Reflections On Writing Blog: Thoughts, Tips, and Suggestions

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 9: Write for a friendly audience

A lot of writers get stuck because they’re imagining a hostile audience as they write. They remember the worst feedback they ever received, or imagine even worse.  The anticipation of cruel, harshly critical feedback had brought many a writer to a grinding halt. If you are such a writer, focus your attention and your efforts towards writing what a friendly audience would want. 

 Many writers start with some motivating idea to express, but the thought of a hostile, unhelpful response triggers defensive concerns (“how do I respond to that criticism?”) instead of positive ones (“how do I explain the part that I find interesting or important?”), which can trigger anxiety. But not all audiences are harshly critical. If you imagine writing to a friendly and interested audience, you might be able to reduce anxiety.

Real and imagined audiences

You don’t necessarily get to choose your audience.  Often—especially if you’re a student—you’re forced to write for someone who has already demonstrated a harsh, unsupportive response to your work.  Many writers get stuck writing in response to a critical professor or hostile reviewer. If you already struggle with anxiety, anticipating a harsh response can trigger overwhelming anxiety.

You don’t have to focus on writing for your real audience, however. Instead, you can imagine an audience that will appreciate and benefit from your work. It takes some effort to focus on an imagined positive audience if you have the habit of imagining a hostile response, but it gets easier with practice, as you develop a clearer sense of your ideal positive audience by repeatedly returning to the same idea.

Speaking personally, I know that my writing about writing and writing blocks (like this essay) simply isn’t relevant to a lot of people, most of whom would simply ignore it (while not exactly hostile, this is hardly encouraging). Other people, I imagine, would criticize or mock it as poorly reasoned or poorly executed or somehow detached from reality. I could imagine these people mocking me, as well as criticizing my own work. Sometimes, my mind wanders while writing and slips to people who have rejected or criticized my work, which does make it harder to keep moving.

But, instead of thinking of the people who wouldn’t want or like my work, I imagine people who might like it and who might benefit from it, starting with myself. I’m not sure I always like my writing, but I do benefit from the ideas I try to share. I have a lot of writing anxiety, and a lot of my ability to write depends on my approach, as I try to describe in my writing. I try to share these ideas because they helped me in the past and continue to help me in the present. To some extent, then, the audience I imagine is myself, or, more precisely, the part of me who would benefit and appreciate the ideas (not the part of me that would harshly criticize the weaknesses in my writing or reasoning). Additionally, I can imagine people I’ve helped—people who were stuck for years, overwhelmed with anxiety, and thinking of giving up, but who benefitted from the same ideas I’m trying to capture in my writing, and were able to complete their work and move on to new projects.

Imagining a positive audience

If I think about people I have helped (or about helping myself), it gives me focus and motivation: motivation because it feels good to help people who are struggling and even suffering because of writing-related anxiety, and focus because I try to imagine what I could say that would help (or remember what I said previously that did helped someone).

Most people aren’t writing to help people in the same direct way that I’m trying to help writers struggling with anxiety, but there are other ways of helping.  If you’re a scholar, there’s a good chance that there may be a small group of other scholars who would benefit from your work—people interested in similar subjects whose research might be able to build on yours. Many scholars feel dismay that their work is separate from the everyday concerns of most people, and that their audience is only the handful of scholars who do similar work. But that small group of people—people who share your interests and with whom you can cooperate with and help in their work—are a good audience to imagine. Perhaps you’re not helping a vast number, but if you really help a few, isn’t that a worthy effort? (Doubt about the value in studying something understood by only a few is itself a cause of anxiety for many writers. A full discussion is outside the scope of this essay, but my short answer is that the value of a subject is not measured by the number of people who study it or care about it.)  

It takes some optimism to believe that someone might appreciate esoteric research, but it’s not an unreasonable hope.  Hoping for an audience of millions may be unrealistic for most scholars, but hoping for a small and enthusiastic audience is entirely within the realm of possibility. Who are people who might be interested in your work? If you’re having trouble imagining a positive audience, think about the authors of work that you like and respect.  If you are relying heavily on the work of another scholar, there is a good chance that they will be both interested and a bit flattered. One way to find some motivation and focus is to imagine that you are writing to the author of something that influenced you in a positive way, and think about how they would appreciate your expansion of their work. (It’s an exercise of imagination, so you can imagine them being nice people just as well as you can imagine them being cruel.)

Exercise 1

Who would be interested or even excited to read your work?

  • What authors have you read who might be interested in your work? Does your work cite them? Why would they like your work/what would they like about it?
  • In the abstract, what are the characteristics of someone who might like your work? What ideas are important to them? What scholars are important to them?

Write for the audience you want

Writing for the audience you want allows you to focus on the issues that seem most important to you, and if you want to be a writer or scholar, you need to learn to trust that intuition of what is important. Writers, after all, are valued for showing us new things (or at least presenting old things in new lights), and your best and only source for new, original perspectives is your own insight.  When you are writing for an supportive and interested audience, your attention is more likely to go to the stuff that you care about most.  

Exercise 2

Consider what it’s like to talk about your research to a friendly peer: if you’re emotionally comfortable with someone, you can express your enthusiasms and pet theories.  Those enthusiasms and pet theories are what you want to get down on the page. Imagine that you’re getting a friendly peer to help you with some part of the project: what would they need to know?

