As scholars, writing is part and parcel of our day to day practice, even if it is not always explicitly taught. The intense academic environment riddled with expectations, competition, and risk, among other pressures, can lead to anxieties about writing that range from “I don’t want to continue because I got poor feedback” to “Writing this article doesn’t make me feel good.” Often called writer’s block, this informal term, in its broadest instantiation, describes the negative or apprehensive feelings about the creative aspect of writing. These feelings arise from negative experiences with the writing process and are not inherent to you as an individual.
Because of that, taking time to recognize what your writer’s block is in response to—whether that is a personal fear, a complicated professional relationship, traumatic negative feedback from a past writing experience, or something entirely separate—is crucial for developing strategies to work through those feelings and find an approach to the writing process that works for you. It’s really important to note that these feelings will not always be the same throughout your writing life. You may, for instance, feel great while writing conference abstracts, but when it comes to writing the conference paper, feel like you don’t know where to begin. Or, you may be comfortable talking to close advisors and graduate student peers, but have difficulty composing networking emails to professionals in your field. What is important to take from these brief and noncomprehensive examples is that “writing anxiety and writers’ block are situational” (“Writing”).
In addition, as difficult as it can sometimes seem, it is important to have self-compassion and self-forgiveness in regards to the writing process. This can take the form of acknowledging your strengths, giving yourself permission to be an ‘imperfect’ writer, or recognizing that there are external factors you can’t control. Sometimes this process can be difficult to move through on your own, so asking friends, partners, advisors, or other trusted sources to help you identify your writing strengths can be a good place to start (Chen).
In the rest of this blog post I’ve laid out a series of questions and statements that attempt to capture various writer’s block scenarios. While they take into account the emotions that many graduate students face in each of these situations, my goal is to suggest writing and brainstorming strategies that will, ideally, allow you to engage with these feelings and past experiences and also develop new habits moving forward.
If you are looking for emotional writing support on the UC Davis campus, I advise you to get in touch with UC Davis Health and Counseling Services and schedule an appointment. In addition, psychologist Dr. Bai-Yin Chen runs a weekly summer thesis and dissertation writing workshop series which provides a “supportive space for graduate students to explore tools to overcome obstacles, such as goal setting, procrastination, social isolation, and time management.”
It feels like I approach every writing session with extremely negative feelings.
Many writers experience negative feelings toward their writing during the writing process, for a wide range of reasons. Externalizing those feelings onto paper, a computer, or even drawing them if that suits you, can help you learn more about where these negative feelings stem from. This might feel like a challenging process to confront on your own, and that’s okay! You have many options for helping you think about the root cause of your anxieties and how you can start to work through them that don’t include writing them down. Instead, you might find it easier to have a conversation with another person. If that’s the case, you can talk to an advisor, a close peer in your department, a writing consultant, or set up an appointment with counseling services.
In addition to working through where your anxieties stem from, it’s important to discuss your positive feelings, too! As Wendy Belcher suggests, “in order to feel better about your writing…[you need] to remember the context in which positive feelings arose” (Belcher 4). Making a list of good memories associated with the writing process is a useful anchor to developing consistent writing habits that aren’t associated with apprehension or fear.
I procrastinate every writing project I have.
If you procrastinate during the writing process it is important to first identify what emotions you are trying to avoid by avoiding writing. Once you’ve spent some time working through the emotional element of procrastination, set small attainable goals for writing sessions and check-in with a friend beforehand to lay out your goal(s). If you are writing together in the same space, have that friend check-in with you after the allotted time to see if you achieved your goal. If not, that’s okay! Try refiguring your goals until you settle on what is achievable within the time you allot yourself. Creating an overarching timeline with a trusted peer and breaking down the amount of work into (more) manageable chunks can make procrastination feel less inevitable. In addition, setting boundaries on media intake during these sessions can be important (Chen). There are a variety of web blockers out there, but a personal favorite of mine is the Forest app.
Every time I sit down to write I delete my thoughts after every two sentences. Is there a way to change this approach?
It can often feel like every sentence you write gets you nowhere so you end up deleting it, only to try again and come up with another sentence that seems completely wrong or worthless too. However, if you delete every sentence that doesn’t feel “perfect” it’s going to take a long time to amass enough sentences to even revise!
If this is a situation you frequently find yourself in, I have a few different suggestions for you to test out. First, try two paired idea generation methods called freewriting and looping. Begin with a free-write to generate a lot of ideas by writing without stopping for a short period of time, say 15-20 minutes. This allows you to get all your thoughts out without worrying about achieving perfection. Then, move into looping, which is a continuation of freewriting. After the first 20 minutes is up, read your document over and circle the sentences, phrases or ideas that you are excited about. Then free-write again for another 15-20 minute period, focusing on those specific phrases or ideas. This allows you to hone in on particular ideas that are moving you in the direction you want to go in and extract the most useful details from them.
Second, if you are stuck on one particular idea and cannot seem to come up with the right words, I suggest setting your document aside and talking it out. You can talk to a wall, into an empty room, into a voice recording device, or to a friend. Whoever or whatever you’re speaking to, switching to another mode can help you find a way to express that idea differently.
I have all the content I want in my writing project, but the organization is a mess and it’s never going to get better so I’ve left it sitting on my desk for weeks.
