sentences a reasonably large proportion of the time without even worrying about style. Once it’s relatively easy to write a decent sentence, you can focus the vast majority of your efforts on the content, which presents difficulties enough. (Mature drafts nearing submission are when style gets focused attention.)

In the short run

In the immediate present, if you’re struggling with anxiety-related writing blocks, it can be useful to throw off concern for grammar and style or ideas about “good writing.” Style is secondary and can be added after the fact, so, as a matter of process, it can be set aside for a time. Without good ideas, however, there is no reason to write in the first place, so work on your ideas. (You have something worth saying.) The first, most important thing is to get your ideas into words on the page. Throw aside any concern for writing well. Just focus on the ideas and on finding words to express them. That is task enough.

It is very hard to get ideas into words. It is even harder to organize those words into some narrative that can reach a reader. Crafting a meaningful narrative is frustrating and anxiety inducing: What is the best order in which to present material? What material should be included or excluded? There is no “right” answer to these questions, so there’s plenty of anxiety to be found in choosing between two different alternatives. 

If you insist that the narrative also meet stringent stylistic standards, you add another difficulty and additional stress. If you’re struggling to write, the place to start is with just getting the ideas into words. Take that one first task alone. Add on the other levels of concern later.

Drafts

Some writers can produce good first drafts. Most writers don’t. Most writers should write “shitty first drafts,” as Anne Lamott famously said in Bird by Bird, her book on the process of writing. It’s reasonable to think of different drafts as taking on the different tasks that I mentioned in the previous section.  There’s a first draft in which you just get your ideas on the page—that’s a messy, disorganized exploration whose purpose is to get a sense of all that could be discussed and what needs to be discussed and to get a sense of the scope of the project. Next come one or more drafts to work on structure, presentation, and cleaning up the argument, an exploration and refinement of structure. For example, Eviatar Zerubavel , the author of The Clockwork Muse, a book on writing practices, describes his process as typically including four total drafts, with the middle two dealing with content and structure. Eventually (but sooner rather than later, it is to be hoped), you move toward a final draft in which you can concern yourself with cleaning up and polishing the text, with an eye towards style.  By splitting up the different tasks—by allowing the first drafts to be about ideas (but not about structure or style)—you can reduce the immediate anxieties, which gives you a better chance to focus on one task and which, hopefully, allows you to set aside anxiety-inducing concerns.  If you remind yourself that you will have a later draft in which to work on style, you can focus your attention on the flow of ideas, even if you think that the sentence you just wrote is terrible. “I’ll fix that later; for now I stay with the ideas,” you can tell yourself.

Limiting your field of view

For me, at least, when anxieties pile up, I get overwhelmed. If I deal with one anxiety at a time, it’s a struggle, but I can deal. If I’m focused on only one thing, I can stay on track. When I entertain many different anxieties, however, I get bogged down. My attention is drawn first here, then there, disrupting any flow that might be developing. If, for example, I focus on the stacking of anxieties during the process of writing, I am drawn to discuss one set of ideas. If, on the other hand, I start focusing on the relative value of substance over style (which I did in an earlier draft of this post, and which I may discuss in a future post), I am drawn in a different direction. This division of my attention can increase my anxieties, as I have multiple demands to satisfy, and it also can take time to even make a choice of which direction to pursue (as well as the chance to second-guess that choice).

By limiting my focus, I reduce the anxiety-inducing issues that I deal with, and that helps me keep my anxiety in control. Sure, there are things that I need to do to make this essay better (as well as many other anxiety-inducing things in life in general), but at least for a few minutes, I can say “OK, I just want to focus on the way that a misplaced concern for style (or more generally, concern for multiple things at once) can interfere with the writing process by triggering multiple anxieties.

Book review: Write More, Publish More, Stress Less!

Write More, Publish More, Stress Less! Five Key Principles for a Creative and Sustainable Scholarly Practice.
Dannelle D. Stevens
Stylus Publishing, 2019

I have often considered doing book reviews on my blog, or book recommendations on my website, but have not done so because I have trouble giving positive reviews. I’m critical. Even those books that I like best are limited enough that I can’t give a review without discussing negative stuff.  In addition to being critical, I also want to respect the work of others: I don’t want to give someone a low score, so I generally don’t do reviews. (But if you the reader would be interested in seeing me review something, let me know!)  In this case, however, I like this book so much that it’s very easy to recommend to scholars who are struggling to write.

Write More, Publish More, Stress Less! Five Key Principles for a Creative and Sustainable Scholarly Practice. shares many of the ideas I think crucial, and uses them and does a great job of developing them into guidance for scholars. 

Just starting with the title, I was excited about this book. The subtitle’s phrase—“sustainable scholarly practice”—is one that I have used often in my own writing. A quick review of almost anything I have written about writing will show the importance I place on the view of writing as a practice. I usually talk about “healthy” and “positive” practice, but often use “sustainable,” too.  More recently, I have been writing about dealing with anxiety-induced writing blocks, so the main title’s “Stress Less!” is also in line with my current interests. The idea that a scholarly practice is “creative” is also an idea I have discussed recently in this blog. 

The book’s five key principles are:

  • Know yourself as a writer
  • Understand the genre of academic writing
  • Be strategic to build a sustainable writing practice
  • Be social
  • Explore creative elements in academic writing

Each principle was accompanied with excellent, detailed practical suggestions that present scholarly writing as a practice that encompasses a wide range of different but related activities.

To single out one aspect among the many that I like: Stevens talks about scholarship as a conversation, which is a central perspective of my recent book, Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice. She repeatedly cites another book that frames scholarly writing as a conversation—They Say/I Say by Graff and Birkenstein—which  I also like.

Following the five main principles, the book dedicates several chapters to different kinds of writing projects—personal research journal, book reviews, conference proposals and presentations, journal articles, and books—all of which offer good advice. After those chapters is one of the chapters I like best: the chapter on handling a revise-and-resubmit (with first author Micki M. Caskey). Using feedback well is a crucial part of scholarly writing, but it’s also an area where emotions run high, and many people struggle. A harsh comment can trigger paralysis. Caskey and Stevens provide good perspectives on how to approach feedback, and excellent detailed suggestions for analyzing the feedback and planning a response. This is the best advice on using feedback I have seen, including what I have written on the subject in this blog and in my books.

This is an excellent book, and probably can help almost any scholar trying to get their writing going in the face of pressure to publish. It offers a detailed view into the many activities that scholars pursue in order to succeed in academia—a real sense of the fabric of a productive academic writing practice—which makes it an excellent long-term resource for graduate students thinking about academic careers. 

Having said all that, I will offer a word of caution. I would hesitate to give this to someone struggling with anxiety. For some, I think it could be overwhelming. For me, at least, I would have found it overwhelming earlier in my career, and even now it triggers the social anxiety that was the main cause of my leaving academic institutions to work privately (with a relatively small number of people). There is great advice in here that, if followed, would definitely would lead to less stress in the long run, but if I were giving this to someone struggling with anxiety, I would be cautious to frame it as a toolbox—something from which to draw ideas when needed, without necessarily trying to use everything in it at once—to guard against getting overwhelmed by all the different suggestions.  

Tips for dealing with writer’s block: Summary

Back in October, I started writing a series of tips for dealing with writer’s block.  In this post, I want to summarize what I’ve done so far.  For the prospective reader, I offer this summary as an attempt to capture the big ideas in a brief and clear form. For myself, as a matter of both intellectual exploration and writing practice, the attempt to write a summary will help me clarify and refine my message. Additionally, it might suggest new tips that could be added to the list.

What is writer’s block?

In this series of posts, I have been looking at writer’s block, generally speaking, as any sort of emotional/intellectual barrier that prevents a previously successful writer from writing. Writer’s block is the experience of a writer making time to write but, for emotional and/or intellectual reasons, being unable to write productively in the time allotted.