  • What do you care most about your project? What do you hope to accomplish?
  • What literature would they need to know to work on your project? Why do they need that?
  • What methods would they need to know? Why? 
  • What data sources would they need? Why?

When should you write for a hostile audience?

Whenever possible, focus on writing for the audience you want. If you’re looking for publication, imagine your work going to a journal or publisher who is interested in material like yours.  There are probably several options. It’s worth looking into such options, because knowing your audience provides guidance into how to shape your work. But why anticipate sending your publication to someone who wouldn’t be interested? Don’t let self-doubt creep in by imagining a hostile response: publishers and journals want material to publish, and are happy to receive material that they like. While writing, you can focus on asking yourself what they would find interesting and compelling, and imagine that they would be interested in the same or similar concerns as you.

If you’re writing for publication, why ever think about what a hostile audience might say?  They’re not the people to whom your work will be sold.  Admittedly, if enough people read your work, some of them will probably be hostile—large groups are like that. But if  lot of people are seeing your work, some will also be friendly and interested, and they’re the ones to write for.

There are times, however, where you have a commitment to or investment in a project and a hostile audience needs to be taken into consideration. Graduate students are the most likely to face this problem because they don’t really have the option of submitting to a different audience.  In such cases, although you need to take the hostile audience into account, you want to do so as late in the process as possible.  Your first draft can be written to the audience you want, and then, once that progress has been made, revisions can attempt to accommodate the hostile audience. Aalthough you can’t avoid the hostile audience for ever, you certainly should ignore it if anxiety about a harsh response is stopping you from writing. 

Conclusion

There are hostile people in the world, and no matter what you do, there’s a good chance that someone will complain. But don’t write for such people. It’s emotionally exhausting to imagine all the possible attacks that could be directed at you and to write trying to defend against complaints. Writing in that context becomes distracted from the main points and bogged down in detail. Yes, of course it’s good to consider weaknesses in your work and to try to eliminate them. And yes, it’s difficult to draw the line between reasonable self-criticism and a paralyzing focus on potential complaints. But if you’re struggling with anxiety-related writing blocks, then you don’t want spend your time thinking about people who will give you a hard time. Think about a friendly audience and about ways in which they might appreciate your work.

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 7: Don’t get stopped by uncertainty

Writer’s block—strong emotional responses that interfere with writing—grows from any number of doubts about the self—that one will be rejected, that one doesn’t work hard enough, that one isn’t smart enough. In this post, I am going to focus on philosophical doubt and on the place of certainty in scholarly work.  Intellectual doubt can trigger emotional doubts: if you have unanswered questions, it’s natural to think “I don’t know enough.” It’s good to think you don’t know enough—doubt sparks growth and learning—but it shouldn’t stop you from sharing what you do know. All scholars work in the face of uncertainty, but too many let their doubts stop them from sharing what they do know. 

The frustration of uncertainty and intellectual doubt

Uncertainty is emotionally draining. Each new question that arises can drain energy and enthusiasm, and every answer can inspire new questions. Research can feel like a treadmill, where no matter what you have done, you still continue to chase knowledge. You want somewhere solid to stand, and the never-ending doubt can make you feel like you’re sinking into a morass. And, if you’re self-critical, it’s easy to think that this constant doubt is a personal failure: “I wouldn’t have this problem if I were smarter/had worked harder.”

You can’t eliminate intellectual doubt

Doubt lies at the heart of research: if you already knew the answer, there would be no reason to research a subject. When you get into the details of any area of research, questions begin to arise: how do you define the terms of greatest concern or interest? What theories or models do you use to explain the phenomena of interest? What are the limits of your research? What are the limits of authorities on which you rely (any sources you cite for methods, theories, definitions)? 

The famous skeptic, David Hume, pointed out that one can never be certain that the future will resemble the past (or, at least, that future empirical observations will resemble past observations), leaving scientists a legacy of doubt so strong that many researchers don’t even try to prove that things are true, they simply attempt to prove things are false, and then argue in favor of the alternative. The idea of a “null hypothesis” that is disproven in order to accept an alternative process (as often seen in inferential statistics), is a response to this problem, known as “the problem of induction,” and often called “Hume’s problem.”

If you are a scholar and you have doubts and questions and uncertainty, it’s the nature of the work, not a failing on your part. A lot of writers get stuck on their projects because of intellectual doubt: “I don’t know enough,” they say, “I have to read this article/book/etc. I can’t write until I’ve done that reading.” But research doesn’t eliminate doubt.  Published research does not eliminate doubt.  Yes, there are authors who argue their cases confidently and claim certainty, but that certainty is emotional, not logical.

Show your work

Your research may be incomplete, uncertain, and built on dubious foundations, but it still contributes to greater understanding of the world.  Indeed, your incomplete, uncertain, and dubiously founded work, shares those characteristics with all research, so it is valuable to other researchers looking to explain the same phenomena as you.

Often, as you may recognize from your own experience, research can be valuable because of some specific aspect—for example, an author with weak results, might offer a very good definition of a concept, or might offer an interesting methodological perspective, or might just ask a really good question (even if they do a poor job of trying to answer the question). 

A lot of research explicitly discusses its own limitations, its questions left unanswered, as well as new questions raised because other researchers can use that discussion of limitations to develop complementary research or to otherwise address weaknesses in the original work.

