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.

An Irony of Finishing My Book

Back in January, I was talking with the author of a book that was about to come out. I had been thinking in terms of celebrating his job well done, and was wondering what his next project was gong to be. He surprised me, then, by talking about how he planned to spend the year promoting the book he had just finished. It seemed to me both a good decision on his part, and a somewhat depressing reality.  He had been working on that book for more than a decade, so it seems like being able to finish the project would be welcome.

The reality is, however, that books want promotion, and generally the people who have to promote them are their authors. Authors give talks. Authors write to people about their book, asking them to read it, to review it. They work to get the word out.

When I was trying to put the final pieces in place—reading the page proofs, doing the index—I started thinking about working on my next project. But, not really. Immediately after finishing the page proofs, I started working on blog posts, videos, and letters to people.

I think that I have “finished” my book a number of times over the years.  There was the time that I finished the first complete draft and gave it to someone else to read. There was the time that I finished a completely revised draft and gave it to someone else to read. There was the time that I finished a draft and began writing proposals for agents/publishers. And then there was the time I finished revising the draft to use what I learned writing the proposals.  Then, once I finished that draft, I had the proposals to write. And once I had a proposal accepted, I needed to work on the contract. Then I revised the draft in response to the reviews, finishing the project yet again.  Not long after than, I had to read the copy-edited files to check the work of the copy editor and get an almost last chance at changes.  (At the copy-editing stage, the publishers were emphatic about not making significant changes—they even gave me locked files—not that I wanted to make big changes. I wanted to be finished.)  And only a little while after that, I had to read the page proofs and do the index.  And then, I was finished! The publisher took the files, and began production of the book.

Except that I’m not finished. I may be finished writing the book itself, but the book project continues.  This blog post—a short one for me—is part of that process. Three videos are in production.  Sending out promotional copies is on my to-do list, though I think I’ll wait until after Christmas before I brave the post office to send stuff to people.

There is a famous saying that a work of art is never completed, only abandoned (from Paul Valéry).  I have always thought about that saying in terms of being willing to let the work go in the sense of not messing around with the work itself once it reaches a certain point.  But as I write this post, I see a different view of it: not only can you abandon the work itself, you can abandon the larger project as a whole.  One possible option I face is to simply let the book go.  Not make any promotional effort.  But that just doesn’t seem like a good idea in terms of my larger career as a writer, writing coach, and editor.  Having invested a lot of effort into my book, and having gotten support for it from my publisher, it seems to be worth the continued effort to see if I can help it along its way.

I was recently pondering what it means to be a writer.  Without wanting to get into a semantic debate, it seems to me that part of being a writer is this indeterminate nature of projects.  They don’t just grow and finish.  They jump along in fits and starts with multiple drafts reviewed by multiple people, and include all sorts of related effort to promote the book—first to agents or publishers, then to potential readers.

At this point, my feelings about being done are mixed.  As, indeed, my feelings about projects generally are.  On the one hand, I have my conviction that my book and my ideas provide dissertation writers with valuable insights.  My book can help negotiate some of the problems with the early stages of writing a dissertation, in particular, problems in dealing with the literature and in designing/defining and developing a research project. And it’s done!  On the other hand, I made a lot of choices—what to include and what to exclude; how to present ideas, etc—that maybe weren’t the best choices. I must admit anxiety over potentially bad reviews (and I expect there are a lot of people who would reject my ideas out of hand if they read them).  And I have even greater anxiety over the book not being noticed at all!  Into this mixed-bag of emotions is thrown the choice of whether to keep working on this project—at this point to produce promotional materials and to reach out to people—or not.

On a final note, I want to say that even though the project is still ongoing, there is still reason to celebrate an important accomplishment within that larger process.  Yes, I may not be done working on my book, but I got my book published!

Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice

How to Become a Better Writer (2): Work Past Criticism

My original plan for this series of posts has been somewhat lost since I originally formulated it about six weeks ago, but my general goal for my blog as a whole, and indeed for my work as a writing coach, dissertation coach, and editor, is to help people become better writers, so it’s pretty easy to fit something else in that heading (indeed, there’s some question as to whether I shouldn’t just drop the whole “how to become a better writer” title).  And, given that I personally write and strive to become a better writer, I’m often thinking about how I can become a better writer, and so have ideas that can be translated into a blog post on the subject of becoming a better writer.

The past several days, I was working on the copy-edited files for my upcoming book, and one of the things that I was dealing with was with working past criticism.  On the one hand, I was dealing with the criticism of the copy-editor, which, admittedly, was not about content, and was pretty easy to deal with.  And on the other, I was dealing with my own internal criticism, which was somewhat wider-ranging, and was rather more difficult.  But whether your own internal criticism or the criticism of others, if you want to become a better writer, you have to learn to work through criticism. If building skill depends on practice, then criticism cannot be allowed to break that practice.

Different purposes for different writers

There are varied reasons to write: some people might write just for their personal satisfaction, others might write for fame, and others might write because their careers demand it.  Different kinds of writing will expose you to different kinds of criticism.  The better you understand your reasons for writing, the easier it is to deal with criticism that is irrelevant to your writing.  

For example, if you’re writing for the therapeutic value of writing and exploring your thoughts, then criticism regarding your spelling and punctuation are mostly irrelevant to your purpose.  Spelling and punctuation are conventions that are used to help writers communicate with others, but if your intention is to use writing to evoke ideas and work through them, then you may understand yourself sufficiently without the least concern for the formal conventions. 