 I use the term emotional/intellectual to highlight that these barriers are not primarily physiological in nature (acknowledging the interconnection between emotion/intellect and physiology). Physical injury or disease that prevent writing are not writer’s blocks, even if they are barriers to writing. When writing triggers significant anxiety, depression, or despair—emotional states that interfere with writing—that complex of responses is what I am considering “writer’s block” in these posts.  There may be a physiological element—emotions have physiological manifestations—but what I hope my tips for dealing with writer’s block to address are intellectual and emotional triggers—ideas that leads to emotional responses.

In this definition, I use the term “successful” in a generous sense to encompasses almost any perception of writing success. People who get writer’s block have written before, and believed in their ability as a writer to accept new writing challenges.  The grad student stuck on a dissertation and the junior faculty struggling to publish have both had significant previous success, at least as measured by both their choice to pursue an academic degree or career, and their ability to advance to the point they have reached. A graduate student who has advanced to candidacy has decided to pursue a thesis or dissertation, at least partly based on previous success writing course papers, not to mention administrative correspondence, including, perhaps, fellowship or grant applications. Such past successes are not to be dismissed as irrelevant for being less than current challenges, but rather ought to be viewed as the natural steps leading up to those current challenges.

These past successes are important in clarifying that writer’s block is not lack of self-discipline. I’ve read plenty of advice that dismisses the idea of writer’s block and says, basically, “work harder.” But, in my view, you can’t get writer’s block unless you have demonstrable, evident self-discipline. Yes, there are lazy people in this world who need to be pushed harder, but there are people who have regularly demonstrated self-discipline over many years—who has written, who has met departmental requirements, who has taught courses, who may be doubling with another career, not to mention familial responsibilities, etc.—and then get stuck on a writing project. I have worked with many such people. While it’s true that “try harder” is a viable approach, it’s an unsubtle, ungentle response. Instead, I look for causes that the self-discipline that prevails in most of a person’s life has stopped working when it’s time to write. The tips that I offer are based in developing an effective perspective on the process of writing.

Causes of writer’s block

There are any number of different ideas that can trigger anxiety. There is fear of rejection. There is disillusionment with the project. There is dislike (or even fear) of writing. And there are also ideas about writing that can interfere with productivity and thereby create anxiety, for example, perfectionism in any of its many guises. 

Obvious and hidden writer’s block

Sometimes writer’s block is obvious—you stare at the blank screen. Other times it is less so: you make a new outline, do some reading or start again from scratch. In both cases, it takes an adjustment of perspective to throw off the delaying concerns.

First and second tips: Understand the process of writing and identify writing blocks

I argued that understanding the causes of writer’s block was important in relieving it.  There are many different ideas that can contribute to writing blocks, and the better you can distinguish those ideas and identify which are affecting you, the better you can deal with those that are significant and ignore those that are worth ignoring.

Third tip: Develop a healthy and positive practice of writing 

If you develop a better relationship with writing, many of the emotional blocks will fall away.  Indeed, one emotional block that some experience is the idea that writing itself is a painful activity.  It’s true that writing is difficult and often frustrating, but it is also true that, with practice, you can learn to like writing.

Fourth tip: Write for learning, not for communication (especially in the early stages of a project) 

The fear of rejection offers a significant obstacle for many. While some fear of rejection is not unreasonable, there is a lot of writing that can be done outside the draft that you send to someone. Writing is a tool for learning as well as for communication. Sometimes you want to write for learning—to develop your ideas. Sometimes you write for communication. Separating these two kinds of writing can reduce some of the fear of rejection.

Fifth and sixth tips: Principles for a healthy practice 

The third tip focused on the importance of believing that writing could be a positive and healthy practice.  The fifth and sixth followed up on that idea by suggesting a few principles around which to build a healthy practice, most particularly focusing on finding the right motivations and applying the right amount of persistence and self-discipline. A healthy practice grows out of work that pursues a passion while also keeping the work in balance with other commitments. The sixth tip specifically looked at situations in which “try harder” is not always the best advice for writers facing writer’s blocks.

Seventh tip: Accept (or even embrace) uncertainty 

focused on dealing with uncertainty. To some extent, the advice was a little too close to “it’s unavoidable; deal with it.”  But when it comes to dealing with uncertainty, it is important to recognize that logical certainty is elusive.  People who act certain may be emotionally certain, but they are not logically certain (at least not in any empirical study).

Eighth tip: Experiment in writing  

If you don’t have certainty, what do you have?  One thing a writer has is a chance to revise and rewrite.  There is plenty of opportunity to put something down on the page just to see how it looks. It’s a good learning experience and the results can be eliminated if not promising. The willingness to experiment and rewrite reduces the emotional stakes during the process: you needn’t worry about pleasing others. Experimentation gives space for exploring and developing your own ideas and your own voice.

Ninth tip: Imagine writing to a friendly audience  

A lot of writers get hung up thinking about the negative responses their work has received in the past. While it is important to learn from the negative feedback you receive, that’s not the most motivating perspective, and doesn’t provide great insight into how to reach the people who would be most interested in your work.  Writing to convince a hostile audience is a very different thing than writing for a friendly audience, both in terms of emotions while writing and in terms of what you put on the page.  Write for a friendly audience.

Tenth tip: Believe in your own intelligence and ability 

If you don’t believe you’re smart enough to do the work, then it’s really hard to move forward. You’ll get blocked by doubt at every decision. But if you’re trying to write, chances are good that you already have the intelligence you need. There are two sides of this argument. One side is that academic work doesn’t require vast brilliance—most scholars are not Einstein-level brilliant, they’re just reasonably smart people, and most scholarship is just careful development of previous work done in the field.  The other side is that people who have advanced in academia to graduate school or beyond usually have sufficient intelligence to do the work or they wouldn’t have advanced. (In a related essay, I discussed the basics of analysis and why it’s something that almost everyone can do with a little attention and care.)

Eleventh tip: You have something worth saying

This is the most recent in the series to date. Writers can come to doubt that they have something worth saying.  There are several potential dimensions to this (another one of which—the sense that one’s subject matter is worthless or pointless or at least would only appeal to a tiny audience—might be worth future discussion). In this tip, I discuss the problem of having too many things to say. Lots of writers have experienced a blankness as they face the page.  But realistically, most people have a lot to say—often writers have so many different things to say that when they try to write, the different ideas compete and interfere, and it feels like they have nothing worth saying because they’re trying to say too many things at once.

Conclusion

At one point, I was calling this series “Tips for anxious writers.” Although I have shifted to calling this “Tips for dealing with writer’s block,” the general purpose and scope have remained the same, as I defined writer’s block as largely consisting of anxiety or other emotions that interfere with the writing process.  Over the years, combining my own internal dialogue as I struggle to write with comments from other writers also struggling to write, I identified many different ideas that have a negative impact on the writing process and that despite some elements of truth, lead writers astray.

Writing is hard and often frustrating, but that doesn’t mean it’s an ordeal or lacking its pleasures and rewards.  Like many other difficult endeavors, writing can be personally and professionally rewarding if you approach it right.  This series of tips aimed at replacing ideas that interfere with ideas that help. The approaches suggested do not eliminate work or even frustration, but they can improve your relationship with writing and reduce writing-related anxieties and doubts.

Dealing with writers block, tip 11: You have something worth saying

Some writers cry in despair, “I have nothing to say.” I have worked with more than one writer experiencing this distress. This doubt is a close relative of the doubt about whether or not you are intelligent (which I discussed in my previous tip for dealing with writer’s block), and is accurate about as often (which is to say, almost never).  If you are even considering writing as part of your career, it’s almost certain that you have something to say—so much to say, indeed, that if you’re like many writers who think they have nothing to say, you probably have problems managing all your different ideas.

A writer once told me that she experienced a traffic jam of ideas, and I think that’s a vivid description of something that I have experienced, and a metaphor that resonates with other writers, as well. You can only write one idea at a time, and if you have lots of ideas, they will compete for attention, with each blocking the way of others. To deal with the traffic jam of ideas, sort: first, separate out all the different ideas, then choose which are most worth the effort.

The many ideas in your head get caught as the highway of imagination narrows down to the bottleneck of words on the page.