While it can be emotionally unsettling to write about all the weaknesses in your research project, it is actually a valuable and useful part of the work—both for its role in helping you understand your own work better and clean up errors, and for its role in communicating with others. Instead of letting your doubt on some issue stop you from writing, write about those doubts, be willing to explore them all in writing. Show your readers the variety of issues you considered, the problems they created, and your responses. Show the depth and complexity of your thinking, including the contradictions and doubts. Put it all on the page.  It’s entirely possible that other researchers will find your processes of reasoning interesting and valuable.

Obviously, it can be intimidating to focus on the weaknesses of your work and to think about discussing those weaknesses with other people. In an ideal world, the people who see your work would be supportive and interested in helping you improve your work, and therefore you wouldn’t need to fear writing about the weaknesses of your work. But in the real world, of course, people can be quite aggressive and competitive. Of course, that doesn’t go away even for work of the highest quality—there’s almost always someone who is going to say you’re wrong, whatever you say—so you might as well just get it over with and share your work.

Filling the gaps

In academia, it is common to talk about how research “fills the gaps in the literature,” or addresses questions unanswered by previous scholarship.  If you are addressing such a gap—especially if it’s a gap that other scholars think is important—then your attempt to fill the gap is valuable to the community of scholars, regardless of whether it succeeds.  If your work does succeed, the gap is filled, and if your work doesn’t succeed, scholars who follow you may be able to use your attempt to avoid the problems you faced and try a different way of attempting to fill the gap.  In both cases, your work helps the larger community.

It is true that there is a publication bias for successful work, but the issue is not that you wouldn’t prefer to have successful work, but what do you do if the work you have done has problems?  Because your work is going to have problems, if, as I argued above, intellectual uncertainty cannot be eliminated. So the value in your work, for other scholars, lies not only in the conclusions that you draw, but in the whole fabric of your search—in all your theoretical and methodological choices, and how they shaped your research, and the insights they give not only into the questions asked, but into the ways that we try to answer those questions.

Conclusion

Intellectual uncertainty is unavoidable, and to try to capture any absolute ultimate truth in words may be impossible. As early as the 6th century, BCE, Lao Tzu wrote in the very first verse of the Tao Te Ching, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the absolute Tao,” or, to take a little liberty, “the truth that can be put into words is not the absolute truth.”  If you’re making a conscientious effort to do good scholarship, which means critically questioning your own work as well as the work of others, you will certainly find places to doubt your own work, where intellectual certainty is impossible, and all you’re left with is work that is intellectually uncertain. But intellectual uncertainty can be paired with emotional confidence—the confidence that you made responsible and reasonable choices as you tried to understand the world better, and that your work, though susceptible to doubt, is also worthy of consideration for its contribution to the communal discourse in search of understanding.

Intellectual uncertainty is denied all scholars.  A lot of success in academia goes to those who have emotional confidence, despite the intellectual limits of their work. Instead of letting uncertainty stop you, show your audience how you tried to deal with the limits of your (and your research community’s) knowledge.

The tarot's fool steps blindly toward the edge of a cliff. Researchers also advance without a clear vision of what lies ahead.

The Fool

While a researcher ought not be blindly stepping off a cliff, like the fool from the tarot, they do have to be willing to step into the unknown and risk the fall. Choose the course of action that seems best to you, and risk it, because no course of action guarantees a perfect outcome. Fortunately, as a writer, you’re unlikely to die if you take a chance by sharing an imperfect draft.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 6: Work hard, but not too hard

It is commonly accepted that writers do best when they write every day.  The “write regularly” trope appears in almost every book on writing that I have read (I can think of only one exception, and that book, in my opinion, is a piece of junk). 

While the advice to write regularly is good advice, too often it seems that “write regularly” gets conflated with “if you’re not writing regularly, you’re not trying hard enough.”  Although there may be people who want to be writers who aren’t trying hard enough, there are also a lot of people whose issue is not a lack of effort or self-discipline. It is necessary to try, but if you’re struggling with emotional writing blocks, putting pressure on yourself to try harder can be counter-productive. In a healthy practice, writing flows from the motivation to express ideas, and self-criticism for not trying hard enough can interfere with the imagination and conceptual freedom a writer needs.

“Try harder” is not always good advice

People who suffer from writer’s block often have plenty of self-discipline. The issue is not a lack of self-discipline, but the extent of the emotional barrier to writing. The same people who experience writing blocks often demonstrate exemplary self-discipline in many aspects of their lives.  

As analogy, consider a runner who wants to improve. Obviously, this takes effort and training and self-discipline to succeed, and “try harder; dig deeper,” is often useful coaching advice or encouragement. But what if that runner has a broken bone in their foot or leg? In that situation, “try harder; dig deeper” is pretty bad advice because it can aggravate the injury and delay the desired improvement. Instead, the runner needs to work on rehabilitation to rebuild lost strength.

Writer’s block is not a physical injury, but like the runner’s broken leg, it is an injury that can be exacerbated by a simplistic “try harder” approach.  If writing has become painful for you, and you force yourself to do it despite the pain, you give yourself an unpleasant experience that may reinforce your emotional resistance to writing. Each attempt saying “try harder; dig deeper” may contribute to future resistance to writing, until the resistance becomes so great that it stops progress. Some people who have success saying “try harder, no mater how much it hurts; no pain, no gain,” eventually hit a wall of writer’s block where their resistance has grown greater than their self-discipline.

