Writer’s block is a common writing problem. It can occur in any type of writing—academic, creative, professional. It can be experienced by both native and nonnative speakers of a language, and it can surely happen to novice and even experienced writers. I am certainly familiar with writer’s block, and I am therefore very interested in finding out what other writers do to overcome this obstacle. So I asked several experienced writers, who are prominent and prolific scholars in the field of TESOL and second language writing, about how they cope with writer’s block. I hope you will find their ideas helpful.
Neil Anderson, Professor, Brigham Young University—Hawaii
Writer’s block can be a very real obstacle to making progress on an important writing task. I have found that a few things work well for me in overcoming the block. First, I turn on some quiet classical music. I then sit quietly and do some deep breathing exercises and focus on relaxing. This quiet breathing allows me to clear my brain and reset it to zero. After two or three minutes, I then open a blank document and begin typing as quickly as my fingers can go. After about three minutes I stop typing and reopen the document on which I was working when I experienced the writer’s block. I see if what I have written in the previous three minutes connects to any of the ideas that I am developing. I usually find that my thinking has got me into a new area of thinking and gets me excited. The excitement allows me to ultimately return to the original block and move beyond it.
Suresh Canagarajah, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor, Pennsylvania State University
I used to have writers’ blocks in the past. I don’t have them anymore. I am helped by the following three factors: 1. Reflect on my paper for hours and plan my ideas well. So when I start writing, I know exactly what I want to be doing in this paper. I have a clear mind when I start writing. 2. I think of writing as involving multiple drafts. This reduces the anxiety about producing a perfect first draft. I am prepared for the draft to be imperfect as I know that I’ll be revising it multiple times. 3. I write in stages. I plan small sections of the project at a time. This way, I don’t have unrealistic expectations about having to write a lot—or even complete the whole paper or book—in one sitting! These considerations reduce my anxiety and actually help me enjoy writing.
Deborah Crusan, Professor, Wright State University
Something magical happens when you sit down purposefully to write. I first discovered this in 2008 when I participated in my first writing boot camp. As I was driving to the opening session, I mused about what might happen during the week I had committed to, but I really wasn’t very hopeful that anything could happen to change my fear of starting, of the blank page, of the lack of confidence in my own skills and knowledge. But when I arrived, we set a timer and began our first session. By the end of that week, I was a believer and have since participated in hundreds of sessions with colleagues and friends. If you don’t think it can work for you, give it one shot. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Alister Cumming, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto
I cannot claim to have experienced writer’s block in any profound way. Indeed, my problem these days (after retiring last year) seems to be trying to stop writing, or at least not agreeing to write things when people ask, so that I actually do retire from academic work. But I can offer some suggestions about ways I have found useful to get myself started writing.
Foremost is being well rested, focused, and with ample time to be ready to write. I am simply not productive when trying to write if tired, overextended, or squeezed in between other tasks or interactions. My productivity is best when writing in the morning when I feel fresh and can focus. Serious writing requires days or weeks to do, so having ample time allocated is equally crucial.
Second, it is fundamental to know in advance what I am going to write. I feel ready to write after I have completed a research project (and know the findings and how to interpret them), thought carefully about ideas for a proposal or a critique, or discussed issues in a meeting or with colleagues to establish my viewpoint.
Third, and relatedly, I need to know who I am writing for and why. Who will read my text, for what reason, in what context, how might they respond, and what actions do I want them to take? This awareness helps me to focus on conveying what I know while also anticipating what others might expect, query, or do about that. Initial presentations orally and visually at a conference are helpful for creating that focus to write. PowerPoint slides are valuable tools for identifying, selecting, and sequencing integral ideas for an interested audience. Then interacting with that audience, and hearing their questions or suggestions, helps me to attend later to key issues in my writing.