You have something to say

Is it possible that you have nothing to say? It seems unlikely. Do you never speak to your friends and family? Do you have no ideas about subjects that interest you? Nothing to say about that movie you watched, that meal you ate, that book you read? Everyone has something to say. As a scholar, of course, you’re not engaging in casual conversation, so you might say that you have nothing to say that is scholarly. But you probably have something to say about that article you read or that lecture you saw.  You probably have a lot of things to say about that article or book, though you may not want to discuss them all (for example, if the editor at the journal just said your article needs to mention Dr. X, you probably don’t want to say “Dr. X is a clown and their book is trash,” even if you think it).

Reasons not to speak

There are plenty of reasons not to speak that have nothing to do with what could be said. Courtesy and politics are significant considerations (that deserve their own discussion, but not here).There is the difficult question about what is worth saying (writing). There are, after all, people who say things that are not worth saying, and who wants to be one of them? (Ironically, people with the self-critical eye that prevents writing trash often also struggle with writing anxiety and related writing blocks, whereas it is the person with no self-critical filter and high self-opinion that blithely produces volumes of polished and banal work.) 

In this post, I want to focus on the specific problem of having too many things to say, which can lead to the sense of having nothing to say. 

Often, “I have nothing to say,” actually means something like “every time I try to write, what comes out is banal, trite, and not worth writing.”  That is something very different from having nothing to say.  There can be a number of causes of thinking that everything you write is banal or worthless. I want to focus on one very common contributor to this experience: the problem of having too many things to say.

When you have many things to say, there are two intertwined problems: the first is that it is hard to write well and clearly, so a first draft of a great idea can sound banal. The second problems is that it can be difficult to sort out the most valuable statements from those of less value, especially when the writing is rough.

The long-term solution to these problems is to develop your voice, and to write enough different things that you can feel like you’ve at least touched on some of the many things that will interest you (and, yes, I will take it for granted that many things interest you; if not, there may be better advice than I offer here). In the short term, the place to start is with writing exercises that can help sort out the banal from the nuggets of value.

Exercises to sort things out

Exercises help separate the experience of writing from the product that can be criticized. An exercise is an exploration: it doesn’t matter whether the thing you write during the exercise is valuable; the value lies in the exploration or experimentation. As with all forms of exploration or experimentation, the results are inconsistent: sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t. But in the process of experimentation or exploration, you learn and often develop new insights. A writing exercise can simultaneously produce bad writing and a good idea. Exercises develop both your reasoning and your ability to express ideas: even if the result is a lousy piece of writing, in the process of creation and self-criticism, you gain insight into what went wrong, and what you could do differently.

Writing exercises can also help sort the good ideas from the bad. If you’re telling yourself you have nothing worth saying, then write some of that valueless stuff down.  You might find a nugget of value among the dross. A place to start is writing exercises, in which it’s OK to write poorly, because the exercise is to learn.

Exercise 1: Say (write) anything

If you’re feeling stuck writing, feeling like you don’t have anything worth writing, it’s important to start by giving yourself the opportunity to write stuff that’s not worth writing. Write in a context where you don’t need to say anything coherent, much less impressive or profound. Write nonsense. Write “I have nothing to write about” a few times until you feel like writing something else (like “this is boring”). Begin putting ideas into words on the page with the focus on developing a practice, not on producing a great result.

Start by clearing away some of the thoughts that are stopping you from writing. If you sit staring at the page telling yourself, “I have nothing worth saying,” it’s going to make it hard to say anything else. Put that on the page. Does that lead anywhere? If you’re worried you’re not smart enough, write that down, and look for something else to write. If you’re worried that some single person will criticize or mock you, write that down. 

Don’t just write about obstacles, though. What other ideas are intruding? Write about things you want or need. Write about the weather. Write about your friends. Write about anything at all, but write. Put words on the page. You can write sentences or phrases if you want, but don’t worry about making sentences or phrases. It’s an exercise for the sake of practice, like a musician playing scales or a tennis player returning shots from a machine. What you write doesn’t really matter, just that you write. First, get the words and ideas flowing. The more you practice, the more consistently you will be able to write. Free writing is a useful tool, but it’s not really where you want to stop, just like musicians want to move past playing scales.

Exercise 2: Focus on your work

Once you’ve started putting words on the page, start focusing a bit. Try to write about your project or your work.  You’re still trying to get a flow of ideas—still trying to break the traffic jam, not yet trying to produce a solid draft—so give yourself space to write about the project from all dimensions, including writing about both your hopes and your fears.

Start by writing about the project generally: what is it? What is the subject? What is the context in which you work?  Just getting a start here is likely to bring up both hopes and fears. 

Exercise 3: Remember your foundations

Projects don’t spring out of nothing.Write down what your early hopes for your project were. How did you get to this project? What inspired you to get here? Focus your attention on the positive motivations that guided you here (if problems come up, write about those, too—see below—but try to focus on the hopes). Writing about your hopes for your project can give an emotional boost.  Remember: this is an exercise to get ideas moving and to remind yourself of all the things that interest you, and that you would say if your audience were a younger version of yourself.

Exercise 4: What are the problems?

This is an area that can be emotionally fraught—it is, indeed the very core of writing blocks. People who have trouble writing for work still do fine writing emails to friends, for example.  If there are significant doubts interfering with your writing, you need to deal with them.

If you have concerns, make a list: what are all the things that are already wrong with your project? And what are the things that could go wrong?  Approach this exercise with caution: it takes some emotional strength to list potentially negative aspects of your work or doubts about it. But it can be valuable to make such a list, too. Firstly, having written down a problem, it may seem unreasonable or unlikely. Secondly, if a problem does seem reasonable or likely, you can start to think about ways to address it, which is more proactive and can give an emotional boost. Thirdly, sometimes writing something down to be addressed later can help clear it from the front of your mind, allowing your focus to shift elsewhere (hopefully to something more productive). 

You want to get the negative ideas out of the way, somehow, so other ideas can flow. Some negative ideas can be included in scholarly work (reflective discussions of limitations and problems with research are common), so there might be something there worth writing. But get the negative ideas on the page and out of the traffic jam of ideas. 

Exercise 5: Consider your interlocutors

If you’re a scholar or researcher, you’ve come to where you are at least partly through reading scholars in your field.  Think about the ways in which you relate to the work of others in your field.  What works are similar? In what ways similar? What were the positive influences—the works whose ideas you’ve incorporated? In what ways is your work similar, and in what ways different? What would you say to the authors of those works if speaking with them?  Are there any significant negative influences—works that seemed wrong to you and that you wanted to correct? In what ways is your work similar or different? What would you say to those authors?

Remember that these are exercises and explorations. Feel free to write “You’re so brilliant, I want to get it on with you,” to authors you respect and “you’re an idiot,” to those you don’t. (It’s an exercise where grammar and spelling don’t matter, so “Dr. X, your a moron,” works, too.)

Exercise 6: Imagine your futures

What are the different projects in which you could engage?  Instead of thinking about how you can get all your ideas into one project—“My book/dissertation needs to cover everything I’ve worked on these last five years!”—think about how many different projects could be made. Could you write an article about your methodological choices and what you’ve learned? Could you write multiple articles about different aspects of your project?  If you’re doubting the value of your work, this may seem unlikely, but it’s common for scholars to start envisioning a short work that expands as they look at it more closely, and this expansion is one of the causes of the traffic jam of ideas.

Conclusion

There’s a lot of writing that could go into these preceding exercises, but if you’re feeling blocked and feeling pressure to produce, what have you got to lose? (OK, actually, you could spend your time on a fruitless endeavor, but if you’re not having success writing, doesn’t it make sense to at least give these exercises a chance?) The more you work through them, the greater your chance of finding something of interest.  

Of course, you can’t be too critical of yourself: you have to take the chance of being wrong. Write ideas until you find something that does seem worth working on, then work on that idea. Explore and experiment. Think about what other scholars have done and how you might do something different but built on their precedent. Remember: it does not need to be earth shaking innovation to be worthwhile.  There is a lot of value in doing simple work—both to build your own skills and to provide foundations on which you and other scholars can build.