People with writer’s block have enough self-discipline

The way I see it, you can only get writer’s block if you have written successfully in the past.  If you have never written anything, you struggle because you have to learn how to write, not because of writer’s block. And if you’re not writing because you don’t put in effort and don’t make a serious attempt, then you’re not experiencing writer’s block, you’re just being lazy.

For most advanced academics—graduate students and professors alike—it’s reasonable to consider the possibility of writer’s block, because you don’t become a graduate student or professor without having written successfully, and without having the self-discipline to take care of the responsibilities needed to get into a graduate program or professorial position. Ok, sure, there are exceptions, but the majority of graduate students and professors have successfully fulfilled all sorts of responsibilities that required self-discipline over the course of years.  If you have successfully written course papers and applications and fulfilled previous expectations, but then you start to struggle to write, especially due to anxiety, it’s reasonable to say that you’re experiencing a writing block: you are struggling with something that makes it difficult for you to manifest abilities that you have previously demonstrated.

In this context, it makes sense to ask why those abilities—the self-discipline and the ability to write—do not continue to work. For most scholars struggling to write, the self-discipline generally continues to operate: the struggling writer still teaches classes, grades student work, and fulfills administrative responsibilities, all of which require self-discipline and often some writing, too. But, faced with some specific writing project—a dissertation or work for publication to survive the publish-or-perish world of academia—anxiety kicks in, and writer’s block ensues.

Yes, you could say “I need more self-discipline than I used in the past; I need to be stronger.” But you could also say “I want to reduce the barriers that keep me from working effectively on this one project, because my self-discipline is enough for all my other responsibilities.”

Look for ways to use the discipline you do have to lower barriers

As I have been arguing in this series, you can develop a positive relationship with writing and, by identifying specific causes of anxiety, you can begin to reduce writing-related anxieties that inhibit writing.

One specific anxiety that affects many is the notion that they are not trying hard enough or that they do not have enough self-discipline. This anxiety can create a negative feedback loop: each time you tell yourself you don’t have enough discipline, it can increase the level of anxiety, which makes it harder to write and reinforces the narrative that you don’t have enough self-discipline.

I don’t know how much self-discipline you have and I admit that most people would benefit from increasing their self-discipline, but all the same, I think a pragmatic and realistic approach is to ask how much you can accomplish with the self-discipline that you already have.

Rather than berating yourself for lack of self-discipline (and then retreating from your writing project), ask yourself whether there are any small steps you can take that are within your scope. If sitting down to work on the current draft of your book or article or dissertation leaves you feeling overwhelmed with stress, can you sit down to write a to-do list of tasks related to your writing project? Can you do some free-writing about your concerns or your hopes for the project? Can you find any low-hanging fruit related to the project that you can accomplish—for example, maybe you wanted to find the page number for a quotation you’re using or correct a reference in the list of works cited. Maybe the challenge is just to open the file in which your work is saved—if that feels like a challenge, then do it, and chalk it down as an accomplishment on which you can build. Today, just open the file. Tomorrow, open the file, and find on typographic error to fix. The next day, do the same, or maybe find two errors.

If you’re battling significant emotional blocks—if anxiety overwhelms you when you sit to write—don’t turn it into a massive pitched battle where you beat yourself up to face the anxiety for hour after hour, instead (to continue the battle metaphor), strike quickly and retreat: pick one small task that can be quickly accomplished and then sit back to celebrate your small victory.  In the long run, each small victory reduces the larger task, each small victory also reminds you that you can make progress, and, with time and repetition (and maybe a little luck), these small victories can reduce some of the anxieties surrounding the project and even build a little confidence. 

Don’t overwork

Writing takes imagination and concentration. When those operate effectively for you, you can accomplish a tremendous amount in a few hours.  And, often, if you try to work more than a few hours, imagination and concentration become less effective.  You don’t need to write eight hours a day to have success as a writer. Indeed many successful writers in and out of academia, only spend three to four hours a day writing.  If things are going smoothly, it’s quite possible for a writer to write over 1000 words in an hour.  Those 1000 words might need revision, but if you can write 1000 words in an hour, you can complete a book draft in 100 (good) hours or less. If you write two good hours each day, that’s a book draft completed in 50 days.

Effective writing need not be a torturous grind; it can be a rapid outpouring of ideas.  And the more you recognize that self-discipline is not the most important concern, the easier it is to look for more important concerns, like developing ideas that you want to put on the page, and finding words that help you express those ideas.

Conclusion

Writing takes effort—consistent effort over time—which requires self-discipline. Overcoming writing blocks, however, is not predominantly a question of self-discipline. If you think the answer is more self-discipline, you create stress that is antithetical to the imaginative intellectual freedom that is the most important characteristic of the writer and scholar.  Writing blocks are built of anxiety and a self-critical idea that more self-discipline is the answer builds anxiety and distracts you from the focus on the ideas that could be driving you.  Yes, it’s important to have self-discipline enough to sit down and try to write, but it is far more important to have ideas that you want to write about. Self-discipline does not create such ideas, for all that it is crucial in putting the ideas on the page. Don’t work harder; work imaginatively and easily. If you have writer’s block, don’t just try harder, instead look for ways to develop a writing practice that takes effort but also feels relatively easy.

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 4: Facing fear of rejection

For many people, fear of rejection is a big barrier to writing. I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t have any fear of rejection, but with the right approach, you might be able to reduce or manage that fear more effectively, thus reducing the block to writing. Fear of rejection is, in fact, quite reasonable in many circumstances.  I am going to argue, however, that you want to try to contextualize that fear in order to limit it.