Or, for example, I’m writing a blog generally aimed at highly educated writers who are seeking advanced degrees, so criticism that my sentences are relatively complex might be misplaced.  I choose this example because I have an SEO plugin for my blog that always tells me that my writing will do poorly in search engines because the sentences are too long and the text too difficult. (According to the SEO plugin, this post scores poorly on the Flesch Reading Ease test, and it also has sections, paragraphs, and sentences that are too long.)  I recognize that criticism and work past it. But, to me at least, that criticism seems off-base, because the people I want to appreciate my writing are people of high intelligence and competence. (Admittedly, I’m not sure about this being the right course of action—after all, if the search engine won’t rank me, then no intelligent, competent people will even learn that I have written.)

Knowing your purpose in writing is valuable in working past criticism because it helps you ignore criticism that isn’t suited to your purpose.


Self-criticism can be paralyzing.  Too much self-doubt and projects get abandoned.  As I worked on the draft of my manuscript this past week, I was constantly battling with the sense that I had not done enough or that I should have done something better.  These thoughts were a significant drain on my energy and limited progress.  Instead of just checking to make sure that the copy-editor had not missed anything or introduced any new mistakes, I pondered over sentence after sentence, and paragraph after paragraph, wondering how much to change, and how much I could change (the publisher had explicitly stated that changes should be kept minimal).  These internal debates raged as I moved through each chapter, bemoaning the work that realistically was that outcome of years of effort on my part, not to mention several different reviews of different drafts, so it’s not as if that manuscript over which I was so tortured had never gotten any support.  To be sure, my book has flaws.  It also has strengths.  

One particular difficulty in the moment of editing is that you are looking for problems at a very granular level.  My book isn’t really about details, but rather about big core ideas. Looking for problems, especially at the level of sentences or paragraphs, simply isn’t very sensitive to larger-scale issues like narrative flow or overall argument (where I believe/hope my strengths lie) because the attention is focused on finding small-scale problems.  Emotionally speaking, the editing process forces a focus on weaknesses, not strengths, which can sap the necessary confidence to keep working.

Criticism from others

Criticism from others can also be paralyzing, especially if it links into self-criticism. Whether the criticism concerns something you already see as a weakness or something about which you feel pride (or something in between), it can trigger significant doubt about the ability to progress and reach a satisfactory conclusion.

In some ways, it’s easier to deal with criticism from others than self-criticism, if only because it’s sometimes easier to ignore or dismiss what others have said. When I get feedback from other people, I always ask myself whether they’re right or not, at least at a granular level, with respect to specific concerns.  (If someone dismisses my work out of hand, I’m not particularly inclined to worry about that—it’s usually a waste of time trying to please someone who won’t be pleased. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, however, and that’s one reason feedback can be more difficult than self-criticism—more on that below.)  When I get detailed feedback, I have generally find that some of it is really helpful, some of it difficult but helpful, and some of it less helpful or even wrong.  I know that I have made mistakes when giving feedback to other people, and I know that people have made mistakes in giving me feedback.  So, in processing feedback, I try to sort out the stuff that I do want to use from that which I don’t. And that sorting allows greater equanimity in dealing with the feedback—it’s less of a challenge to my confidence (and even a boost to my confidence, sometimes) to see the feedback focuses on things that can be easily fixed.

Of course, as I suggested above, one of the difficulties in receiving feedback from others is that there are times when you simply cannot avoid it.  If you’re a student and your professor insists on something, you’re pretty much stuck. If an editor at a journal or publishing house insists on something, you’re not quite as stuck, but there’s a compelling reason to deal with it, especially if finding a publisher or journal that will accept your work is not a matter to be taken for granted.  It can be very difficult to try to do something that is outside your vision for your work.

Keep working

The emotional barriers are pretty high, but finishing work depends on getting past those sticking points.  In the effort to become a better writer, practice is central.  And the crucial first factor in any practice is the actual engagement and effort involved.  As a writer, that means working even in the face of criticism.  There is a necessary perseverance for the writer who wants to get better. This, more than anything else, is the crucial step.  Undoubtedly, it’s better to be able to learn from criticism and to use that criticism to keep growing: by hearing, understanding, and adapting to criticism, your practice and your efforts are guided and directed.  But even if you just ignore criticism and keep working, that will help you become a better writer.  An undirected, sloppy practice whose only discipline in its regularity is still a better road to improvement than a highly structured but irregular practice.  Within reason, anyway.  I’m not sure how to measure this at the margins: is a highly structured practice carried out for 3 hours a week better than a loose practice carried out 4 hours a week?  I can’t be sure when comparing such small differences in practice.  But I’m pretty confident that a sloppy practice for one hour a day, seven days a week, is going to do more for skill than a highly disciplined practice for two hours each Saturday with nothing on the other days.  And for that reason, I place such a high value on working past criticism including, criticism of one’s own practice schedule: better to practice badly than not practice at all.

A long time ago, I read about a empirical study that had followed a group of people developing skill (I can’t give a citation; can’t remember the source; and don’t want to go looking right now), which basically found that the people who accurately assessed their work were less likely to develop skill over a longer period than those who over-estimated the quality of their performance. The primary difference was that those who over-evaluated themselves did more work because of their (over)confidence.  We could say that the people who faced the least self-criticism did the best.  But, ideally, practitioners learn from self-criticism, thus refining their ability by responding to their various strengths and weaknesses. Which means that to really excel, you need both the criticism to guide and refine your work, and the ability to work past criticism to continue your pursuit of your goal to produce a good written work, and also to become a better writer.