Develop your voice; develop your ideas. Explore, experiment, and produce a lot of stuff. Then look for the few most valuable nuggets.

Everyone has something to say. Scholars generally have many worthwhile things to say, but they also have some things that probably aren’t worth saying. They have to sort out those many different things so that ideas don’t interfere with each other, and so that the best ideas can be developed enough that their value can be recognized.

Outlines in the writing process, part 2

In the first of this pair of posts, I discussed how detailed outlines can lead to distractions, and argued for using simple outlines to help guide the writing process.  In this post, I want to follow up with some thoughts on some of the reasons outlines can lead into difficulty, especially related to the way that outlines promise clarity and direction that they do not entirely deliver, as well as to discuss ways of dealing with these problems. 

Ideas are neither linear nor hierarchical

The biggest problem with outlines (and, indeed, expository writing more generally), from a theoretical perspective, is that many or most ideas are not linear or hierarchical, and outlines are necessarily both.  Some ideas and/or aspects of ideas are linear and/or hierarchical, but plenty of ideas are connected interdependently: they cannot meaningfully be explained or understood outside a context of related ideas.  

Which comes first?

For the writer, constrained to linear discussion, this can be a tremendous difficulty. It’s common that one aspect of a large theory cannot be explained meaningfully without also explaining one or more other aspects of that same theory, which makes it very hard to start: each possible starting place is problematic because it cannot be understood without other related ideas, none of which obviously comes first or stands outside the larger structure of reasoning.  In such a situation, there is no clear starting place. If describing A requires describing B, and describing B requires describing A, where do you start?

For a written work, there must be a starting place. That starting place may be an imperfect compromise, but as a matter of practice, compromises are necessary despite being frustrating and difficult. Difficulty accepting such compromises leads to the common problem of rewriting the outline, and starting a new, “better” draft, which usually delays completing a work. 

Competing outlines and the limits of vision

I have been emphasizing the importance of having a vision of the larger purpose and arc of the presentation, and to settle on a basic, overall outline. But, as I have argued, no outline will be perfect, and the more detail included, the greater the chance of seeing weaknesses in the outline, and therefore thinking that some other outline will be better.

A writer, starting with a new outline, often begins with a sense of confidence—a sense that the outline will do a good job of  guiding them through the writing, as well as a good job in presenting the ideas to future readers. The confidence provides invaluable motivation for pressing ahead: it’s hard to keep working if you don’t have some hope for what you can accomplish. 

Inevitably, the writer reaches a moment where it’s necessary to negotiate the problems built in to the current outline due to prior compromises (or when unanticipated problems arise).  At such moments, it often becomes tempting to consider a new, different outline: “If I had ordered it differently,” the writer thinks, “I wouldn’t have the problems I’m negotiating now.”  This is true but it omits the reality that they would be exchanging one set of problems for another: the new outline will have problems, too.

Outlines are like many other plans or expectations: they seem great when you start out, but along the way, you discover difficulties that you had not anticipated.  Both for finishing each individual project more quickly, and for building skill as a writer, it’s valuable to stick with flawed outlines and figure out how to negotiate the problems.  

Resolving outline difficulties: finish a complete draft before rewriting

A writer must learn the skill of managing the problems within an outline: instead of starting anew and discarding a partial draft to adopt a different structure, the writer wants to finish drafts and projects. There may be cases in which rewriting with a new structure is absolutely worth the effort, but until you’re regularly completing drafts of different projects, try to stick with one outline for a complete draft before switching.  The experience gained in finishing an imperfect draft is so valuable that temptation to change an outline should be resisted before a draft is complete. This is not a strict rule but rather a guiding principle. Basically, you don’t want to start rewriting stuff you’ve already written before you’ve completed a draft. If you’re working on a first draft of the introduction and you decide to swap the order of chapters, that’s ok, because it doesn’t require re-writing. If you’re on your first day of writing, you can change the outline all you want, with little loss (though at some point, you have to commit and stop debating alternatives). But if you’ve written two chapters, and decide that a different organization would be better, and that requires scrapping the two chapters you’ve already written? That’s can be a huge danger for less productive writers. If you’re pumping out a book and three articles a year, and you think rewriting is the way to go, then trust your experience. If you’re struggling to finish one project, then stick with one outline until you complete a draft. 

If you think a complete revision of structure is worth the effort, consider the possibility of having two separate projects, one that reflects your original views, and one that details your developments. You would not be the first scholar to publish work that they would later replace or reject.

It’s necessary to find the right balance between holding on to old drafts and old structures and willingness to rewrite. Generally, it’s valuable for writers to be willing to rewrite, to feel relaxed and confident in their ability to produce new work, and not to hold too tightly to old drafts that reflect old ideas. Writers should believe that creating a new draft isn’t too hard, and can be done in a reasonable time.  But people who are having trouble finishing a complete draft, and who keep working on outlines, or constantly revising outlines, it’s important to finish a draft using one outline.

Resolving outline difficulties: writing 

Part of the writer’s response to outline problems is finding the language to acknowledge and accommodate the weaknesses of the structure, by explaining how the structural issues relate to theoretical issues. A lot of this is done with simple phrases that imply the relationship between structure of text and structure of ideas. For example, the reader can be referred to a different part of the work: “This will be discussed further in chapter/section x,” or “as previously discussed in chapter y.”  Explicit efforts to show a reader how parts of a manuscript relate will also help the reader understand how the work as a whole holds together.  Telling a reader “the discussion branches here, and we will discuss the other branch(es) later,” is not only a statement about the text, but also, implicitly, an indication about the relationship among the ideas that you’re trying to discuss. Showing that you, the writer, made a choice to proceed in one way, implies that the ideas are not ordered even though the manuscript presents them in an order. It is a nod to the alternate outlines that could have structured the work.

Write more than you outline

Once you have a general sense of where you’re going and a rough one-level outline, it’s time to write sentences and paragraphs and try to make that into a coherent flow. In that effort, you will learn a good deal about your project.  Early in a  project, armed with a rough outline, you start to make notes toward that outline. Ideally that writing will manifest as flowing prose, but even if it’s just fragmentary notes, it’s a good start; it will help move the project forward more than another run through an outline. Outlining is a useful tool, but it doesn’t produce essays, articles, or books. Nor does it produce as deep insight as trying to explain a coherent argument in writing. You can learn a lot about a project by outlining details, but you learn more by writing.

Outlines in the writing process, part 1

Outlines are extremely useful for a writer.  But they are a limited tool.  

Recently, I got email from a philosopher with whom I’m working, which said, approximately (I’ve paraphrased a good deal): 

I’m having a hard time writing due to lack of formal organization of the theory and how the writing should reflect it, especially since recent changes in my plans, so I’m reworking my outline! Just started this today and it’s already taken me from frustrated to optimistic and excited about engaging these ideas. . . . My eventual goal is to establish a more detailed ToC before tackling the main content so that I can write with greater ease and efficiency instead of anxiously winging it.

What this writer expressed here reflects a general pattern that I have seen in other writers, and personally experienced, many times. It indicates the advantages of outlining—clarity of concepts and how to present them—and also hints at some of the problems: redoing an outline means changing plans that you laid earlier. In this post, I’m going to discuss outlines and the benefits and dangers of working with them.

Outlines are good

Outlines are excellent for trying to get a vision of the whole project, and having a vision of the whole project is really valuable for a writer: the better your sense of purpose for the whole, the easier it is to see the purpose of each part. And the easier it is to see the purpose of each part, the easier it is to write it effectively. If you see the large scale, then you can see how the pieces work together.  Without that large vision, it’s hard to write individual pieces that mesh with and support the rest of the work.  

Outlining is such a good tool for exploring that larger vision because it is something that can be done so easily: it only takes a few minutes to write down a sketchy outline of the main sections of a work.  A sketchy outline can be written and rewritten many times in the course of 15 minutes.  Admittedly, you can’t get into lots of details in a detail that you rewrite several times in 15 minutes, but, that’s just as well, in a way, because an outline’s help clarifying the larger vision and the flow of ideas is possibly the most valuable aspect of outlines. 

