For writers, nothing is more dreaded or feared than writer's block. There's never a good time for it, yet writer's block seems to strike us at the most inopportune times. It cripples our progress, making us feel that we'll never finish our dissertation, thesis, or paper. Writer's block is a confidence killer, and for many of us it's almost impossible to recover from. It's hard to continue while suffering from writer's block. We often lack the motivation and will to stare at a blank screen.
Academic writing adds further challenges. A blank screen reminds us of our inability to produce, which only adds pressure to overcome it. We don't have the luxury to work it out leisurely. There are deadlines to meet, and the external pressures are immense. Our professors and committee members are waiting for our work. In addition, we might only have a few hours a week to write because of obligations to work or family. More importantly, writer's block stands in the way of graduation. Thus, writer's block is more than a creative barrier. It is a barrier to our own career and personal goals, making writer's block absolutely devastating.
I've experienced more than my fair share of writer's block. While writing my dissertation, I'd often become frustrated over my lack of progress. There were days where I couldn't write so much as a sentence. The blinking cursor taunted me, daring me to continue. Sometimes writing felt like trench warfare, and progress depended on a sheer determination of will. Over time I've developed practices that helped me alleviate and stand up to writer's block. While writer's block is unavoidable, there are ways to limit our experience of it. Writer's block shouldn't hinder our progress for days or even weeks. Instead, writer's block is something we can manage and control.
Take breaks: Mental rest is absolutely necessary. We can spend way too much time staring at a screen. Staring at the screen reminds us of our lack of progress. From there the pressure grows to write something, anything to relieve the stress of our deadlock. In this situation, the will to write becomes frustrating. At this point it's better to step away. It's time to take your mind off of your project. A break (15-30 minutes) might just be the thing to get you back on track. A quick nap, a walk outside, or a snack are all good ways to reboot your mind.
Reward yourself: Writing doesn't need to be torturous. There are ways to make writing not only bearable, but even enjoyable. Check your writing environment. Is your area comfortable? For example, a small and uncomfortable office chair will make writing feel like torture. Physical discomfort is not only bad for creativity, but also associates writing with physical pain.
Instead, make your area comfortable and well lit. Add snacks and drinks to your writing experience. Preferably these should be relatively healthy. However, there's nothing wrong with rewarding yourself with a cookie or small piece of candy for a job well-done. Speaking for myself, I enjoy the experience of coffee and classical music. I create a relaxing and rewarding mood designed to encourage my imagination. Furthermore, this experience makes writing something I look forward to. Writing can become a meditative activity if you'll allow it.
Change the situation: Writing at home has its pros and cons. Home can be both comforting and distracting. Over time, even the most comfortable environments become distracting.
A change in scenery can do wonders for curing writer's block. At home you're reminded of chores and other duties. Getting out of the house reduces the need the impulse to do the dishes, vacuum the house, finish the laundry, and so on (you can always do these later). Moreover, it brings you out of household isolation. Working around other people at a Starbucks or library can reignite our spirit. Writing doesn't need to be an isolating experience. In fact, it's not healthy to shut yourself off from the world for long hours at a time.
Go back to the sources: Writer's block might be a sign that you need to do further research. Research is rarely a one-and-done deal. Meaning research is a cyclical process. There's nothing wrong with searching for new sources or re-visiting your research. Returning to the research process is an excellent way to recover your inspiration.
Edit: Finally, writer's block doesn't mean you can't be productive. Use the opportunity to read through your work for grammar and clarity. Working through your document can alleviate the anxiety of productivity, and may even spur new ideas. Don't think of editing as a chore, but an opportunity.
Over the next few posts I'll explore each of these practices individually, and show you how they can help make academic writing a joy!