Becoming a Better Writer: Frankenstein vs. the Cloning Vats

About a month ago, after watching a video on how to practice music, I started to write a post on how to become a better writer, with the basic theme being practice and my intentions aimed at discussing some ideas about developing a good practice.  As I worked on that post, however, I got sidetracked into a three-post digression into discussing what it means to be a good writer because how do you become a better writer without knowing what a good writer is?

In my posts on what it is to be a good writer, I discussed three general dimensions of being a good writer: (1) producing good written works; (2) enjoying or feeling a sense of accomplishment when writing; and (3) having a writing practice that leads to growth.  The first of these three dimensions is the one that most people think of with respect to “good writers,” but the others are important, too, because of their relationship to the key factor in becoming a better writer (in all three senses): practice.

As I said, I started this series of posts about a month ago, when I had a certain vision of what I wanted to do.  But in the course of that month, things have happened that give me new ideas, or at least lead me to revisit old ideas.  This post is related to becoming a better writer—it is about one specific question in how to practice writing effectively—but it is a bit more specific than I was planning on.  However, I’ve decided to go with this because the idea for it was sparked by a recent interaction with a writer.

Re-animating old work vs. growing a new draft

This writer was talking about using previous papers as a foundation for a new draft, and spoke of “Frankenstein-ing a draft,” meaning to pick chunks of old work, and to stitch them together into a complete whole.  Reflecting on this plan of action (and looking through the old drafts to find pieces that could be used for the “Frankenstein draft”), I came up against a principle that I strongly believe helps writers use their time and effort more effectively.

Because the language of the discussion was one from science fiction/horror, I framed a comparison in terms of the genre: is it better to create a Frankenstein draft, or is it better to get something out of the cloning vats?  The idea of a Frankenstein’s monster is pretty clear: a body stitched together from several different parts, perhaps awkwardly.  My idea of “cloning vats” isn’t something I can associate with any single cultural work (a search for “cloning vats” turns up a lot of science fiction games). In this particular analogy, I’m imagining the “cloning vats” as a system in which old organic matter is recycled to provide the raw materials from which new creatures are grown.  In terms of writing practice, I’m really focusing on the choice between revising and rewriting—the choice between trying to reuse old material and trying to generate new material.

A newly grown draft will better embody new ideas

The first reason I recommend this is that we learn as we go: if you have learned something new or thought of something new, that new idea will be much easier to bring to life in a new draft than it will if you’re trying to stitch it into a Frankenstein draft.  The pieces from which a Frankenstein draft is built are a reflection of what you thought at some previous time.  Trying to make new ideas conform to demands of a draft built on old thinking can push you away from what you have learned.  

Perhaps most crucial in “new ideas” are the shifts in the purpose that drive any given draft.  In the specific case that inspired the post, the writer wanted to reuse material that was originally written to answer questions from professors. That material was admirably suited as answers to the questions, but not so well suited to the present need, which is to explain the foundations of the dissertation they are trying to create.  Even if the two drafts share most of their content, the difference between writing an answer to a question like “what methods can be used to research…?” and the question “what methods were used in this specific project” is a massive one.  One question asks for an overview of methods; the other asks for explanations of why specific methods were used.

Growing a new draft helps build skill at writing to the blank page

The second reason I recommend writing a new draft is that it’s more practice as a writer.  Writing a new draft is going to challenge your skills more.  This is not to say that there’s no skill developed in the attempt to build a Frankenstein, and I could be convinced that you learn just as much in either process. So maybe I shouldn’t include this as a reason to rewrite instead of revising.  It depends on which ability is more valuable to a writer: the ability to revise, or the ability to compose on a blank page.  Offhand, I would say that the latter is more important, but it’s a question that might be worth exploring: in particular, I’m thinking about my own personal problems with revision and my tendency to get frustrated with my own work.

Growing a new draft builds the confidence that you can write a new draft when needed.

A third reason I argue for the rewriting rather than revising is that, in the context of a larger practice of writing, or a career that involves a lot of writing, it’s good to start to think in terms of writing quickly and easily.  Writing is always going to be difficult, but the question is whether that difficulty is intimidating or not.  Speaking is difficult, but people speak when needed. Some people avoid public speaking, of course, but no one would argue that such avoidance places limits on the person in many career contexts.  Avoiding writing is a lot like avoiding public speaking: it’s giving up a valuable tool. Willingness to rewrite takes some confidence in writing ability, but it can also help build that same confidence.  In a way, this last point might be the most important in terms of becoming a better writer: it’s much easier to be a good writer if you think that sitting down to write will be productive.