Outlines become multi-level hierarchies

In planning any large written work (at least of non-fiction), there is a pretty clear hierarchy of at least two levels that governs the work: there are the chapter divisions, and each chapter itself has some internal divisions (and the internal divisions might have internal divisions).  An overall outline of a work therefore, can be described with a detailed two-level outline along these lines:

Having a detailed outline like this is useful in that it gives a sense of the scope of overall work, and a road map to follow. However, while this much detail is good for a table of contents, it may not necessarily be good for a writer in the process of writing because I think the detail can be distracting, especially in the early drafts. If you’re trying to get an overall sense of some project, it’s easier if there aren’t too many parts to keep in mind.

Do one-level outlines

Instead of making a full, multi-level outline, I like to think in terms of working on multiple one-level outlines, each suited to and created for the piece of the project on which you’re working at the moment. You do a high-level main outline of the whole work, showing division into chapters and giving a clear sense of the work as a whole and how the chapters relate to each other. At a different time time, you work on the outline for a single chapter in which you look at the purpose of the chapter and you think about how each part contributes to the chapter’s purpose (which was earlier defined, of course, by the overall outline which identified the chapter’s place in the larger work).  Then, if you’re working on a major section of the chapter, you can do a one-level outline of the section to see its purpose and the main parts of the section.

This process of making different one-level outlines will produce a multi-level outline—as you nest each one-level outline, you generate a multi-level hierarchy. But it is psychologically different because your focus is generally turned towards the main purpose of the work (or the chapter, or section of the chapter) rather than to trying to manage all the details of the large work at once. Making one-level outlines, there are fewer distracting details, allowing greater focus on the sense of purpose for the main point of each section. Each new one-level outline is just a few pieces, which means they can all be kept in your head (short-term memory is commonly considered to hold about 5 to 7 items).

As you work with each one-level outline, you’re continually focusing on the main point (for either the whole work, or the part of the work), and the main sense of purpose, which should drive the work. This can help maintain motivation: when you get drowned in detail, in addition to the danger of being overwhelmed, there is the danger that the larger motivation is lost. Scholars who think of their work as too narrowly focused, or as too small/limited, often start doubting the value of their work, while those who see the larger purpose that motivated the work see value in it, even if it is highly specific in some way. This sense of motivation is true at all levels of detail: it’s motivating to see the sense of purpose of each piece of writing, so it’s valuable to work in a way so that every piece of writing is given purpose by its larger context.

Are detailed, multi-level outlines ever useful?

In this post so far, I have focused on how the attempt to produce a detailed outline can hinder writing, both by demanding an investment of energy, and by getting a writer bogged down in detail before the writing has even been done. (Well, that’s not quite fair: an outline is a form of writing, but it’s not a book or an essay, and for someone who is planning to write an essay or longer piece of narrative writing, an outline is not the goal.)  In order to start writing, you need a sense of direction, a few landmarks along the way, and willingness to start, but you don’t need a complete, detailed outline of chapter X unless you’re working on chapter X (and even then, a clear and strong sense of purpose is more important than a good detailed outline).

As a work develops and matures, a detailed outline can be very useful as a reflection of the current state of the text or a plan for revision. It’s an excellent tool for when you’re trying to review and revise a completed, or nearly completed whole.  It’s for later drafts and later in the process, when the issue is keeping myriad details in order, rather than early in the process, when the task is to get the big, important ideas into order.

Outlines and confidence

Early in the process a detailed outline can be a tool of avoidance and an expression of lack of confidence. If you’re not feeling sure of where you’re going, and you’re not feeling confident in your ability as a writer, an outline can feel like a great way of proceeding (“I’ll know where I’m going”), which it is until the outline becomes detailed enough to bog down the large-scale thinking.

Outlines don’t guarantee confidence, however.  An outline can provide a sense of direction and confidence, but the best, most detailed outline in the world won’t prevent self-doubt from creeping in.  Sometimes a detailed outline can cause doubt when a new insight suggests a different approach (and therefore a different structure/outline for the writing).  The more details an outline includes, the greater the chance for new insights to suggest an alternative—and, as long as you can learn, you’ll get new insights as you write. A sparse one-level outline, by contrast, offers space for improvisation and revision of details while retaining focus on the big issues and main arc of the narrative.  

Conclusion

Outlines can be helpful, but they can also provide a distraction.  My recommendation for writers near the beginning of writing—especially those who have not yet written a complete draft—is to stick to writing one-level outlines of parts of the work, allowing focus on how a few parts relate to a larger whole.  Don’t try to capture all the details in an early outline; do use a simple outline to help keep focused on the main purpose of your writing.

I had planned only a single post on outlines, but as I wrote, I kelp finding more that I wanted to say, so I’m going to follow this with a second post that discusses outlines further: it discusses some of the limits of outlines (which are linear and hierarchical, unlike the ideas a writer tries to express) and how to try to write about non-linear ideas.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 8: Experiment

This post is, in a way, the inverse of my previous post, which argued that it was necessary to act (to write) in the face of unavoidable uncertainty. In this post, I’m going to argue in favor of a specific kind of action in the face of uncertainty: experimentation. Developing a practice of experimentation can help reduce anxiety that triggers anxiety-related writing blocks.

Experimentation

Experimentation is, when speaking of research, a process of gathering data that will give insight into some unanswered question. In this sense, it is explicitly a step into the unknown: the experimenter doesn’t know with certainty what the outcome will be. In science and research, experiments are commonly used to gather empirical data from which to draw conclusions. But a researcher can also benefit from experimentation in writing.

There are two kinds of experimentation that can serve a scholar: thought experiments and writing experiments. Both kinds of experimentation produce material (whether ideas or words on the page) that may or may not be directly or obviously useful. Because experimentation does not guarantee a positive result, many writers avoid it as inefficient—“It takes me so long to write, that I can’t spend time experimenting with something I’ll never use. I need to get it right quickly.”

Trying to get it right

For a lot of writers who are struggling with anxiety-related writing blocks, there’s a feedback loop in which low productivity and high anxiety about results lead a writer slow down their writing process to ensure that the product of their writing efforts is immediately useful, and that sense of needing to get it right can trigger anxiety and slow the pace of working, while also drawing attention to lesser details and away from the main ideas. This slow pace of working (often coupled with anxiety) then loops back to the continued experience of low productivity, high anxiety writing. Ironically, this focus on getting things right does not ensure good writing, but rather inhibits the learning process of the writer.

Cycle of excessive caution and lowered productivity.

There are times when every writer should be concerned with getting it right—the last review of a draft before sending it off—but most of the time, it’s best for a writer to be thinking about the ideas they want to communicate (rather than on details of presentation). One of the main values of experimentation as a writer—writing quickly to see what you get rather than trying to “get it right”—is that it can reduce anxiety about “getting it right” (since you’re no longer trying to “get it right”), as well as anxiety about low productivity (since you’re putting a lot of words on the page).

Thought experiments

In philosophy, there is a long tradition of what are called “thought experiments.” As their name suggests, these “experiments” are purely intellectual: they are a process of imagination, of asking “what if…”  They are a crucial tool for any researcher or scholar, on levels both theoretical and practical.  Theoretically, the imagination of a thought experiment precedes the development of any hypothesis: “what if the world worked this way,”  leads to “then we would see this response, and we could test it this way…” 

A famous example of a thought experiment was Einstein’s imagining what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. That imaginative exercise aided the development of theories that continue to be used to this day.

Thought experiments require the imagination to consider different possibilities—even possibilities that seem unlikely or impossible.

Exercise 1: Thought experiment

[The key dimension in this exercise it to build your imagination, so it doesn’t need to be written out, but if you write out your thought experiment, you will also build your skill as a writer.]