Not all writing involves rejection

There are, speaking loosely, three distinct main purposes for writing: memory, development of ideas, and communication. Of these three, only one—communication—is subject to rejection. When you’re writing to aid memory or to develop ideas, the writing is not for anyone else, and therefore the question of rejection isn’t really relevant, and therefore, fear of rejection ought not be a significant issue.

Of course, saying that one “ought not” have a certain emotion is pretty poor advice. People don’t just turn emotions on or off at will, especially not significant fears or anxieties that are strong enough to interfere with writing. In this post, I’m going to suggest thinking about writing with respect to these three basic purposes, and trying, at times, to focus on the two kinds of writing that don’t involve the possibility of rejection.

Dividing up your writing process

In the end, you probably want to give your writing to other people—if you didn’t, fear of rejection could hardly be a problem. By dividing up your writing process to attend to the non-communicative dimensions of writing, you can give yourself space to work without fear of rejection immediately looming. 

Generally, this calls for a more expansive and practice-oriented view of writing: rather than writing focused on the final product that you share with others, write as an exercise—as a way to build skill and to experiment with different possibilities. If you always write while thinking of the possible response of other people, your attention is taken away from the ideas that most motivate you, and can weigh on you emotionally. But writing doesn’t just have to be about sharing, especially not in the early stages of any specific process.  When you’re just beginning a project—when a final draft is potentially months or even years away (if you’re writing a book-length work, especially)—concern for future readers can take a back seat to building skill and exploring ideas and modes of expression.

The exploration of ideas is a strong positive motivation for many. (If exploring ideas doesn’t motivate you, that’s a different barrier to writing than fear of rejection, one that requires a separate discussion.) Writing can be a tool for exploring an idea in a fashion similar to an artist or an architect making initial study sketches of their work.  The artist’s early sketches provide the artist feedback on issues of composition and appearance—they’re not for the rest of the world, they are for the artist’s own introspective processes. 

When approached this way, writing out a theory that seems flawed leads to curiosity about how to fx the theory. And writing a weak explanation leads to questions and attempts to provide a better explanation. In this mode of writing, attention isn’t on future readers of the work, but rather on finding answers are to unanswered questions, and to new questions that arise in the thought process. To be sure, this exploration of ideas can be frustrating because it’s almost always possible to find new questions, but if you’re driven by your interest in and curiosity about the subject you’re studying and writing about, then new questions aren’t terrible—they often open new ways of looking at old ideas. (Letting new questions constantly derail focus on a current project is a separate kind of writing block related to dealing with uncertainty, but that’s a separate issue from fear of rejection.)

Writing Exercise 1: Breaking up the process

[An exercise is an attempt to explore something and to develop skill. Like the musician’s scales or the athlete’s practices, it’s not meant to be the product in itself, but rather a tool to develop skill. This exercise can provide value both as a thought experiment, and as an exercise that builds the skill of putting ideas into words/sentences/paragraphs on the page.]

In your experience, are there any parts of the writing process during which you’re not thinking about the people who will read it? Which parts?

Have you ever written anything without a fear of rejection? A journal or diary? To-do lists? E-mail? Social media posts? What is the difference between writing that triggers fear of rejection and writing that does not?

Different layers of rejection fear

In some cases, writers fear multiple potential sources of rejection.  There’s the editor at the publishing house or journal.  There’s the larger audience. There are friends and family who might disdain or disrespect the work. For some, there are fears based on past experience—the teacher who criticized so harshly last year or the year before.

Additionally, fear of rejection may have multiple dimensions and aspects. There is, of course, the direct fear of rejection—you say “will you accept it;” they say “no”—but there are also fears of what follows rejection, such as: your efforts will have been wasted; you won’t get the job or the promotion; your career will be finished; your parents will be upset; your romantic flame will be unimpressed; your spouse will complain you’re a failure; etc. 

As with any anxiety-related writing block, fear of rejection may seem worse when left unaddressed than when analyzed. By analyzing your own fears of rejection, you may be able to separate out those that make perfect sense (the editor at the publishing house will turn you down) from others that are less reasonable (the effort was wasted; your career is finished). Analyzing potential bad outcomes can trigger some anxiety, but if you make the fears explicit, often there is comfort in being able to address concrete specific issues rather than just facing the big undefined fear that things will go wrong.

Writing exercise 2: What are your rejection fears?

Part a: Who might reject your work? Who do you fear will reject your work? When you’re writing, do you ever feel anxiety that your work will be rejected or criticized by someone who will not actually see that work (a former teacher or professor, for example), or who will not be in a position to impact you (a professor who might see the work, but won’t be in a position to create problems)?

Part b: Why is getting your work rejected bad? Because of the immediate emotional impact of rejection? Because of the impact on your career? What are the potential consequences of rejection that contribute to your fear? Which make you most nervous?

Writing blocks and rejection by default

People with anxiety-related writing blocks often don’t write at all, which can lead to rejection by default: if you write nothing and submit nothing, your work can’t be rejected, but you can suffer any or all the negative consequences of rejection, along with any emotional burden of having an unfinished project.  