Growing a new draft can be easier than revising old material

A fourth reason I argue for rewriting is that in my experience it can be easier than revising.  People are often intimidated by a blank page, and turn to an old draft because there is comfort in the completed work.  Many think that revising will be easier than writing anew, but in my experience that’s not necessarily the case.   Revising is hard work.  Writing is hard work, too, but bot necessarily as hard as many feel it to be.  Writing, the verbal expression of thought on the page, is not really more difficult than speaking, at least in the sense that the real difficulty in both writing and speaking is finding words to express ideas.  Writing is harder than speaking because writing does require consideration of punctuation and spelling and the such—but those are minor details that are secondary to the difficulty of finding good ways to express ideas.  With practice, issues of spelling and punctuation become less difficult and demand less attention, and interfere less with the main task of expressing ideas.  That people can produce a lot of words in a short time when they don’t worry about punctuation and such is evidenced by the exams that students write.  I’ve known plenty of people who struggled with writing blocks when given a lot of time to write, but almost all of them have successfully written essays in exams with limited time.  It’s not as if these people somehow lost the ability to write a lot of words in a short time, it’s more that there is some inhibition stopping them from writing so quickly. People who wrote 500 or 1000-word essays in 3-hour exams could also write 1000-word essays in 3 hours of writing time, if they made the same compromises they made in the exam: to write something, no matter how messy, and no matter that they may not be entirely confident.  If you believe that you can write 1000 words in a few hours, suddenly rewriting a 4000-word chapter doesn’t seem nearly as intimidating.


Which technique is best, depends on context (not surprisingly).

For one, the less time you have, the more the reason to Frankenstein something, especially if you only have a very short time. If you only have a day to put together a presentation, then stitching together a Frankenstein makes good sense simply because it’s hard to generate  lot of new material in a very short time.

For two, I would say that Frankenstein-ing is more valuable when dealing with recent material.  The longer it’s been since you have written something, the more likely that you will have learned something that might shift how you approach that subject.  

For three, the quality of the work influences whether to try to re-use it: the better the work, the greater the incentive to try to make use of it.

But re-using material isn’t always a good idea because you don’t want to over-repeat yourself.  There are contexts in which re-using material is fine. Rough drafts or material written for coursework is fine for re-use (though perhaps lacking in quality).  Previously published material, however, may not be acceptable if you’re supposed to be creating something new and original.


Sometimes, it’s great to have old writing that you can reuse. Having fragments that can be patched together into some whole, however, awkward, can be immensely useful in a tight spot. But on the whole, being able to compose a new work readily, and having the confidence that you can do so, is the more valuable skill for a writer.  Don’t tie yourself to the limitations of old work if you can create something new that does a better job of integrating the old material.  And don’t assume that trying to piece together old work is easier: often it’s much harder and more frustrating because old work doesn’t capture any new learning since the old draft was written (especially learning about your purposes: is what you are trying to accomplish now, the same as what you were trying to accomplish then?).

If you want to be a better writer, try to write new things, instead of relying on your past work.

Work on One (Little) Thing at a Time

I have previously written about Henry Miller’s dictum to work on one thing at a time until finished, but it’s a subject and idea that is important to me, so I’m coming back to it, from a slightly different angle, even if I have discussed the same ideas before.

Personally, I have a lot of things to write: I have correspondence with various individuals, both personal and professional; I have blog posts; I have new books to follow the one I’m just finishing (available for pre-order already!). And, in addition to these projects on which I have already started investing effort, there are lots of ideas I have that might become something, but they’re just ideas for the moment, not yet risen to the level of “project.” 

There are times when ideas come to me clearly as coherent pieces that could be captured in an essay.  These times, however, are rarely when I sit down to write.  When I go running, in particular, I often have ideas for writing, and often compose writing in my head.  The idea and the expression seem clear in my head when I’m running.  But when I return and sit down to write, that clarity is lost.

Indeed, one of the more frustrating experiences of being a writer is that the ideas come at times when it’s inconvenient to write them down, and then when there is time to write, I get stuck.  This is not so uncommon. I have worked with many writers who have plenty to say but are still struggling to write. 

My best response to this is to pick one small thing to focus on, and to work on that one small thing.  That way, I get away from being overwhelmed by all the things that I could say and just focus on one single thing.  This focus helps avoid the distraction and confusion of trying to say everything that needs to be said.  It’s hard to say several things at once. It’s hard enough, really, to say one thing at once, if you want to say it well.

If I choose to focus on something small, and on something relatively easy, it makes it easier to overcome emotional barriers to writing—my fears that I will write poorly, that my writing will be ill-received, etc.  A focus on something small and easy (or at least easier) allows engagement with less at stake.

When I think about focusing on something small, I often think about an anecdote related in Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he relates his experience as a writing teacher with one particular student who was having trouble writing.  The problem started with a student who wanted to write about the United States. Sensing this was too much, he suggests just writing about Bozeman, Montana, the specific town in which the university was situated. The student failed in this, writing nothing. To help, he reduced the scope of the project, suggesting the student write about one street in the town. Still, the student remained stuck and unable to write.  The anecdote recalls how, in frustration, the teacher suggests writing about one specific building on the street, and even goes so far as to suggest starting with one specific brick in the facade. This insight came at least partly from his recognizing that he himself had had problems related to having too much to say. (“A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say.” [pagination changes in different editions, so I won’t give page numbers. The passage from which I quote here and in the next paragraph is right near the beginning of part III — maybe 15 or so paragraphs in.])

Interestingly, he goes on to explain the problem as being a problem of trying to repeat other people, which seems like a different issue (“…the narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious that she had to do some original and direct seeing”). I don’t see how he made that logical leap. As I see it, getting stuck because you have too many things to say is distinct from getting stuck because you’re trying to repeat others rather than expressing yourself.  Yes, one dimension of getting stuck when trying to repeat others is the choice of what to repeat, which is a flavor of having too many things to say, but repeating others is often also a sign of fear to express oneself. It is absolutely crucial for writers to develop their own voice: where else will originality come from? (And when I speak of developing one’s own voice, I mean this more in an intellectual sense than a stylistic one: it’s about the ideas you choose to express, more than about any way of expressing them.) But the problem of finding one’s own voice is not the same as the problem of having too much to say, a claim which I make based on my own personal experience: I frequently get stuck because I have too many things to say for this brief essay, and only occasionally get stuck trying to find or express my own voice. So, regardless of finding one’s own voice, a good step for a stuck writer is to choose to take one little step that allows focus and immediate progress, perhaps by picking one idea to write about, even if there are others that are also important to you.

