The most common cause of “writer’s block” actually has nothing to do with writing at all.
Writer’s block is usually the result of poor planning.
Often the writer has not done enough research on a topic or has done too much. When someone hasn’t done enough research, whether they are a professor or a student, they then face the task of trying to stretch out slim research over the required length of a paper. They sit down to try to write, agonize about where to start and wonder how they are going to get to the end. Halfway through, they realize they have run out of material and are painfully prevented from continuing. They have no facts to support paragraphs’ topic sentences, much less the paper’s conclusion.
But many potential authors do not blame themselves for thin research. Instead, they point the finger at “writer’s block.”
Likewise, too much research leaves many writers unsure where to begin. Rather than write, they keep trying to remember their material and organize it and much of what they have gathered may be tangential to their topic. If they haven’t carefully kept track of the relevant research while they did it, much more time is spent wading through a stack of library books or Internet links than actually writing.
But they do not blame the time wasted on irrelevant research or their own disorganization—they blame writer’s block.
I believe writer’s block can often be prevented and here are my suggestions for doing the necessary planning:
Choose your topic and plot out your approach carefully: Too broad a topic will bloat a writer’s work, too narrow a topic will starve it. Students should check with their professor about a topic or do some preliminary research to make sure there will be enough material available for whatever length paper they need to write. They also need to think about the time they have for research and understand that they will probably not cover the history of the world in a month.
The same goes for senior academics: Take the time to check the resources available for particular topics, think about what the final path will be through the gathered material and what the different conclusions could be depending on what is found.
If a social scientist doing a survey only tries to prove or disprove one particular hypothesis, he or she risks getting a negative conclusion and having a paper that will be difficult to write and harder to publish. If the scientist casts a wider net, then he or she will be able to write about whatever patterns are found.
Imagine the shape of your writing while you are doing research: As a journalist, when I am out in the field interviewing people and gathering material, I am already beginning to assemble an article in my head. As I listen to people talk or read background material, I mentally search for what will make a good beginning, what will make a good ending and what will need to be in an “executive summary” paragraph at the top of the story. These summary paragraphs are known in the journalism trade as “nut grafs,” since they condense what is interesting or important into a nutshell.
All writers, including academics, should announce high up in an article why their topic is of interest so they are propelling readers into the rest of the article. When gathering material, writers need to keep their eyes out for statistics, quotes and other material that could effectively be put into “nut grafs.” These summary paragraphs can also help writers understand their own ideas and write more easily.
Do you write sequentially? Stop it. Start anywhere you want. After the research is done, the act of writing comes into play. Some writers have told me that they have to get their first sentence perfect before can they start the second one. And the second one perfect before they start the third and so forth. That sounds extraordinarily painful.
Those who are unsure where to start should think about all of the sections that they need to write. If there is a section that they can easily conceive, whether or not it is in the beginning, they should jump in and start working on that section. Later they can use whatever their favorite organizational device is—an outline or subheadings—to assemble the paper section by section.
Leave a starting point when stopping. I am not the first person to make this suggestion, but it is worth remembering. When you take a break, make a brief note about the next section you want to write or revise. A keyword or a phrase scribbled down can serve as a reminder of what you want to say. That means when you sit down to write again you do not have to stare at a blank piece of paper or a computer screen—you can jump right in.
I have been blessed by not having had too many attacks of writer’s block in my life. But I believe some of that is due to what I refer to as “writing in my head”—even when I am away from a journal or my laptop I am thinking about what I want to write and how. Then I take notes about my thoughts that help me get ready for the actual act of writing.
What scares many people off from writing is the belief that it is a magical act. But it is better to consider it just work to be done, mental bricklaying, placing word upon word. Occasionally the process lifts off and creates graceful phrases, original metaphors, cohesive and powerful essays. But all those come with practice and usually to those who take the time to do the planning first and then the writing.
David Wheeler is the editor of Al-Fanar Media. See the related article “A Journalist’s Advice to an Academic.”