1. Setting aside all the stuff you have read on your subject, what is your particular subject of study, and how do you think it all works (with respect to the specifics? If you study human behavior, why do humans behave in the way that interests you? If you study, historical processes, why did the history turn out the way it did? If you analyze texts, what do you expect the analysis to show?

2. Come up with some alternatives for the explanation you produced in step one. What’s an alternative that you have seen in the literature? What is an absurd alternative (use your imagination: is rain caused by a god washing her car? Is depression caused by watching Gilligan’s Island? Does Dickens’s Hard Times celebrate the beauty of capitalism)? Come up with as many different absurd explanations as you can.

Writing experiments

The harder writing seems, the easier it is to get attached to the words that you do get onto the page. If you struggle for an hour to produce one sentence, it’s a lot harder to give up on that sentence than if you only spent one minute. Being committed to what you have already written—“I can’t get rid of this; I worked so hard on it!”—inhibits learning in the process, or at least inhibits the willingness to use what has been learned. “I’m not sure it’s right, but I have to keep it because I worked so hard on it.”  But writing usually involves learning, so a tension builds between the old writing (and the old ideas) and what has been learned. This tension can trigger anxiety, in addition to anxiety about “getting it right.”

If you think of the practice of writing as involving a strong commitment to keep what you have already written, that can lead to putting emphasis on getting each new sentence right on the first try, which might lead to struggling over a single for an hour, which reinforces the commitment to keeping what has been written, and to a sense that writing is a very slow, high-stakes process. The higher the stakes of writing anything, the greater the anxiety involved, and the greater the chance of triggering a writing block.

Approaching some (most) writing as an experiment helps reduce the importance placed on “getting it right.”  Instead of trying to get it right, an experiment tries something just to see what results.  It’s a process of trying and comparing ideas.  Instead of just writing one version of a sentence (or paragraph), you write multiples versions and compare them.  This kind of experimentation is obviously easiest with a small amount of text—a title, an abstract, a cover letter—because it’s easy and fast to create multiple versions.  If I’m experimenting with a title, I can try out many different versions in only a few minutes.  If I spend an hour trying to come up with a title, I can generate dozens of alternatives. This is more difficult with longer pieces. If I need to write a section of an article or chapter, it may take several hours to write one version, which makes it harder to casually write another version, but if that perspective places a lot of importance on keeping what you’ve written, it raises the emotional stakes and corresponding anxiety. 

If you’re experimenting—just writing to see what something looks like—you’re not committed to the outcome; you’re willing to throw it away and try again.  That attitude can reduce anxiety and increase the quantity of words written. It may sacrifice quality, but that’s only a short-term drawback.  If you can shift from writing one really strong sentence an hour to writing 500 words an hour, you are, in the long run, going to produce a lot more strong sentences, even if you also write a lot of lousy sentences along the way.  (Remember, experimenting does not preclude a later stage of trying to refine and polish your work.) And, in the long run, if you write 500 words an hour, your skill as a writer will increase, and you will be able to craft good sentences and paragraphs more quickly.

Exercise 2

Write several different versions of a single sentence, title, section header, or definition of some concept. Experiment with different structures and word choices. 

(For example, I could rephrase this exercise in the following ways:

  • Write many variations on one sentence or other short piece of writing by altering word choice and sentence structure.
  • Pick one idea and try to express that idea in a single sentence. Repeat, writing a new sentence with different structure and word choice.
  • Generate several distinct versions of a title for your current work or a single single sentence. Experiment with different vocabulary, structure, and style.)

Slight changes in wording and structure can alter meaning, but that alteration of meaning can often give insight into both the issue you want to express and the ways you express it to your audience.

Spend 10 minutes on this, or generate four (4) alternatives, which ever takes less time.

Conclusion

One aspect of writing that is stressful and unpleasant for many is the worry about “getting it right,” from spelling to punctuation to grammar, and beyond. But a lot of writing is better done without such concerns. Writing isn’t a matter of following rules of spelling or grammar—those rules (and all the exceptions to them) are tools to help the writer—it’s a matter of exploring and developing ideas; it’s a matter of experimenting different modes of expression.  Practicing the experimental side of writing—the willingness to throw some words onto the page quickly and without hesitation—can help bring the positive dimensions of writing into focus and help reduce anxiety.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 5: Principles for a healthy writing practice

When I started this series, my plan was to offer suggestions for dealing with specific anxieties, such as the fear of rejection, or the belief that writing is inherently unpleasant.  Such specific anxieties deserve attention: approaching them in the right way can reduce their negative emotional impact and thus reduce barriers to writing. However, I realized that such suggestions need to be part of a framework that offers a larger vision of a positive writing practice, not only some sense of how to deal with the negatives.  This realization led to my third tip, in which I argued that writing is a process that can be enjoyable, despite its frustrations, in the same way that other skilled activities are also enjoyable, despite their frustrations, difficulties, and demands. In this post, I consider the overarching concern for a writer struggling with a writing block, which is to generate a good relationship with the work.

The search for a positive writing practice

I can’t fit all the ideas I have about a positive writing practice into one post. There are many different issues to consider. Here, I look at some of the basic principles that guide positive writing practices, starting with the basic principle that it is possible to have a positive writing practice. 

Find something that you care about

Part of the answer to having a positive writing practice is to do something that you care about. For a scholar or academic, the desire to understand things better and to answer questions provides a strong motivation (at least for those who pursue research questions that interest them). If you care, that provides motivation to help deal with the inevitable difficulties.

Many scholars, especially early in their career, come to believe the common critiques of academia that research is disconnected from the real world, and that because the audience for the work is small, therefore the work is unimportant. A full refutation of these critiques might be an essay in itself. Here, I will argue, on the one hand, that the relevance and importance of a work are not always obvious to a large audience, and that the value of work is not measured only by the size of the audience.

If you don’t care about your work—if you don’t think it’s interesting or important—that’s a heavy burden that may well contribute to writing blocks. Many scholars who have come to doubt the value of their work have also lost sight of the motivations that initially inspired them, so if you suffer from such doubt, it can be valuable to look back to your initial motivations.  But dealing with this specific problem—loss of interest in your work—is one of the writing blocks that I hope to address individually.  Here, I only want to emphasize that having positive motivation is central to positive practice.

Care for your health, both physical and mental

Part of developing a practice that is healthy and sustainable is to remember that the practice should be positive, healthy, and sustainable. What is fun is not always healthy and sustainable, and what is healthy and sustainable is not always enjoyable, but the ideal sweet spot for a writing practice (or any practice) is to be both healthy and enjoyable.  A positive practice will reinforce itself over time by delivering positive rewards greater than the investment of effort and difficulty necessary to maintain the practice. 

Practice takes effort and persistence

It takes effort to be a good writer, just as it takes effort to excel in any skilled activity.  The work of a writer may not be too physically demanding, but the intellectual demands are large, both in developing ideas that are worth expressing, and in expressing those ideas. A scholarly analysis of some question or body of evidence takes time and effort, both to execute planned steps of analysis and to attempt to deal with any surprises that may come up.  And writing out a description of the research and its conclusions so that others can understand  is also difficult. (Effort invested in writing about research often helps develop thinking about he research, so the analysis and the writing are not entirely independent.)

Persistence is needed to keep going in the face of difficulties, which inevitably arise.  A good practice is not free from difficulties—indeed, one characteristic of positive practice experiences is the element of challenge and the possibility of failure (based on Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow). One aspect of a healthy practice, however, is that difficulties are not always unpleasant to deal with.

Practice involves activities that might seem boring to an outsider

Often practice demands activities that individually dull, but because of the interest in the overall outcome, these efforts do not seem overly onerous, even if sometimes tedious. In the best circumstances, dealing with tedious issues feels rewarding because of the progress towards a desired goal. An athlete in training may find individual drills or exercises tedious, but will enthusiastically engage for their role in developing skill and ability. A musician might find playing scales and arpeggios boring, but will enthusiastically engage because those tasks will facilitate the more enjoyable goals of playing much-loved music. A scholarly writer may dislike the work of matching specific style guidelines, but that work facilitates publication.

