Dealing with Writer’s Block: How I Write When it’s the Last Thing I Want to Do

It’s just gone 6am on a Saturday morning and I need to get some writing done this weekend for a project that is overdue and has a final final deadline on Monday. It’s been a really long week and I don’t have much in the tank. To be honest, all I want to do is sit on the sofa with a pot of tea and spend the weekend watching Netflix with my hubby. I think we all have moments like this, and, to get me into the right head space, I’m starting my morning by writing this blog. I hope this might help some of you who are in the same place.

Know When Procrastination is Part of the Process and When You Are Just Wasting Time

When I was writing papers and my PhD thesis, I used to get really angry at myself for wasting time.I would spend the first three days wandering around and doing anything but putting words to paper. When I did sit down, I would just get words out. In general it takes me about two days to write a paper. I would then be even madder at myself for not getting to it earlier as I felt that I could achieve so much more if I just focussed.

Over the years I’ve discovered that the reason the words come easily when I sit down at a laptop is precisely because I’ve spent three days prevaricating. During that period of wandering around I’m thinking. Thinking about the story I want to tell with my results. Thinking about my top points. Finally, thinking about structure. It is all of this thinking, not all of it active, that enables me to hit the ground running when I come to actually write.

This isn’t to say that I’m not guilty of procrastination. There’s a reason this book chapter is late. I’m tired and finding it difficult to concentrate, which means that everything just makes my mind wander. It is really important to know yourself enough to know when you are in ‘preparation phase’ vs ‘procrastination’: one is useful to you and the other isn’t.

The Fear of a Blank Page

I find blank pages intimidating. I do. I know that I should see them as full of possibility and exciting, but I see them as a physical representation of how far I have to go. One of the first things I have to do, therefore, is get stuff onto that page in the least stressful way possible. How to do this depends on what the project is. For papers, I often just start by getting headers down. If I’m lucky enough to have some previous text on the subject I will copy and paste bits in as reminders. Usually I keep these highlighted so I know they are old text that needs re-working/replacing. If it’s something completely new, I will populate with lines from papers that I’m going to build reference structure around.

When I was writing my thesis, I wouldn’t even start chapter writing until I’d done a reading phase to help avoid the ‘blank page fear’. I would spend a week reading all the papers linked to the chapter I was about to write. During that reading phase, I would write the key points and linked references down in a Word document. I’d then shuffle them by topic. When I got to the week allocated for writing I would then have lots of text to import into my structure so I could avoid the blank page terror.

Structure is King

I’ve spent quite a lot of time writing different types of documents and I’ve discovered that there are only so many types of underlying structure, even though they often look different. Papers are a great example of this. One main advantage to them is that you can clearly see what that structure is, and you have access to all the information you need to help you.

When writing papers (and I’ve blogged about this before) you can look and see how many paragraphs that journal tends to have under discussion vs methods vs results. This helps you know where you need to focus the majority of your words. The same is true for grant applications: if you look at a section’s word count, it gives you a clue about what the readers will want to see. For less formal writing, I still tend to look at other pieces of content that have come out and decide if any of them fit what I want to write. It saves re-drafting and focusses the mind.

Structure will help you write. I will use bullet points under headers to show what my structure is, i.e. a bullet point per paragraph. If there are three paragraphs (such as tends to be used for an introduction) I will use them as follows:

  • Paragraph 1 – What’s the setting/problem?
  • Paragraph 2 – What are the knowns and what are the unknowns?
  • Paragraph 3 – What am I going to do? what’s the plan of action?

By planning my paragraph structure I try to avoid falling down too many rabbit holes and maintain the story of what I’m telling. I am then able to do the same with each of the paragraphs:

  • Line 1 – State what I’m going to tell you.
  • Line 2 – Tell you what I’m telling you with all the detail.
  • Line 3 – Reinforce my key point and link to the paragraph that will follow.

Doing this means that I’m not worrying about what comes next when I’m writing. I’m just hanging words off a structure that helps me as well as leading the reader.

Sometimes The Only Way Is Through

There are times that, no matter how much research I’ve done, no matter how prepped I am, I just can’t make the writing work. I’m lucky. it doesn’t happen to me very often but the pandemic has made it a more frequent event. Normally I hate working in silence. I’m not good at doing one thing at a time. I need music or TV when I work to actually help me focus. I know this may sound odd to many people. When I hit a particular wall, however, I’ve learnt that I have to shift from the way working normally works for me. In these circumstances I call upon my husband, Jon. I tell him what I need, i.e. I must work for 3 hours to break the back of this document. I tell him the night before and let him know the timeline. The next day he banishes me to the office, frequently supplying me with tea. On these occasions I work in silence and need enough dedicated time to get into ‘the zone’. Because I don’t want to do it, anything that can make me distracted, will make me distracted. I therefore retreat to a space where all the things that usually help me aren’t present. This shift allows me to trick my brain enough to make progress. Finding your Jon to push you when you can’t push yourself is super helpful.

The other thing I do is make deals with myself and – most importantly – stick to them ,i.e. I am allowed to go and bake that cake I want to if I’ve done three hours. I am not allowed to do it if I do less than that. There’s no letting me off for good behaviour. This is a Yoda moment ‘Do or do not, there is no try!’. Being honest with yourself is key: after all, there is a good chance you’ll know when you’re lying. Make the reward proportional to the effort, i.e. when I run a half marathon successfully I buy myself a nice dress, for 3 hours work I get a new pot of tea.

Know When to Walk Away

Some days, be aware that writing is just not going to happen. This can happen for a bunch of reasons: tiredness, illness, last minute invitations to a cocktail bar. It is only possible to enjoy the freedom of walking away if it’s a) not a project that has to happen or b) you’ve left yourself enough deadline time so that you can come back to it later. If either a or b are true then sometimes it is better to just not punish yourself and return to it later. That’s completely OK. You may need more thinking time; you may be having a super bad day. Lets not punish ourselves more than we already do. Embrace the fact that you have project-managed well enough to let it go for a bit. Also, be aware that you only have so many free passes before you are sitting here early on a Saturday morning and there are no more to take. Use them wisely!

Top Tips:

  • Let the frustration with yourself go as it doesn’t get you anywhere. Work out the source and find a way through or around.
  • If you do the research on structures beforehand you may find the writing process easier and more efficient.
  • Know when you have time to defer and when you need to push through. Make an active choice rather than defaulting to the last minute.

All opinions on this blog are my own

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