Oftentimes, the problem of having too much to say manifests as a competition between ideas, with each vying for attention as the most important.  A writer once described her experience as a traffic jam of ideas, a metaphor that most of us can understand, where the problem of motion is not caused by the vehicles (the ideas) or the road (the writer’s ability to put words on the paper) but by the vast number of cars (ideas) competing for that limited road space and thus interfering with each other. It’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about which idea is most important.  And spending that time thinking about what to write, often means not writing.  And not writing, and spending a lot of time thinking about what to write, can be stressful and can trigger anxiety about ability to write, which sets off down a difficult path.

If you have a lot to do, or a lot to say, picking one thing to do, however small, can be a good way to get started. Picking that one thing allows you to focus, put aside distractions, and get something done.  Personally, it’s better to do something than to feel stuck: if I do something small, even if relatively unimportant (e.g., a blog post), I can cross it off my to-do list, and I get that little satisfaction, which can often help me engage with some other, larger and more intimidating project (e.g., my next book).  So start small and focused, and see if that can help you get unblocked.

The Writer’s Paradoxes of Passion

What are good principles on which to base a writing practice? In seeking such principles, it is pretty easy to find intractable problems or unanswerable questions.  Sometimes these intractable problems are tradeoffs, like the tradeoff between time and quality: you can always spend more time to improve the quality of a work, but timeliness is itself an important characteristic, so one is trading quality for promptness.  There’s no right answer there, but it’s not quite what I would call a paradox in that it is not inherently self-contradictory.  When it comes to passion in writing, however, there are paradoxical elements: you need to have a passion for what you do at the same time as you remain apathetic about it. This can manifest on a few different levels.

Passion for abstract quality

Whether artist or scholar, writers have a sense of what will make a work good. Having some vision of what you want to create—a sense that it must be just so—that it must have certain specific qualities—this is crucial to doing work of quality.  Sensitivity to the finer points of your work is invaluable, and a passion to get them right is important in finding the energy to deal with all the necessary details.

This same driving passion, however, can be paralyzing, as anyone who has ever struggled with perfectionism knows. So the writer (or other practitioner) simultaneously needs (1) to be passionate about creating a work of quality and (2) able to accept flaws in that same work.  This first paradox of passion is, perhaps, not so much a clear paradox in the sense that it is inherently self-contradictory, but rather a matter of finding the balance between the passion for precision and surrendering that care at certain moments.  It is a matter of striking a balance where something is good enough despite imperfection.

Passion for personal significance.  

If you care about something passionately, that can be motivating, and it can also be problematic. There is a dissertation-writing book that suggests that the best topic for a dissertation is basically something that you don’t care about but that can tolerate because caring too much can be a problem. I’m not a big fan of that idea or approach, but I do understand and agree that passion for a subject can be problematic in research. There are two problems: (1) passion about a project can certainly lead to being over-ambitious, which can lead to difficulty in completing a project,  and (2) passion can lead to disillusionment when the grand ideas meet the practical difficulties of bringing a project to completion. That’s the basic argument for how a passion for personal significance can interfere with action.

The flip side of that argument is that personal significance is crucial for motivation and for avoiding emotional malaise.  The basic principle of Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is that people are emotionally healthier and better able to overcome difficulties if they see a meaning in what they do.

Personally,  I agree with Frankl. I think it’s crazy to start a project that you explicitly choose for being uninteresting.  I think that’s a good recipe for ensuring that you’re miserable with your work. Still, there is some truth that the same passion that motivates us and makes work fulfilling can become an impediment to dealing with practical limitations.  Our passion may be sparked by a grand, sprawling vision, and the work that we can personally realize may be so frustratingly limited as to disappoint, and thus interfere with motivation.

On a certain level, this is a question of risk and reward: the more passion you have for a project, the greater the impact you feel from any success or failure.  (There are, of course, other factors in measuring risk and reward.) As the level of personal care increases, there is greater motivation to reap the potential personal rewards of success, but that can be accompanied by an uncomfortable increase in apprehension about potential bad outcomes.

In any event, in this sense, we can say that there is a paradox of passion because the passion for personal significance can both help and hinder the creative process.

Passion for communication

If you’re writing to reach others—if you have some message that you want to share—there is an important role for caring about communication and communicating well.  Writers often care deeply about what their audience will think.  This passion can directly contribute to fear of writing: plenty of people get stuck thinking about the negative feedback they might receive in the future (especially if they have struggled to deal with negative feedback received earlier). If you’re writing a journal for yourself or making notes to explore some idea, of course, then there’s no real relevant concern for others.  But most writing has to do with reaching an audience.  

I would guess that the first audience most of us write for is our school teachers, which has the unfortunate consequence of getting many to think of writing as an unpleasant task whose primary upshot is criticism of the limits of our writing. As a result, thinking about writing for an audience triggers anxiety about writing well enough and about receiving negative feedback. Because of this association, one of my principles for developing a good writing practice is to write without concern for what others will think.  If you’re spending your efforts worrying about other people, it takes your attention from your subject, and increases stress related to potential outcomes of your effort.  You need, in other words, to put aside a passion for communication to write easily so that you can focus on your own ideas. But that’s an approach that is really only useful for breaking through anxiety-based writing blocks.  