Andy Curtis, Professor, Graduate School of Education, Anaheim University; 50th President, TESOL International Association
Earlier this year, Oliver Burkeman, in the UK national newspaper The Guardian, asked the question, as the title of his piece: “Is Writer’s Block a Real Thing, or Just a Figment of the Imagination?” The opening line of his article is also a question: “What do you do when you get writer’s block?” According to Burkeman: “Vast amounts have been written, ironically enough, about writer’s block, both by self-help authors and academics, but to little effect.”
My understanding of this thing called “writer’s block” is that it is based on fear. Fear of the blank page/screen, fear of making a mistake, fear of failing, and other fears. So, one of my techniques, which has worked well for me over the years, is to stop writing whatever it is I’m supposed to be writing, and write, instead, about what it is I’m afraid of. I’ve been surprised sometimes to see that what I’ve written about is not what I thought I was afraid of, and that in itself has helped to unblock me.
Betsy Gilliland, Associate Professor, University of Hawaii at Manoa
I have to admit that I have never suffered from writer’s block. This is not to say that I’ve never been stuck with my writing, or spent time actively avoiding writing, or not made time to write, but it’s never been because of writer’s block. When I prioritize my writing, even if I can’t figure out what to do on a particular point of a project, I can always generate text. It’s not necessarily good text, or useful text for this project, but it’s writing. I will write about other ideas I would rather be writing about (the grass is always greener . . .) or muse on why I’m feeling stuck. I often find that freewriting about why I’m resisting writing or angry with reviewers turns into helpful thoughts that push my work ahead. So that’s my tip for anyone (undergrads, grad students, and new professors alike): if you feel stuck, open a new document or break out a new page in your notebook and write about your writing. Don’t get down on yourself because you can’t figure out what to do in a specific place in your project. Just write!
Aya Matsuda, Associate Professor, Arizona State University
I experience writer’s block when I’m trying to write the first draft and I feel that what I write is not going to be good. I’m afraid to be disappointed and embarrassed. So first I acknowledge that and then tell myself that if I want to produce something that is good and not disappointing or embarrassing, then the quickest way to do it is to produce something that is bad, disappointing, and embarrassing—and then revise. And write. Luckily, I enjoy revising and editing much more than writing the first draft, so things get much easier once I get to that point.
Paul Kei Matsuda, Professor, Arizona State University
I use several strategies routinely to avoid writer’s block. First, I diversify my “writing investment portfolio” by working on multiple projects at the same time. That way, if I get stuck with one of them, I can continue to be productive by focusing on another project.
Second, I collaborate with colleagues and students. My work happens primarily while meeting with my collaborators. At the beginning, we identify the goal for the meeting and work on planning, drafting, and revising together. At the end of the meeting, we review what we have accomplished and set the date for the next meeting. I don’t usually think about the project outside these meetings, although I may ask my less experienced collaborator to work on specific tasks before the next meeting.
Another strategy is binge writing. For a number of projects (including my article on identity in written discourse for the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics), I was working against a tight deadline. In fact, I was already somewhat behind and had to ask for an extension. To meet the final deadline, I dropped everything else for a week and half (other than teaching) and devoted myself to finishing the project.
Tony Silva, Professor, Purdue University
I find myself encountering writer’s block in three contexts. The first, and most common situation, is just not having enough time, more specifically, not enough large blocks of quiet time (2–3 hours), to write. Unfortunately for me, this is an occupational hazard—my job requires me to do many things other than write, and sometimes these things make it nearly impossible to give a writing task my undivided attention. A second situation involves having an unpleasant writing task to complete. This typically involves what I see as busy work, for example, writing memos or reports requested by administrators. While these are sometimes important documents that need to be written, they are rarely motivating or rewarding. Finally, even if I have enough time to write about something I find interesting and stimulating, sometimes the writing task I give myself seems just too big to tackle. This means I’ve forgotten, again, to take the necessary step of breaking the project into manageable chunks that I can actually complete and feel good about.
I would like to thank all of the above contributors for sharing their experience and providing such helpful suggestions. If you suffer from writer’s block, how do you overcome it?