Dealing with Writer’s Block Part 1 of 4: What I’ve Learned and Generated in Response Over the Past 5 Years

Greetings! I hope this post finds you well.

The topic of today’s PhDchat (on Twitter at 17:30 GMT, #phdchat) is writer’s block. Accordingly, in this post I reflect on how I’ve tried to deal with what is commonly referred to as writer’s block. I discuss the definition, concepts, resources, approach, links, etc. that have helped me most to deal with, deactivate, or overcome writer’s block.

I have divided this post into the following topics:

  1. Have a Helpful, ACTIONABLE Definition of “Writer’s Block”
  2. Have a Helpful, ACTIONABLE Definition of “Writing”
  3. Resources, Links, etc. That Have Helped Me Most to Understand and Avoid/Prevent/Surmount Writer’s Block
  4. Generative Writing or Freewriting? (NOTE: For Me the Former BLOCKS Writer’s Block and the Latter Just EXACERBATES Writer’s Block. You?)
  5. The Role of Prewriting (for Me)
  6. The Urgent, Important Priority of Maintaining Mental, Digital, and Physical Organization (Because for Me Even the Slightest Bit of Chaos Can Induce Writer’s Block!)
  7. CONCLUSION: My Methodology, Physical and Digital Tools, and Workflow

I’d love to hear of what works for you to help enable you to deal with, deactivate, or overcome writer’s block. Please share your knowledge, comments, or questions in the comments section, and as always, happy writing!

Alrighty, then!

On to the post . . .

[1] Have a Helpful, ACTIONABLE Definition of “Writer’s Block”

Here is my personal definition of writer’s block:

Writer’s block is the lack of writing generation that results when a person attempts to write or force writing when either (1) he or she has not done sufficient prewriting, (2) he or she cannot focus on the ONE sentence or paragraph or section that can be written, or when (3) he or she has yet to consciously or subconsciously fully buy in to the idea that NOW is the time to get the writing down.

This is a helpful definition for me: It identifies the sources/causes, and it is actionable. It does not leave me helpless. The implications:

  1. If I am trying to hack through writing something and I haven’t done sufficient prewriting activities (reading, note-taking, annotating, quote-extraction, semi-flexible outlining, etc.), then I stop and prewrite and then commence writing FROM my prewriting resources.
  2. If my mind is buzzing with all sorts of thoughts such that I cannot focus on the one thing I’m trying to put down (e.g., I’m thinking about what could go into a another section so much that I can’t write about this section), then I go VOCAL (and capture my think-aloud) because what is happening at the moment is that the sequential writing medium is not “fast enough for me” because I have too much in the mind. Ways I go vocal:
    1. Put my outline into XMind, place my prewriting materials (notes, outlines, quotes,excepts, images, etc.) in front of me, and create audio note think-alouds that are 1-minute MAX IN LENGTH. I name them briefly right then if I have the time or otherwise name them later. When I replay the think-aloud audio notes, I type as I listen to them. I often do this typing RIGHT THERE in each audio note’s space for TEXT NOTES. The text notes are all exportable together to one MS Word file, PDF, etc.Before exporting, I usually don’t further organize the audio notes beyond their initial location on my XMind mind map “outline,” but if did need to further organize them, this would just consist of dragging and dropping them onto parent category nodes that collect them into topics/subjects.IMPORTANT: Any audio note over 1 minute in length is in danger of becoming a time sink/sucker. I’d rather have ten 1-minute audio notes than two 5-minute audio notes.Reflection: Doing this on a mind map is good if you are still sort of designing the structure or coming up with ideas. Alternatively . . .
    2. Perhaps more easily and quickly done, you can just copy your outline into MS One Note and attach audio notes besides each element in your outline.
  3. If I have donesufficientprewriting and if my brain is NOT racing with ideas — i.e., attempting to write too many sections at once — then something else is wrong. Typically, the problem is insufficient focus which typically for me is a function of either willpower or motivation.
    1. According to the authors of this book, studies have shown that what you eat can affect your level of will power. This is because willpower is related to your physical state and is a resource like gasoline that can run out and therefore must be repeatedly replenished. So if I need to get some sleep and come back to writing, then it is what it is. Sometimes it’s just like that.It helps me to know to think of will power as functioning like fuel instead of 100% being my moral ability to commandeer myself to do what’s best. Of course on some level deep down I want to do what’s best. However, I need to be in the right physical and mental state to allow will power to work. There are different levels of tired and different types of mental/emotional fatigue, and some levels disrupt will power. At those times, I must rest or eat or do recreational activities to replenish.
    2. I define motivation as “having fully decided and bought into the idea that something is to be done, and now.” If I don’t have motivation, I have to get some somehow IF the writing is to happen. Simple as that. For me, if I work around others who are making GREAT progress and are ON IT, that usually suffices. If I write for someone (meaning they are going to receive WHATEVER I have at a given time, regardless of how complete, and what they say matters to me), that tends to work, especially if the trajectory of my project might change based on what the readers think of what I’ve written. That is typically the case for me. True deadline + knowledge that I am a slow writer = motivation for me.One of these days I hope to evolve beyond being a deadline-driven writer. I am making a little headway: I now want to write so that I can be finished and move on to the next stages in store. Still, deadlines drive!

For a in-depth look at writer’s block — along with some very practical and distinct strategies for surmounting writer’s block — please see this book extract (at The Guardian) of one of Rowena Murray’s most excellent books on writing.

(discussion is continued in the next post . . .)

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