Once, you start to actually write, it’s valuable to think about your audience and what they would like.  Focusing on your audience and on trying to understand them and their interests helps because writing is about communicating with others (at least sometimes).  Thinking about writing in terms of communication can help shift the sometimes problematic relationship with grammar and punctuation: if you think of grammar, spelling, and punctuation as complicated rules that you have to follow or be punished, then it’s natural to fret about whether you’re getting them right or wrong.  If, however, you think of them as tools that help you communicate more effectively, your focus will remain on the ideas you want to communicate, and difficulties with grammar, etc. will not bring your writing to a complete halt.  Thinking in terms of communication helps keep the focus on the ideas that you want to express: what is the message that you are trying to express? Please note that I distinguish between thinking about how to communicate your own ideas to various audiences, and trying to write what you think that audience wants to hear.  A passion for communicating your own ideas is good, so long as that focus on your own ideas doesn’t blind you to the difficulties in communicating to different audiences.

Writing is hard for many reasons. Passion can carry the writer through those difficulties.  On the whole, I strongly recommend trying to find things that you do care about when you write, and to care about how well you write. Nonetheless, passion can lead into some problems, too, and thus the paradox: the same passion that is beneficial can also inhibit the work.

Taking Small but Useful Steps.

Some writers get stuck by anxiety about what to do next or anxiety about how to do their work. Recently I was working with a writer who does fine, once working, but who gets stuck by anxiety.

We were talking about analyzing some qualitative observations. Our discussion was focused on analytical and theoretical concerns, so we didn’t discuss the practical point I’m suggesting in this post.

If you are struggling with writer’s block of some sort, or you feel stuck when you are trying to write, especially if anxiety is an issue, it can be useful to focus on taking the smallest steps that you can that also make progress.

The writer and I were talking about analyzing statements made by people, and our discussion was concerned with dealing with the bridge between the statements and the analyses. And so what we didn’t talk about the specific practical difference between (1) trying to develop and present an analysis based on a whole corpus or even a sizeable chunk of a corpus, such as an entire paragraph, and (2), trying to develop an analysis based on a single sentence or even a single word.

Often, by focusing on the smallest possible unit, you can define a piece of work that is small enough that it doesn’t seem intimidating.  Focusing on one sentence or one word and trying to explain why it is significant to your work can be much easier than trying to explain a whole paragraph.

Not all words or sentences will be good choices for such focused attention, but if you’re struggling to deal with a larger mass of text—a whole paragraph or more—then one way to approach that text is to simply focus on one feature of interest–one word or phrase or sentence—and explain why that feature seems significant to you.

This is one possible suggestion as an alternative to trying to engage a larger text en masse. It’s a way to get moving and to engage with a project when anxiety might be problematic. In the long run, the whole corpus must be analyzed and discussed, but in the immediate moment, every individual step matters, and if you’re concerned about your progress and struggling with anxiety, taking a single small step can feel like making progress and that can reduce anxiety. And reducing anxiety is often the real key in starting to write.

Fear and Confidence in Writing

Once, a writer told me about a book she really liked called something like The Writer’s Book of Fear. I got a copy and got about as far as the author saying that fear is the defining element of all writing.  I don’t remember exactly what he wrote, but it felt alien to my experience of writing.  This is not to say that I know no fear in writing; I experience many different fears when writing. But fear is not the only thing I feel when writing, by any means. I would say, in fact, that it’s not even close to my dominant emotion when writing.  In my opinion, actually, writing will best grow out of a cautious confidence that you have something to say that is worth saying—and this is a confidence I believe many fearful writers have. Many people believe that they have an important message to communicate, but if asked to write it down, the fear of writing poorly can take over.

Confidence plays a huge role in how writing develops, and for struggling writers, it is often a major cause of writing blocks. Over-confidence can lead to imprudent action and can blind a writer to problems, but on the whole, I would think these are far better problems for a writer than to be paralyzed by doubt. Practically speaking, it’s almost always better for a writer to take the risk of getting rejected than to leave the page blank. 

Here’s a rough self-diagnostic: do you have a history of thinking your work is great and then getting rejected? If so, you might be over-confident, and you might benefit from reviewing your own work a bit more critically in an effort to improve it. But if that’s not your history, and if, indeed, you have a history of thinking your work is poor, even after it has been accepted/approved/graded, then you would likely benefit from having more confidence in your work, or at least writing with a willingness to be wrong—writing to try out ideas and ways of expressing ideas. 

Believing in yourself is crucial, especially if you are self-critical. When I am struggling with doubt about the strength of my work—especially when contrasting my work to other writing I have seen on the same topics—I often try to soothe myself by remembering the wide variety of opinions that any one work will face, which pretty much guarantees that someone will disagree, but also means that there is likely someone who will agree. For many, it’s easier to sink into focusing on the people who will reject the work and the different ways in which it might be rejected than it is to focus on those who will like the work and the different ways it will be accepted. But it’s worth the effort to focus on the  people who will likely be supportive.  Keeping your eyes on the people who will like your work is a good long-term strategy for a writer, because they’re the ones who will support your efforts, so it makes sense to think about how to work with those people.

