Tackling writer’s block


It’s pretty common for writers to get stuck with their writing. Most people of course find a solution of some kind. Eventually. Sometimes the stuckness goes away, apparently by itself. But sometimes the writer finds something else to work on. Sometimes they go for a walk. Sometimes they switch activity.

I try to follow the research on writer’s block. I’m interested in solutions. But of course solutions are always related to the understandings of the problem and so some descriptions of writing blocks are more useful than others.

The most recent paper I read on writer’s block looked for both better descriptions and some solutions. (Apols it’s paywalled). Ahmed and Güss conducted a survey with 146 writers recruited from regional and national writing organisations, professional and semi-professional writers of both fiction and non-fiction who might see themselves as creative writers rather than academic writers.

Ahmed and Güss were able to establish that in this group the blocks were  – and these are ranked from the most common to least common:

Physiological – stress, anxiety, intense emotions, mental or physical illness (42%)

Motivational – fear of criticism or rejection, performance anxiety, loss of enjoyment (29%)

Cognitive – perfectionism, over or under planning, too focused on an outcome, rigid thinking (13%)

Behavioural – procrastination, being too busy (11%)

Combination of factors – impossible to say which one of the above is the most influential. (5%)

Ahmed and Güss suggest that the low number experiencing behavioural issues may be because of the sample. They go on to say that writers experienced blockage for various lengths of time ranging from a few days ( 27%), to weeks (29%)  and over a year (14%). The most common place to experience blocks was not in ideas generation, getting started, planning or choosing which idea to pursue but in working out how to express the ideas the writers already had (36%) (what the researchers call articulation) .

According to Ahmed and Güss, writers who reported physiological and motivational issues were more likely to experience difficulties with articulation. In other words, if you are tired, worn out or working in a highly performative environment, you can think of what to write, but you have difficulties when it comes to sorting out how to get those ideas into written form.

Writers with behavioural blocks were more likely to report troubles with idea generation –so putting off writing, or finding that other demands crowded out the writing often led to writers simply not knowing what to write about. Or as I would put it, the pressures of work mean that there is no room in the brain to consider what might be written.

A and G’s survey participants reported a range of solutions to blockedness, the most popular of which was taking a break, working on a different project or forcing themselves to keep writing. Writers who tried switching projects also found this very effective – finding something else that then went well not only improved their mood, but also helped them to shift perspectives/mindset.

The researchers report that the vast majority of writers with cognitive blocks – perfectionism, over or under planning etc – found talking with others extremely effective. This “social solution” might attend to multiple issues – improve mood, reduce isolation, increase motivation, and/or introduce new perspectives, the researchers suggest.

So that’s interesting. But you may wonder why have I spent so long on this paper. Well as a researcher myself I am of course really interested in thinking how this set of results might be different for academic writers.

I imagine that academic writers are likely to report high levels of physiological and motivational issues. Our current working conditions are known to be highly performative, many of us have high workloads and large numbers are in precarious work. The ethnographic academic writing research undertaken by Tusting, McCulloch, Bhatt, Hamilton and Barton attests to the significance of the pressured conditions under which academics work and write. And of course two years of pandemic conditions has left nearly everyone with some degree of stress and anxiety. So the answer to these work problems is not simply finding individual solutions to writing blocks, although we do all need coping mechanisms to deal with our particular institutional situations. ( Note that I am writing this post during the current university staff strikes about just these issues.)

But I am also interested in this research because it has made me wonder whether it is possible to find more specific responses to particular kinds of stucknesses. I am particularly interested in the social solution that Ahmed and Güss promote. Talking to someone about your writing and your issues with writing seems like a pretty obvious activity – yet it is often the very thing that current institutional organisational practices prevent. Or writing conversations are framed within a performance management or audit framework which adds to rather than reduces the pressures. Writing groups, retreats and writing partnerships that are able to break somewhat free of institutional contexts, or are set up as a counter to them, are still relatively rare – or are infrequent rather then regular.

Academic writing is often highly privatised and carried out in lonely, solitary situations. This is particularly true of PhDs outside of formal research teams. While it would undoubtedly be better if institutions took academic writing more seriously than they do, it seems likely that  there could be considerable benefit from groups of academics and individual PhDers taking the initiative and simply getting together to talk about their writing. Outside of performance requirements. Simply to talk about an activity that is profoundly bound up with scholarship.

And Ahmed and Güss’ categories might provide some very helpful conversational prompts for collegial conversations. Working out whether you/me/we are experiencing physiological, motivational, cognitive or behavioural problems with academic writing might lead to better – local practical and collective – solutions. Whether these are new or old strategies doesn’t matter. It’s bringing the blockedness and stuckness, the hesitations and nerviness, the desires and dreams, into the open in a safe and supportive environment that might matter more – and might matter more than finding a magic writing wand.


Other posts on writer’s block and stuckness:

writing and stuck – try a ventilation file

and this compilation post which has a