Getting rejected carries an emotional sting, and it is often accompanied by harsh criticism or some show of disrespect. But submitting nothing at all is no protection. Indeed, it is reasonable to expect that many people in your life—especially those who love you—will be more frustrated with and critical of your failure to submit than of a rejection.  Sometimes, even rejected is accompanied by positive and useful feedback or support. The editor at the journal or publishing house may suggest a different journal or offer encouragement. Reviews may include useful feedback, even if not all the feedback is helpful. The professor who rejects a work has a better reason to support your continued work on that same project than to support you if you submit nothing.

The pain of rejection is sharp and immediate, while the pain of facing a writing block continues as long as you retain the hope of finishing, and sometimes even after. 

I don’t like to focus on negative motivations, but if the fear of rejection rises, try to focus on the fear of rejection by default—focus instead on the things that happen if you don’t write, submit work, and risk rejection. [Ideally, you can learn to write from more positive motivations, but sometimes fear of rejection can be countered by fear of inaction.]

Conclusion

Fear of rejection often interferes with writing processes, and because it’s a realistic and reasonable concern, one cannot simply ignore the risk that comes with trying to communicate and share your ideas with another person. However, blocks associated with fear of rejection can be limited in a few ways. First, remember that part of the writing process is an exploration—a way for you to develop your ideas and build skill as a writer. Second, analyze your fears of rejection: separate those that are realistic from those that are not. Finally, if the fear of rejection raises it’s head, think of the danger of rejection by default—the rejection that comes from not writing.

Dealing with writer’s block, Tip 3: Learn to like writing

Yesterday, I saw an internet post from a writer saying, “I’m an early career, tenure-track professor, and I hate writing.”  One commenter responded: “I like doing analysis, but I hate hate hate writing.”  If you hate writing, that’s a big block. It drains motivation; it interferes with focus. It leads to procrastination. My preliminary response was to stress the value in recognizing and identifying the specific reasons that the person hates writing (see my previous posts in this blog). The original post author responded by noting a few different specific concerns that triggered the hatred of writing—feelings of inadequacy, fear of rejection—and another commenter added other specific concerns—uncertainty about how to proceed, technical difficulties with structure, emotional and technical difficulties with conventions.  All of these specific concerns can contribute to make writing unpleasant, but none of them are the totality of writing. 

In this post, I argue that you can learn to like writing, and if you do, that appreciation and positive emotion will help carry you through difficulties and frustrations related to writing.  The diagnostic analysis of your writing process is useful in developing a practice that you can like, not only because you can identify and eliminate or reduce problems, but also because you can focus your attention on aspects of the process that are interesting and potentially enjoyable.

“I Hate Writing; Writing Sucks.”

Lots of people say this. The internet post I saw yesterday struck me because, to continue my series of recent posts about getting past writer’s block, I was already planning for my next post to look at the idea that writing sucks, because the general dislike of writing is an emotional writing block for many.  The idea that writing generally sucks is a barrier that can be dispelled by using the diagnostic analysis that I have discussed previously: when you look at it closely, it’s not the writing, as a whole, that is unpleasant, but rather specific aspects of it, and specific responses to it.  If you hate dealing with punctuation, for example, that is one specific aspect of writing you don’t like, but writing is not only punctuation. If you hate writing because you fear rejection, well, rejection isn’t part of writing itself, it’s something that happens after you’re done writing.

If you think that writing sucks or if you hate writing, and you also need to write for your career, it’s worth trying to translate that general “writing sucks” into a more specific diagnosis. But making a diagnosis and developing plans to addresses problems is only the negative half of the picture. To reduce or eliminate a general sense that writing sucks, it’s important to see a positive dimension, too. And, though you may doubt, there is a positive side to the task of writing.

Can Writing Be Pleasurable?

Writing may be hard, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily sucks.  There are lots of things that are very difficult that are also pleasurable—hobbyists and amateurs work hard to excel at their chosen skill, not for financial or career rewards but rather because of the emotional reward. An amateur athlete will experience difficulty to excel in their sport and also enjoy the performance. An amateur musician will endure the frustrations of practice to enjoy the pleasure of performing music. Arts and crafts all involve some difficulties and frustrations, require significant investment of effort to be any good, but, in return, offer hours of positive activity as well as satisfaction from producing something beautiful.  For all of these activities, it’s worth noting that the balance between frustration and pleasure shifts as skill increases: the beginner struggles to create something simple, while the skilled expert creates something of beauty with relative ease (emphasizing the word “relative”).  Writing is an activity of the same sort: it is difficult and frustrating, but it can also offer the emotional rewards of creating something satisfactory (a written work that is well received by an audience) and the immediate rewards of engaging in a focused practice (being in the zone, as might be said colloquially, or being in “flow,” to use the idea of Csikszentmihalyi).

What Is Writing For?

You’ll struggle to find any pleasure in writing if the only reason you write is because someone told you you have to write.  Many of us learn to write in school when writing is only an unpleasant task forced upon us, after which we are criticized harshly. If you don’t want to write, writing that “what I did on summer vacation” paper may be pretty miserable. And worse so in high school, if you’re called upon to write about books that you didn’t really want to read either. Personally, I hated writing in high school and in college. It was only in grad school that my feelings about writing shifted as my ability to write improved.

But writing in’t taught to torture school students; it’s taught because it’s a powerful tool. There are, as I see it, three main purposes for writing: to aid memory, to work out and develop ideas, and to communicate with others.  Thinking about writing as serving at least one of these three purposes can shift your relationship with writing.  Instead of just writing because of some outward obligation, you can use it as a tool to serve your own purposes.

