The write stuff and how to get it

September 14, 2007

Have you got the blank-page blues? Tackle that bout of writer's block with simple exercises aimed at getting your thoughts flowing from pen (or keyboard) to paper once again, says Harriet Swain.

Um... Er... So... Actually, this article would probably be much better given a little extra time. If it appeared next week, say, or perhaps the week after?

Just get on with it, says Lisa Ganobcsik-Williams, co-ordinator of the Centre for Academic Writing at Coventry University. When it comes to tackling writer's block, procrastination is not the answer.

"Writing even a very rough draft gives you something to work from the next day - and you will be surprised at how quickly your document builds once you actually start drafting," she says.

She suggests that rather than delaying putting pen to paper you should make a note of everything. "Carry a notepad or palmtop with you at all times when working on a writing project, and jot down the ideas that come to you throughout the day," she says.

"Often, connections between ideas or sections in your writing project will suddenly occur to you when you least expect it, and if you don't write down these insights you may forget them. Ideas that you collect in this way can really help to speed your writing process."

If not even the ideas are flowing freely, try going for a walk, washing the dishes or engaging in some other relatively mindless activity, she advises. This will allow ideas and the connections between them to percolate. "The key is to relax while letting your brain mull over the points you are trying to develop. The goal is to return to your writing refreshed and one or two steps further along in a sentence you are rephrasing, a paragraph you are writing or an argument you are formulating."

Free writing is also useful. Ganobcsik-Williams suggests writing nonstop for ten minutes about whatever comes into your head - even "I don't know what to say about this topic, I don't know what I think about this topic..." She says that this kind of stream-of-consciousness writing should allow you to work through anxieties about a subject, and it almost always leads to more focused ideas.

Simon Williams, who runs workshops on writer's block for academics, suggests thinking about an aspect of your work that is causing a problem, and then writing down words or phrases. At the end of a set time - he suggests seven minutes - review what you have written and highlight any words or phrases that you find stimulating. Then do the same thing for five minutes, using one phrase as a starting point. Repeat the exercise, reviewing and highlighting, and then write for three minutes. Finally, review the whole thing. "Many people are surprised at how they have developed usable ideas," he says.

Phillip Hodson, chief spokesperson for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, says writer's block is related to the fear that something you say will come back to haunt you, and to being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work to be done.

What can help here is ignoring the urge to start at page one and continuing until the end. Instead, start in the middle, or even towards the end of the work you are tackling.

Hodson suggests setting daily targets, sticking to them, and giving yourself plenty of rewards afterwards. "The people who succeed are those who treat it a bit more like a job," he says. "You aren't Proust."

This should help you deal with the irrational aspects of writer's block. If you can put together an e-mail, you can write. "A thesis is just a long e mail," he says. By breaking down the task and recognising the need for different drafts, you make the process more manageable.

Williams says it is useful to see your work as a process rather than a product, and to imagine that you are writing for a particular person, such as your supervisor or an informed friend.

Rowena Murray, reader in the department of educational and professional studies at Strathclyde University, says that having a sense of a peer group that will be your audience is important in helping you to find your voice, and you may have actively to seek out people who will be interested in hearing your ideas. She says you must also be prepared to ask for help, to listen to other people's assessment of your writing and to admit that the processes you learnt at school may not be enough.

Williams agrees that social support is invaluable, as is the recognition that others have suffered from writer's block and have managed to overcome it. A comfortable environment for writing is important too. But none of these things must become an excuse for avoiding the task itself.

He recommends practical exercises. One of these is guided visualisation, in which you are asked to close your eyes and imagine that you are entering a room and must furnish it with objects related to your research.

Another exercise is to look at one successful example of your work and one that has caused you problems and assess the differences. Often these differences will be to do with cohesion, he says. Going back a step, brainstorming and developing ideas in order of priority will all help to develop a more cohesive argument.

If none of these tricks works, Hodson says that you may occasionally have to admit that you have taken on more than you can manage. If the situation is making you completely miserable, you need to ask yourself why you are bothering. In that case, he says, "Often the best thing is to own up, cut your losses, and get out of it."

More information

  • British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy,  
  • Centre for Academic Writing, Coventry University,  
  • Rowena Murray, Sarah Moore, The Handbook of Academic Writing , Open University Press, 2006
  • Caroline Hall, Getting Down to Writing: A Students' Guide to Overcoming Writer's Block , Peter Francis, 1994
  • Zachary Leader, Writer's Block , Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991

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