Imagine a hypothetical Scrabble player who wants to be competitive at a high level. In order to win games, they start practicing. One element of that practice, of course, is playing games of Scrabble against opponents (friends on social media, for example). Presumably, this hypothetical Scrabble competitor enjoys playing Scrabble, but despite any general enjoyment, playing many practice games takes time that might be spent doing other things, and the more games played, the better the chance that some are frustrating (bad luck drawing tiles), or boring (a slow opponent, or one who is no challenge). Beyond playing games, our hypothetical player might also choose to spend time studying a Scrabble dictionary or other lists of words. To me, studying a Scrabble dictionary seems tedious and dull, but to the enthusiastic player, the motivation to succeed might turn the study into an activity in which they engage enthusiastically.

In my own experience as a writer and editor, I definitely do things that many people would find boring (beyond writing itself, of course), such as studying style manuals and references on grammar, or, as part of the process of writing, rewriting and revising the same sentence or phrase several times with slight variations in word choice or structure. At times, I find these things tedious or boring, too, but I persist because I want to get better as a writer and editor and these skills are at the heart of my professional work. This occasional tedium, however, is not constant because I enjoy the challenges of writing well and helping others write well.

A healthy practice built on positive motivations will have its difficulties and frustrations, but many aspects of that practice that seem boring or unpleasant, will not seem nearly as boring if they are part of a healthy and positive practice. Often that which seems boring to the outsider is calming and comforting to the practitioner who is absorbed in the task.

Practice is regular

Part of the emotional reward of a regular practice is the sense of engaging in something that is comfortable through familiarity. For me, writing has that comfort: despite all the frustrations I often feel when writing, I know from experience that I can become absorbed in the work and have an hour or two pass with my attention entirely focused on the exploration of some idea and ways to express that idea for others. The hour doesn’t really pass enjoyably—when things are going well, it’s more an excitement or exhilaration or hope than fun—but it is a positive experience. When things are going well, as a writer, I also feel like I’m doing something worthwhile, in the sense that I’m working to forward my career, and that I’m doing something that might help other people have more success in their lives.  These remembered emotions flavor all my work as a writer, making it a task that offers some emotional comfort despite the necessary effort.  

This comfort grows with regularity. If I stop writing for a while—even a few days—the comfort is reduced as difficult questions of where to focus my efforts arise.

Practices are not only a matter of the intellect or behavior—they are also matters of physiology and neurophysiology: practice shapes our physical manifestation as we build physiological structures (including neurological structures) that support the behavior. If we write by hand or type on a keyboard, our body builds structures that make writing/typing easier. If we use our imagination around some topic, the neurological system that supports that activity is used and enhanced as a result of use. Regular use of a physiological system builds it; lack of use lets the system decay.

Good practice is disciplined and persistent but also gentle: It pushes just hard enough

A good practice pushes to the limits of the practitioner in one way or another. As mentioned above, it takes effort. A practice doesn’t build to success without seriously pushing. Writing isn’t ever going to be very easy, though there may be some writing tasks that come relatively easily.  On the large scale, if you’re trying to get better as a writer, that means trying things that are difficult and/or unfamiliar in order to build your skill set—even if “unfamiliar” only means trying to find a better way to phrase things than your last draft. 

But at the same time that it needs to firmly push forward, a practice needs to be sufficiently gentle that you can go back to it with a sense of comfort. There is a world of difference between thinking “last time I wrote, I got a bit frustrated,” and “last time I wrote, it was painful.”  If writing is consistently painful to you, that’s naturally going to build emotional resistance.  For a good practice, it’s important to keep healthy, and that means respecting limits, both emotional and physical.

Conclusion

To write well and to have a good experience as a writer, it’s valuable to develop a healthy practice—a practice that calls upon you for regular effort. The practice helps you develop written works and also helps you develop your skill and comfort working as a writer. A healthy practice pushes at your limits but not so far as to cause long-term harm. It pushes enough to promote growth without pushing so far as to cause damage.  A careful balance needs to be maintained at the edge of your ability, so that you can gain the benefit of a flow activity without suffering traumatizing injury (whether emotional or physical).  For writers dealing with emotional writing blocks, a healthy practice builds gently by accepting current limits and trying to expand areas of comfort. If you are dealing with emotional writing blocks, you can help ourself by focusing on the goal of creating a healthy and postive writing practice.

Dealing with writer’s block, Tip 2: Sort your concerns

People who face anxiety-related writing blocks experience a range of different emotional concerns, and  often it is the combination of different concerns that lead to a writing block (See note on writing blocks, at bottom of post).  When fears/doubts/anxieties come in groups, the emotional response is stronger, and it becomes harder to see any of the concerns individually, which makes it harder to eliminate or reduce any of them.  In this post, I’m going to do a rough typology of different fears, and suggest and exercise to sort out concerns so that you can begin to untangle the variety of fears that trigger the emotional response that becomes a writing block. A typology can help in sorting out different anxieties, and can help in making addressing specific anxieties so as to reduce their impact on the writing process.

Why a typology?

As I have previously argued, sorting out different types of writing-related concerns is a good preliminary step toward making plans that can reduce those anxieties and limit their impact on your writing practice.  The typology here is offered as a tool to help distinguish different anxieties that you might experience. It should not be viewed as intellectually rigorous, but rather as a loose guide to identifying and distinguishing your own issues. It is not meant to restrict or limit your concerns—it’s possible that you have concerns that I do not include in my typology—but rather to help you analyze those concerns, so that each concern can be addressed individually rather than en masse, making it possible to begin to make plans for responding to, and possibly eliminating or reducing the concern.

A Typology of Writers’ Fears

  • Fear of rejection (“They won’t accept my work.”)
  • Fear of failure (“I won’t be able to do what I should do”)
  • fear of ridicule (“They will mock and mistreat me”)
  • fear of personal inadequacy (“I’m not good enough”)
  • fear of suffering (“writing sucks”)
  • fear of specific people (“my professor/parents/etc. is so mean!”)

These different types are not mutually exclusive; many come together, as, for example, with a hypothetical cruel teacher/professor who not only grades a work down but also makes cutting comments about your lack of ability.  Recognizing the different dimensions of the anxiety allows a writer the chance to separate out the different dimensions of the criticism, seeing both those that are accurate (the actual errors and weaknesses in the work) from those that are not (a general critique on ability or character that is contrary to evidence of previous experience). 

Realistic and unrealistic anxieties

There is one criterion that deserves its own sorting, separate from the typology, and that is the division between those anxieties that are realistic and relevant and those that are not.  Some anxieties are entirely realistic and therefore very difficult to dispel, most notably the concern that a work will not be accepted. While you may be able to reduce your emotional response to that situation, it’s a real and realistic concern: your work may not be accepted. It’s not a concern that is casually dismissed (though you don’t want to focus on it!). By contrast, emotional difficulties relating to a person in your past—a former teacher, your parents—are not relevant or realistic (in the sense that they are not current, even if the emotional issues remain). It may not be easy to set aside that internal critic that you learned from your past, but it is certainly realistic to do so: someone from your past is not going to read your present work. Concern yourself with the people to whom you will submit your work in the future, not those to whom you submitted it in the past. If you focus on the realistic present concerns and thereby limit or eliminate unrealistic and irrelevant anxieties, the overall level of anxiety is reduced and the more realistic fears that remain may be more easily negotiated.

Exercise 1: How realistic are your worst worries?

[Exercises are for practice, not for performance. They are to learn about yourself and your strengths and weaknesses, and also to increase your skill and ease in putting ideas into words on the page (i.e., writing). Writing an exercise like this will help develop your writing skill generally, which will support your writing in more formal efforts. Don’t worry about making mistakes; just do it for the exercise. Try, but don’t try hard. This exercise is not about pushing your limits of tolerance; it’s about doing something relatively easy to get the sense that not all writing is a difficult battle for precision.]

List some of your writing-related anxieties. For each item in the list, how realistic is that concern?  Are there any concerns that stem from previous experiences that have no bearing on your future performance (e.g., a professor or teacher you no longer work with)?