Memory

Writing to aid memory—from writing a shopping list for the market, to taking notes in a lecture, to taking notes of research observations—doesn’t feel like writing for an assignment. Indeed, that kind of writing often isn’t what people think of as “writing,”—it’s “just” taking notes or something of the sort—but that kind of writing still exercises many of the same skills as more formal writing, especially the skill of putting ideas into words. And many people have enjoyed writing down memories—diaries, journals, blogs, and social media posts are all forms of writing used to preserve memories.

Development of Ideas

Writing as an aid to analysis and development of ideas—akin to a mathematician working through a problem on scratch paper, or an architect or artist drawing study sketches of a project—is sometimes overlooked, especially by those who think they hate writing. As I mentioned above, there was a comment that said “I like to analyze but I hate to write.” But if writing is a tool for analysis and you like analysis, isn’t there a place to like writing as part of the larger process of analysis (recognizing that writing to work out an idea—on “scratch paper,” so to speak—is not quite the same as writing something for to be submitted for review)?  

The idea that “writing is thinking” is often expressed (I have seen it in multiple places, but the one I can remember offhand in the book The Craft of Research from University of Chicago Press), and many people enjoy thinking and exploring ideas.  Of course, saying that writing is thinking gives a very different purpose to writing than writing to answer someone else’s questions. It also shifts the view of the process: some writing is just an exploration that is not meant to be the final work but rather a tool for learning more, like a painter making initial study sketches for a project.

Communication

Writing is a tool for communication and many people like communicating but hate writing. A lot of writers that I have worked with get stuck because instead of focusing on the task of communication—what ideas do you want to share?—they focus on the task of putting sentences and paragraphs together on a page, which fraught with all the possibility of error in spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc.  Thinking about the technical difficulties interferes with thinking about the interesting stuff you want to share with people. You may be passionate to educate people about some topic, but if you’re worried about spelling, punctuation, etc., as well as the response of someone who might be hostile (a reviewer, a difficult professor), then it’s easy to lose sight of the underlying interest that drives a project.

Below, I offer an exercise comparing speaking with writing. It is instructive to compare speaking with writing because most people like speaking, or at least feel comfortable speaking, even if they dislike writing. Why do people like speaking? Among other reasons, it’s because speaking allows them to build connections with other people, to share ideas with other people, and to get other people to learn things that they care about. The process of writing takes on a very different emotional character when you’re focusing on sharing an idea with someone who will be interested, even enthusiastic about your work.  

It’s reasonable to give some attention to possible criticism of your work, but that shouldn’t keep you from thinking about the positive response you want to create. Some writers get stuck thinking about all the people who would complain; others get motivated by thinking about people who would be interested in or even excited by their ideas. In the practice of writing, think about writing to someone who would be enthusiastic about your work, rather than thinking about writing to someone who will complain about your punctuation.

Exercise: Writing and Speaking

How do you feel about speaking? Do you hate to speak? Do you like to speak? In what situations do you like to speak, and what situations do you dislike it? Do you like writing less than you like speaking?

What are the differences between writing and speaking?

What are the similarities between writing and speaking?

Other Positive Dimensions of Writing

There’s more to like in writing than just these three purposes. I mentioned earlier how writing offers the challenge of becoming good at a skilled task, and of practicing that task at a high level, which can be satisfying or even pleasurable. According to the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, such challenges are at the heart of the “flow” experience, which, for many, offer the best moments of their lives. I will not discuss this potential here, however. In other posts, I have mentioned how writing can provide a certain refuge from other difficulties. I’m not arguing that writing is free from difficulties and frustrations, only that writing offers benefits, including emotional ones.

Conclusion

If you want to get past writer’s block, it’s important to keep in mind that writing, despite its difficulties and frustrations, is something that has enjoyable and engaging aspects. If you focus exclusively on the worst parts of writing, your aversion will be strengthened. Instead, focus on the best parts of writing—the ability to explore and share ideas, the challenges of developing skill—to get more positive motivation.

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.

Writing and Writing anxiety: What is writer’s block? Does it even exist?

Most advice for writers relies on the basic idea that one must be disciplined, keep a writing schedule, and really write when scheduled to write.  That’s all good advice. However, with respect to that advice, there is a question that many ask: what about writer’s block?  Many books on writing basically argue that “writer’s block” does not exist, and that writers just need to be self-disciplined.  This perspective does not, to me, seem useful: it doesn’t address the concerns of people who feel that they are facing some sort of writer’s block, and we would not have a familiar term like “writer’s block,” unless people had some experience that led them to use that term. 

There may be some truth that anyone who claims to be suffering writer’s block just needs to be more self-disciplined. But there’s also some truth in saying that an injured runner could finish the race if they only had more self-discipline: it’s possible to run through some injuries, but sometimes the cost is exacerbating the injury. Instead of dismissing people who say they suffer from writer’s block, it is possible instead to examine the causes of their struggles and to work to eliminate any barriers to writing successfully. The place to start is to inquire about why people might say they experience writer’s block.

Writer’s Block isn’t a simple pathology

“Writer’s block” does not exist in the same sense that COVID-19 exists. There is no single identifiable external pathogen that creates writer’s block.  Perhaps, if we want to split hairs, we can argue that writer’s block doesn’t exist because we can’t identify that single specific pathology. But, if we listen to actual writers who are struggling with their projects, it makes sense to consider the idea of writer’s block because the term makes sense to many people who struggle to write.  There are people who are very self-disciplined but who still struggle to write, and it seems a little facile to say just “well, no matter how much self-discipline you show in the rest of your life, it you’re not writing, you need more self-discipline.”  