I don’t want to over-simplify here.  A person who is generally supportive can also be harshly critical. I just got feedback on my book manuscript that basically said “I really like this project, but it needs to be but by 30%.” Along with the general comment the reviewer provided a long list of problems and weaknesses. The bulk of the communication was “cut this,” and “cut that.” With that kind of feedback, it can be pretty easy to lose sight of the crucial “I really like this project” part. If you are looking for support and someone makes a harsh criticism, it can cause emotional distress. In such situations, it’s important to keep an eye on the general motivation for the criticism, and a brief comment of overall support should cast direct criticisms in a different light.  It’s hugely different to receive feedback that says, “This is junk. Look at all the problems:…” than feedback that says “This is great. But look at all these problems:…” The list of problems might be identical, but it’s those crucial three opening words that matter. It takes confidence to hear feedback, but it can also build confidence if you focus on the positive aspects of the feedback.

And, if you have confidence enough to listen to criticism, you can really improve your work by presenting it to others and learning from their feedback. Fear, meanwhile, will make it harder to work on criticism.

Too much doubt is typically the problem for all the writers who have gotten stuck somewhere in the process without finishing a work. Writer’s block—the failure to write—can have roots in many different fears: that you don’t know enough, that you might be wrong, that you don’t write well enough, that other people will disagree, that others will laugh, that you will be rejected, and all the related flavors of doubt.  I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who struggled with a writing block due to over-confidence.

One of the reasons I find it so valuable to develop and maintain a regular writing practice is that it can reduce some anxieties and fears the come up in the process.  If you practice writing and experiment with putting words on the page, you reduce many anxieties in the process. One big hope is that the regular practice helps you feel less concerned about any single sentence or paragraph: the more sentences you write, the easier it is to focus on the ones you like and ignore the ones you don’t. And each additional sentence you do write, can contribute to your sense that you can produce writing (even if you want to edit it). Other possible benefits of a practice that can help ease the process of writing are that a regular practice in writing will lead  to greater familiarity with your word-processing software, possibly reducing some anxieties there, and, practicing might help you feel more comfortable with punctuation and grammar (not necessarily comfortable, but at least less uncomfortable).  Writing practice can help you find your own voice and that can help you feel more confident, too.

We can’t necessarily control our emotions, but we can develop a writing practice that might give confidence at least in the process, even if doubts about what to write remain.

Work on one thing at a time until finished

As number one on his list of 1932-1933 “Commandments”, Henry Miller wrote “Work on one thing at a time until finished.”

It’s an extremely valuable dictum, despite the difficulties I have putting it into practice.  There are two elements to it that I really, really like, and one element that is really hard or imprctical.

The first element that I like is the idea of working on one thing at a time.  At a very immediate, moment-to-moment scale, working on one thing at a time is the only way to go.  Over very short time frames—a few minutes, perhaps—the only real options for working are: 1. to work on/write about one thing with focus, or 2. try to decide what to work on/write about.  There is good value in spending time trying to decide what to do, but at some point it’s necessary to stop thinking about what to write, and to start writing.  When you do start writing, you want to focus on writing one sentence at a time—there is a larger goal, but it’s built up of the small steps.

The second element that I like is the “until finished” part, which is also the part I don’t like.  What I like about the “until finished” idea is the focus on finishing.  There is a place in this world for journal writers and free writers to write for the sake of writing or for the self-discovery involved, but if you want to get a degree or get published, you have to finish things in a timely fashion. When your focus is on the question of finishing a project, you’re less likely to get stuck with a project that is too large to complete, and less likely get stuck endlessly revising. Focusing on completion doesn’t guarantee finishing, but it does shift the approach somewhat from “what is the best work possible?” to “what is the best work I can accomplish in a reasonable time?”  Perfectionism is less likely to lead to paralysis if one of the criteria for perfection is “completed !” or even “completed on schedule!”  

The “until finished” aspect, however, has two problems: 1. it can be hard to know what “finished” is, and 2. it’s often impractical to focus exclusively on one project over longer periods of time. The first of these points is related to the question of not knowing enough. People looking for answers may feel that a work is unfinished if it leaves a lot of questions unanswered or raises more questions than it did answer, but answers always lead to new questions, so it’s possible to think a work is unfinished, even if outside reviewers might judge it as an interesting and valuable project. Secondly, the idea of working on one thing at a time is perhaps impossible (or impossible to define) in the context of a research career. What counts as “one thing” in a research career? Is a research career just a series of independent projects, each “one thing” taken one at a time, or is it a larger program that leads to a series of specific projects?  I think the second is more realistic for most scholars and grad students: They are driven by a larger question, but one specific research project only speaks to some of their questions of interest. (Whether seeking a professional or academic career, the researcher needs to consider the specific research project in the larger context of the career.) Miller, whose “commandment” inspired this post, wrote fiction, and perhaps it is easier to segment a career in fiction.

The “until finished” idea can be impractical, too, because finishing a work often includes delays when you can’t work on the project. For someone seeking an academic career, it’s valuable to be able to start working on a new project before an old one is complete because of the many delays that go into executing many projects. Publication, for example, is loaded with delays during which a work is not necessarily “finished” but you can’t work on it. During those times, it’s good to have some different project to work on, but then what do you do when it’s time to go back to the work in publication? Having multiple projects at different stages of development can help a scholar use time more efficiently.