Goals of this exercise:

  • 1. Put ideas into words on the page (write something!)
  • 2. Identify realistic anxieties for planning purposes
  • 3. Identify unrealistic anxieties for mental health purposes
  • 4. To write without fear of making a mistake
  • 5. To write with minimal effort

To be avoided:

  • 1. Getting stressed over doing the exercise
  • 2. Working hard

Sorting Obstacles

If you struggle with anxieties related to writing—struggle to the point that anxiety significantly interferes with your ability to write—then there’s a good chance that you’ll feel a lot of anxiety when trying to list your anxieties.  Thinking about worrisome things is often a trigger for anxiety, so the exercise I’ve described above could be unpleasant or even counter-productive. If you feel it so, please be kind to yourself and gentle: you’re not going to reduce anxiety by self-criticism.  While the exercise might trigger anxiety, it might also help to calm it. Often, sorting through a group of problems, and seeing the issues clearly can also provide some comfort: no longer are you facing a massive, indistinct monster, instead you have a swarm of lesser issues, some of which you can deal with effectively.  

In the long run, sorting out different obstacles is a preliminary to making plans of action to address those different obstacles. Often, a sorting process of this sort will also lead to some ideas for how to work more effectively. One a problem has been named, solutions are often implicit.  For example, if you recognize a specific cause of anxiety as being related to an unrealistic concern—your fear of your high school writing teacher who won’t be seeing what you’re writing now, for example—it is pretty obvious that the solution is to stop worrying about that person (of course, knowing that you should stop worrying about an unrealistic anxiety does not immediately eliminate or reduce that concern or stop you from worrying, but at least if that specific fear rears its head, you can remind yourself that its not relevant and perhaps even focus your attention elsewhere).

Exercise 2: Where do your fears fit in the typology?

What are the fears that impact your writing process?  Are they concerns about how other people will treat you, or are they concerns about your own shortcomings, or both? How do the issues that block you fit into the typology? Do you have any fears/doubts/anxieties that impact your writing but don’t fit into any of the types described above?

This exercise is, again, more about the process of putting words on the page and the insights you might gain during that process than it is about what you write.  It’s also about engaging in writing without any pressure for any outcome.

Conclusion

My plan for future posts is to discuss different specific concerns about writing and how to address some of them to reduce or, when possible, eliminate, related anxieties. This post gets a start on that process by identifying the specific concerns to which a writer must respond.

Note on Writing Blocks:

As discussed here, “writing blocks” are emotional/intellectual issues that interfere with the writing of people who are otherwise, organized and diligent. Laziness is not a writer’s block—if you don’t try, that’s not a writing block. Competing demands are not writing blocks (in the sense discussed in this post, at least): if you have to care for children that’s not a writing block (though a writing block might lead to you say that your kids need all your available time when you could cut out an hour or 30 minutes for writing if it weren’t for the writing-related anxieties).

Dealing with Writer’s Block, Tip 1: Identify the Causes

To deal with and reduce or eliminate writing blocks, an important first step is to identify the causes of the block.  Until that has been accomplished, it’s difficult to make any plans for change.

I’m going to focus on writing blocks related to fears, doubts, and anxieties. In my experience, writing blocks spring from two main sources: those that spring from fears and anxieties and those that spring from dislike (or even hatred) of the project (See note on writing blocks, below).  Of course fears and anxieties can lead to hatred, and hatred can lead to fears and anxieties, so these two sorts of writing blocks are not entirely independent of each other. But to the extent that a writing block springs from dislike or disinterest in the project (and that dislike or disinterest does not have root causes in any fear, doubt, or anxiety), I don’t have much to say about it, beyond “choose to do it, or choose to walk away.”  I can’t think of any exercises or practice that would make someone interested in work that they hate.

But for writing blocks that have roots in fears, doubts, and anxieties, the writing blocks can be lessened or entirely removed through the development of a good practice and the use of writing exercises.

Exercise and Healthy Practice

In the long run, success as a writer comes from a regular practice of writing. By and large, people who publish regularly are people who work at writing on a regular basis.  Therefore, if you want to write, you should be thinking about how to build a regular practice of writing.  There are regular practices that are built on negative emotions, and this kind of practice—a merciless “try harder or you’ll never be good enough” mindset—can lead to growing emotional barriers. If you push yourself to suffer through a task, it would hardly be surprising if you developed anxieties around that task. 

My basic approach to reducing or eliminating writing blocks sits in the context of building a healthy practice motivated by positive ideals. As you develop a healthy practice, many anxieties and fears can fall away, reducing emotional barriers, even if some anxieties may remain.

Central in developing a healthy writing practice that reduces anxiety is to engage in writing exercises. The crucial factor of a writing exercise is that it is viewed as a trial aimed at building skill, not a final product for presentation. In such exercises, early errors are expected as part of the process of improvement. The concern is for going through the process.  A writing exercise can be viewed as a parallel to a musician playing scales: the scales are not practiced for their own sake, but to help build skill that can be applied to later performances.

To some extent, the key here is shifting focus from product to practice: rather than creating a good written work, create a good writer. In the long run, a good writer will be able to create many good written works. In this context any time you write anything—lists, emails, texts, journal entries, as well as more formal pieces of writing—you’re practicing the general skill of writing, which is to find words to express some idea or information. 

Writing exercises, like the musician’s scales, are a private practice, and being private, it’s not necessary to be concerned with what other people would think of what you write.

Exercise 1: Identify Your Fears, Doubts, and Anxieties

If you are struggling with any sort of anxiety barrier to writing, one very useful writing exercise is to try to identify all the different fears, doubts, and anxieties.  Make a list of all the anxieties, doubts, and fears that you have related to your writing.  Be as detailed as possible. A good list of anxieties provides a starting place for a process of identifying specific concerns that can be addressed in some way. Some writing-related fears are real and can’t simply be dismissed—“It’ll get rejected,” is a very real possibility to acknowledge. Other fears are less accurate—“writing sucks; it’s torture,” isn’t accurate for all writers and is, in a way, a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you tell yourself writing will be painful, you may never develop a non-painful practice.  For many writers, fears of criticism by people from their past trigger anxiety, but making these fears explicit reveals that they can be dismissed as past concerns, not present ones.

In the exercise of writing about your writing-related concerns, not only do you practice your ability to turn ideas into words on the page, but you also gain insight into your process of writing, and that insight can be used to refine and improve your practice.

A word of caution and care: An exercise of writing about anxieties can trigger anxiety, so be gentle with yourself. Spend a few minutes writing down different anxieties, doubts, or fears as a starting point.  Repeat the exercise often, but not so often that it triggers anxieties. Practice identifying your concerns.

In future work, you can focus on specific individual concerns to seek ways to eliminate or otherwise manage/reduce that concern. (I anticipate writing some future posts on dealing with specific concerns/anxieties that many writers experience.) 

Diagnosis is the first step to treatment

If you are struggling with writer’s block—if you’ve written in the past, but are getting stuck now due to anxiety that arises in the writing practice—a first step is to identify the causes of difficulty.  Many anxieties about writing can be eliminated in the process of developing a healthful, productive, and sometimes enjoyable writing practice, but only if those anxieties can be identified and addressed. Writing is always going to demand effort, and will always offer some chance of failure, so it’s never completely free of emotional challenges, but you can develop a healthy practice in part by identifying and then eliminating or reducing the unnecessary concerns.

Note on writing blocks: failure to write does not always count as a writing block. One can only have “writer’s block” if one (a) is generally responsible and self-disciplined, (b) dedicates time to trying to write, and (c) has had some success as a writer in the past.  The second condition speaks to the notion that you must already have learned to write—as demonstrated by having written successfully in the past (as a student in school, at least)–before it’s reasonable to worry about writer’s blocks. There are many things that impede writing that I would not count as writing blocks. Severe illness or injury that prevent writing are not writer’s block. Inability to schedule time to write, whether due to competing responsibilities or to laziness, is not a writer’s block.