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.
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.
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.