Saying “writer’s block” doesn’t exist is a little like saying depression doesn’t exist: there is no single simple pathology to encompass all the different forms of depression, but we accept the existence of depression because we can observe patterns of behavior that fit the rubric of depression, even if the causes of that behavior are varied. Writer’s block deserves similar consideration: we can observe a pattern of behavior whose causes may be varied.

Writer’s Block is a description of certain behaviors

If writer’s block is not a specific pathology, what is it? To me, I think it useful and appropriate to think of “writer’s block” as a way to describe the experience of some writers who are struggling to write for any of a number of reasons related to emotional difficulties like depression or anxiety.  It is specifically appropriate in the context of writers who have clearly demonstrated that they competent and self-disciplined in their lives as a whole, but who struggle to manifest that competence and diligence in their writing practice. It is especially useful when thinking about writers who have produced written work in the past but are now stuck on a current project. For scholars, it is often an early-career issue centered on either the doctoral dissertation or early work for publication. Doctoral candidates and early-career scholars have typically demonstrated ability and self-discipline for years, showing the ability to manage many responsibilities (teaching, research, administrative duties, etc.) including writing assignments. Such people often demonstrate self-discipline in non-scholarly dimensions of life, too, as athletes, family members, and/or political or community activism and organizing. In such cases, it seems relevant to ask why their general self-discipline fails in the specific case of writing.

We wouldn’t want to talk about “writer’s block” when referring to someone who doesn’t have self-discipline or to someone who isn’t making any effort to write.  But if we are talking about people who do invest effort into writing, and who do demonstrate significant self-discipline in their lives, then it makes sense to talk about “writer’s block” as something that self-disciplined people experience when they try to write that interferes with writing.

Writer’s block comes from negative emotions

From my personal experience struggling to write, as well as my experience working as a writing coach to help others to write, I would say that “writer’s block” is a way to generally describe more specific emotional responses to writing, like anxiety or depression, that interfere with the clarity of thought and imagination that writing needs. People who have “writer’s block” often have lots of emotional issues specifically related to writing due to the contexts in which they learned to write.

When fear and depression impact the brain, they inhibit operation of the higher cortical areas where reasoning and imagination take place.  This neurological reality suggests that emotional struggles to write cannot simply be reduced to “you’re not trying hard enough; you’re lazy.”  If the issue was simply lack of effort, then with the application of effort, all other problems would fall away. But if the problem is related to emotions that inhibit the higher brain functions, then it is quite reasonable to assume that people who can speak about their ideas and research effectively when they feel comfortable, might also struggle when trying to write about those ideas when dealing with anxieties and doubts about writing.

Reducing emotional blocks

If I had a cure for depression or anxiety, I wouldn’t be writing this; I’d be making millions (or billions) helping people get rid of depression and anxiety.  But I do have a treatment for writing blocks that is more than just “try harder; be self-disciplined,” and it does involve reducing writing-related depression or anxiety.  Generally speaking, the treatment is to develop a healthier writing practice.

Writing need not be an agonizing experience; it can even be enjoyable. With a healthy practice, it is possible to reduce or eliminate many writing-related anxieties, and even to feel some sense of exhilaration as a writer.  A first step in the process is to identify the various emotional barriers to writing that might be experienced.  

There are lots of reasons that people hate writing that have more to do with the context in which they learned to write than with writing itself. Indeed, a given individual might have many reasons that they dislike or fear writing. The very idea that writing is unpleasant—not an uncommon idea—is largely just the zoomed-out description of an experience that would, under a magnifying glass, reveal many smaller, more specific discomforts that combine into a general emotional malaise that impacts all aspects of writing.

Identifying specific emotional issues

Part of developing a healthy writing practice is to identify the various concerns that impact the writing process and to try to reduce or eliminate those concerns as much as possible.  If you think that writing, generally, is unpleasant, you can start by exploring what specific aspects of writing are unpleasant. For many, the fear of being criticized is a big part of the problem. So, too, is the fear of being incapable of the work. There are, it hardly need be said, those who have physical problems that make writing physically painful.

Whatever the specific causes of writing discomfort, the better they are identified, the easier it is to see that writing itself is not necessarily painful, and can actually be a positive experience.  It seems undeniable that some people enjoy writing—if you know such a person, you may resent them and think them a little crazy, perhaps. Regardless, writing can be an enjoyable and rewarding process in the same way that many skilled activities, like music, art, and athletics, can be enjoyable: there are attendant difficulties and frustrations, but the activity is worth the effort and is generally positive.

Writing past anxiety

Specific anxieties can be addressed and reduced to the point that they no longer block the application of self-discipline.  It may not be possible to completely eliminate writing anxieties: doubts about the outcome of your efforts are reasonable.  But if those anxieties can be reduced even a little, it is often enough to get moving again. If you are generally self-disciplined, and only have trouble applying that discipline to your writing, it’s often the case that the self-discipline that serves in other contexts will be enough if the emotional barriers to writing are reduced by even a small amount: once your anxiety is a little lower, your self-discipline might be enough to get you over the emotional threshold and into a habit of writing more productively.