4 Tips to overcome that dreaded academic writer’s block

What is writer’s block?

It starts as a creeping anxiety. There is a different weight in your feet as you near the blank page on your desk. It is as if creativity is made of lead and sank to your socks. The brain is a fog. Where the topic, words, phrases, sentences and whole paragraphs would normally dance in perfect harmony, a Jackson Pollock has settled inside of your head. Imagination has kicked the bucket. It is no more. It has gone to meet its maker. You know the skit. (Yes, let’s indulge in a bit more procrastination by watching a Monty Python sketch. Really good idea).

Good academic output and the writing process it requires does not come easily to everyone at the best of times. Furthermore, it is not really just your own writing project. Commentary from the dissertation committee may push a PhD student in a certain direction outside of their comfort zone or style of writing. 

Regardless of the conditions under which each blocked writer tries to get the creative juices flowing again, there are recognisable causes that, when identified, can be addressed with particular creative writing prompts or strategies. 


What causes writer’s block?

This is not about character development, plots or intrigues. Creative writers have different issues than academic writers. Theirs is the universe to explore. We have it easy in comparison when working on academic writing assignments. We want to get to the particular and state it as an unassailable truth. A walk in the park, not? After all, we can stand on the shoulders of giants in our discipline to build our argument. Still, there are several factors that get in the way of progress. Here are three leading causes for understanding writing block, which are often interconnected:

  • Writing Anxiety

For all their liberal rhetoric, graduate schools are insecurity mills for PhD students with low tolerance levels in many areas of the experience. They teach one how little one knows, and you gain that awareness in the presence of large intellects and often larger egos. The academic world cherishes the word ‘critique’, yet it cements the idea that personal progress comes from gaining the approval of others. The inner critic forever glances over its shoulder. Studies on campus anxiety show disturbingly high levels.

  • Perfectionism

It may not always be the case, yet it is often likely that the person who excels as an academic writer started showing that talent at an early age. Teachers praised you for good performance and used your work as an example to show the class. The better you did, the more recognition came your way. Being perfect was a way to distinguish yourself from the pack and to validate your self-worth. That habit, to always want to go that one step further than anyone else or risk the chance of making a mistake that others can see, can haunt you when faced with an extensive academic writing project. 

  • Procrastination

Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow? Most probably because of a fear of failure. Some argue that procrastination could also be a learned behaviour, but most often, the inability to get started or wrap up an essay or academic paper have to do with anxiety and perfectionism – the terrible trio of writer’s block. 


4 Tips to overcome that dreaded academic writer’s block


1. Clarify your Purpose

Why suffer this agony? Who is the intended reader of your output, and why should you care about their reaction? Make sure that you understand why you are even engaging with this writing project. Revisit the correspondence where they set their expectations and speak to a colleague or fellow grad school student who might previously have had to meet the same expectations to test the waters. Is that bar that makes you so anxious to put your research into an article or thesis truly set as high as you perceive it to be? 

2. Brainstorming & Mind-Mapping

Academic writers hardly suffer writer’s block because of a dearth of ideas. Instead, the main issue is having so much information and so many ideas that the challenges are prioritisation and organisation. That is where brainstorming and mind-mapping techniques may help you ‘see’ the issues differently. 

Find one of those large rolls of oversized paper they used to have at the local fish-and-chips shop. Grab a bunch of different coloured pens, and let it flow. Just get ideas down in any shape, colour or form. Like a good dough, let it sit for a while and then start finding links and clues. 

3. Speak Your Story

Sit down with a writing buddy, your supervisor or mentor, or even a non-academic friend. No notes, no paper. Tell them the story of the idea you are working on and humour their interruptions, questions, and comments. Articulation of a thought is a cleansing process for the fog in your mind. Looking someone in the eye and finding the right words to make a point forces the hard choices you have been avoiding on paper. 

From such discussions, build yourself a high-level outline of headings around your flow of logic. Imagine you had just three minutes of your supervisor’s time next week. Could you use your headings (perhaps with one explanatory sentence per heading) to make it clear where your writing is going? 

4. Set a writing schedule

This solution is often stated by psychologists who have studied writer’s block. Do not wait until the muse strikes you before sitting down at your desk. Rather, diarise and stick to your writing slots as religiously as pitching up to lectures. See it as a non-negotiable commitment. 


Key Takeaways

The writing process is one of the most demanding cognitive functions humans perform. When we move homes, we call a professional moving company. When we get sick, we see a professional doctor. So, sometimes it may just help to find a professional writing coach or other seasoned professionals to see you through the eye of the needle. Click here to sign-up for a workshop or writing mentor sooner rather than later. Anything else would be, uh-hum, procrastination!

© Pexels 2021 / photo: Daria Shevtsova