For the extensive writing projects required in graduate school, it can be exceedingly difficult to get a sense of the overall shape of an article or dissertation that is managing multiple thematic threads and a large number of sources. For visual thinkers, it can be helpful to print out your draft, cut up the paragraphs, write a brief one-sentence summary of that paragraph on the back of each paragraph, and then play with rearranging them on a table until you settle on an organization that makes a more persuasive argument. If that feels like too much work, try using the comment function in any word processing tool to label each paragraph with a one-sentence summary. Then ask yourself the following questions:
- Does every paragraph relate back to my main idea?
- Is one paragraph trying to do too much by addressing multiple topics?
- Do any of my paragraphs repeat the same ideas?
The answers to these questions can help guide your organization revision by showing you more clearly where ideas are overlapping, aren’t expressed fully enough, or would be more strongly expressed elsewhere in the draft (“Reverse”).
I need disciplinary help on a dissertation or article, but I don’t feel comfortable going to my PI or dissertation chair for a certain element of writing support. What should I do?
It can be extremely challenging when you feel like you can’t reach out to a mentor or project lead for a certain element of writing support, especially if they know the most about the project you’re working on. But this happens more frequently than you might think. If this is the position you find yourself in, my main suggestion is to come up with a list or group of folx who you do feel supported by. Do you have a mentor in an adjacent department? Has a fellow graduate student gone through similar difficulties with this mentor/project lead, and how did they manage the situation? What support do you absolutely feel like you’re missing by not communicating with this individual, and can you identify another person or support system from which you can get that information or support? Coming up with answers to these questions can help you decide the best course of action.
What if I have trouble managing my writing time?
With our packed schedules, it can be hard to feel like you have any time to write, let alone get all of the other things done on your to-do list! Because we often feel like we need larger chunks of time to write, finding that time feels almost impossible. But often the key to managing your writing time is to start writing more regularly. One way to get into a writing routine is to create a calendar for yourself. If you have a deadline, you can lay out the calendar all the way up to your deadline, but if you’re working on something like a multi-year dissertation project, sometimes creating a calendar with a deadline isn’t all that helpful. I suggest starting with a weekly plan. On Sunday, take a look at your calendar for the week and identify at least 5 out of 7 days of the week that you can dedicate to your writing project. You do not have to spend the same amount of time every day working. For example, your Monday might be a busy lab day, so you only have 15 to 30 minutes to write—that’s fine! Training yourself to take advantage of those shorter time slots is important. Once you’ve laid out the time slots that you will dedicate to writing during the week, create a list of small achievable goals, whether that’s to write one body paragraph, fix footnotes, brainstorm for a specific section of the project paper, or talk to your advisor about something you’re having trouble with. It’s important to note that “writing” time does not have to be only dedicated to writing. It can include brainstorming, discussions about writing, researching, etc. Anything that is moving you through the writing process in a new direction counts. Remember, check-in with your writing calendar on a daily basis, and if you miss a scheduled time, don’t worry about it! The point of the calendar is not to add on more guilt, but rather to help you identify what time you think you can devote to a writing project ahead of time. Missing a day or two will not send you off-track (Belcher 22-25).
I received some extremely dismissive comments on a draft I was proud of and I can’t bring myself to do another revision.
If you are in this position, recognizing your feelings in regard to the piece of writing and the comments is important. Moreover, taking time away from the comments can also be essential, especially when you poured a lot of hard work, energy, and time into a draft only for it to appear as if the reader/commenter didn’t take any of that into account. Taking time away will both give you space to process your emotions and decide how you want to engage with the comments when you do return to them.
When you do sit down to engage with the comments, this can happen in a variety of ways. You can bring comments to a writing consultant or friend and have a conversation about how to balance the feedback with your own thoughts about the purpose of the project and how you see it developing. As a third party without the same emotional stake in the writing project, the writing consultant can often help translate negative comments into suggestions for revision. If you prefer to work through the comments on your own, writing down side-by-side lists of what the reviewer or commenter is suggesting you do alongside your own desires and intellectual underpinnings for the project is important. Engaging with the issues the reviewer had is important for growing and developing as a writer, but the last thing you want is for a reviewer’s overly negative comments to take over your writing and revising process.
I’d like to talk to a peer about my writing. Where can I find this support?
The UC Davis University Writing Program (UWP) offers a variety of resources to support you as a writer. If you’d like to speak one-on-one with a graduate writing fellow about writer’s block or any other aspect of the writing process, you can find the link to sign up for an appointment here. Fellows can talk through additional writing strategies that aren’t included in this document and have access to a broad web of additional writing resources that we can connect you with. If you’re looking for ongoing writing accountability, consider signing up for the writing partner program. This program creates mutually beneficial relationships between you and a fellow graduate student, providing you with someone to turn to for feedback before you turn it into your advisor or to talk through a complicated idea you’re having trouble expressing in your latest seminar paper. Finally, if you are looking for a supportive, quiet, and snack-laden space to get a multi-hour writing session done, consider attending a graduate writing retreat! Each 3-hour retreat is held by a graduate writing fellow who is there to answer any questions you might have.
Belcher, Wendy Laura. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success. Sage Publications, 2009
Chen, Bai-Yin. “‘I Thought I Knew How to Write’ – Overcoming Writing Anxiety.” Leonardo de Oliveira Silva’s Professors for the Future Workshop Series, 5 May 2020, UC Davis, Davis, CA.
“Reverse Outlines: A Writer’s Technique for Examining Organization.” The Writing Center, UW Madison, 29 May 2020, writing.wisc.edu/handbook/process/reverseoutlines/.
“Writing Anxiety.” UNC Writing Center, 29 May 2020, writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/writing-anxiety/.