But when you have multiple projects and demands on your time, it’s much easier to get overwhelmed. It’s much easier to spend time wondering what to work on next, instead of just working on one thing. And it’s easy to lose time switching between projects instead of focusing.  That’s why, in terms of developing a regular practice, it’s good to work on one thing at a time until finished. Miller called that a commandment. For me, it’s more a goal or a principle for which I strive, but with deference to practical concerns. For me, it’s a particularly useful goal that helps me focus on my writing when it is time to write, and helps me prioritize and act, rather than get stuck debating what to work on and overwhelmed by the many things that I could or should do.

Multiple Drafts and Writer’s Block

Writer’s block typically arises from a complex of issues. In this post, I discuss one factor that can contribute to writer’s block and how writing multiple drafts and thinking about the different roles of those drafts can help deal with that one difficulty. The idea of writing multiple drafts of a single work is hardly a novel one, but I have not seen this particular take on multiple drafts in relations to writer’s block (and now that I typed that, I’m definitely not going to go look to see if any one else written something similar! I wouldn’t actually be surprised).

One problem that can contribute to writer’s block is the conflict between writing to learn and writing to communicate/writing for presentation.  When writing early drafts of a work, writers are often seeking their argument and their focus, and in such cases, the concern for learning about the work can conflict with concerns for presentation. This can occur in a number of different ways: concern for grammar, spelling and punctuation distract attention from finding an argument. Worries about how readers will respond the work—fear of rejection or memories of previous difficult feedback—can create emotional stress that distracts attention.  One such conflict that can cause problems, which I’ve seen several times with academic writers, is the conflict created using a theorist that you don’t want to cite.  In one case in my experience, a writer who was interested in some ideas from Freud had a professor who hated Freud. Because his professor would respond poorly to works citing Freud, he quite reasonably wanted to avoid citing Freud. At the same time, however, he relied on Freud as an intellectual landmark.  He associated many of the ideas he used with Freud, and so when seeking to understand his own arguments, he turned to Freud. And this created a block: in trying to work through ideas, he would think of Freud, but then he would get stuck because he didn’t want to write about Freud, so his process of intellectual exploration was interrupted by his concern about how his work would be received.

Thinking about the different (and potentially competing) roles of drafts, can, perhaps, help reduce this specific conflict of interests.  If the specific role of your present draft is to learn and explore (and will be mostly private), then maybe you can set aside concerns for presentation and just explore.  Ask yourself: do you have a good sense of your argument—do you need to write to learn?—or do you already have a good focus and now need to think about communicating with your audience—do you need to write for presentation?  

Generally, in early drafts, the purpose is to learn—to learn what you really care about and what is most important for the project. Later, once you’ve committed to a sufficiently tight focus, then you start thinking about how to present ideas and communicate with your audience.  This is something of a simplification: you may never stop learning and changing what you think most important (thus stories of people frantically rewriting at the last minute), even as you try to complete a mature project; and you can gain some benefit from thinking about how to communicate (or at least with whom to communicate) even early in the process of research design.  

As a matter of process, this scenario with the writer trying to write around Freud displays how the two concerns—of learning and of presentation—are in conflict for a writer who is not certain of the precise content, focus and argument of the work.  By specifying the role of a draft as exploratory (and private), then he can go ahead and write about Freud as a point of reference that helps him learn about the shape and scope of his own argument.  Because that first draft is only for learning, there is no need to avoid Freud, who can thus play an important role as an intellectual landmark in the exploration of ideas that is occurring during the writing of the early draft. Putting aside the concern for presentation allows greater freedom in the exploration of ideas, which is crucial in the process of finding one’s own voice and in developing original research.

Once the argument comes into better focus, the writer can switch her/his efforts from learning and intellectual exploration to the question of presentation.  If a draft has already been completed, and the scope of the argument has already been set while using Freud as a point of reference, then the writer then has a much better position from which to work on the question of how best to present his/her own argument.

Basically, if you are not yet sure what you want to say, you benefit from exploring that first.  If you are not sure of what you want to say, it is crucial to explore those ideas with freedom before getting bogged down in presentational details.  If you think of some scholar—Dr.X—when trying to explain your work, explore that connection, explore that relationship. Why is Dr.X important to you? What aspects of Dr.X’s theory are like or unlike yours? What is it about Dr.X’s work that makes it a useful point of reference?  Write these things out to learn about the intellectual terrain on which your work is situated.  Use the landmark of Dr.X help you see the whole landscape of ideas, and thus help you understand your own position better, and also identify other scholars whose work provides useful intellectual landmarks for use in later drafts that get written once your argument has clarified. [This post is about writer’s block and using separate drafts with distinct roles, so I’m not going to get into the question of whether a scholar who “hides” a source by using alternative sources for citations is committing some ethical breach.]

The process of writing about a Dr.X in an early draft can help clarify a sense of purpose and a sense of argument.  Once you have a better sense of direction and focus, then you can turn your attention to crafting an effective presentation that doesn’t rely on Dr.X, ideally by citing alternative scholars who have expressed similar ideas with less problematic context, for example, as might be done by replacing Freud citations with citations from more modern psychodynamic theorists.

I recently wrote about trusting the process in writing. This is, I think, one issue where it’s necessary (1) to recognize that there is an ongoing process, and (2) to give that process space and time to work.  If you don’t see your process as including both drafts for learning and drafts to refine presentation, then you’re forcing yourself into a situation in which your concerns for presentation will work against the necessary process of exploration, and that can contribute to a larger writing block.

If you’re stuck and having trouble finding your voice, put aside your concerns for presentation. First, write to learn, then, later, write for presentation.