The Perils of a Writer’s Profession: Overcoming Writer’s Block

I have a confession. My most recent post for EHN was supposed to be handed in about three weeks ago. In fact, I was almost done with the article when I was struck down by one of the most dreaded conditions known to those of us who write for a living: Writer’s Block.

Cue the strings of frustrated cursing, which were—sadly—not that long or even that inspired since, you know, Writer’s Block.

If you are a person who will spend a great deal of your professional life writing, you too are likely to become afflicted by Writer’s Block at some point. Why causes this odious and irritating state of mind to happen?

Writing aficionado Jeff Goins speculates that there are three main reasons: timing, fear, and perfectionism. Your ideas might not be developed enough to be put down on paper or on the computer screen, you might be afraid that your writing won’t be good enough, or you’re overly focused on having the words be perfect in your mind before committing them to writing.

As historians, I think we probably deal with those three causes in varying degrees, but I think there are other things that can influence the particular nature of writing about people, places, and events from the past—especially as doctoral candidates or professional scholars. From my own experiences and the discussions that I’ve had with others, I believe the following two factors can also significantly affect our productivity and even bring on a bout of Writer’s Block:

  1. You’re Overwhelmed by Too Much Information. When you embark on a new project as a historian, one of the first tasks you’ll undertake is research. Of course, “task” makes the activity sound somewhat quaint and limited, but the truth is, the research phase can take months at best. I spent almost two years gathering documents for my dissertation, and when I was done, I had about 80,000 pages of primary source material.

If you were to bet that I spent about a month looking at all that information and did almost no writing, you’d be a winner (however, I can report that my kitchen cabinets and Google bookmarks became supremely organized during that time).

  1. You’re Burnt Out. Whether you’re a graduate student or tenured professor, you probably have a lot going on. Not only do you have to do all that writing, you also have to teach, serve on committees, apply for grants, raise your families, or even occasionally sleep. In fact, there’s not really a lot of “down time” for academics and researchers, unless we insist upon making some. I can’t tell you how many times I used the Christmas holiday or Spring Break to catch up on the writing I had neglected in favor of making lectures or grading papers.

Every writing professional will probably experience burn out at some point, but if you’re trying to do two full-time jobs (e.g. teaching + scholarship or content development + scholarship), you’re likely to burn out pretty rapidly if you don’t take deliberate steps to keep yourself refreshed.

So, what are some ways we can overcome Writer’s Block if it’s already set in?

  1. Write anyway. It doesn’t matter if you type out the most nonsensical, pedantic prose of your life, do it anyway for 5-10 minutes a couple of days a week. It will feel a lot like going to the gym right after Thanksgiving dinner, but maintaining the regular habit of writing will keep a week of Writer’s Block from turning into something longer.
  1. Swap up your writing medium. Do you normally write on the computer? Do you usually use Microsoft Word for your composition? Try jotting down some thoughts on paper. Send out some Tweets or make a Facebook post about a random idea you had recently. You could also write out some flashcards related to your research (keywords on one side, with a sentence-long explanation on the other) or do some PowerPoint presentation slides about two or three things you learned recently.
  1. Change your environment. Is your desk messy? Straighten it up and clean the surface off with a cloth. Go for a ten-minute walk before sitting down to write. Try writing outdoors on your laptop or in a notebook (and if you can’t work outside, try working in a different room or just move your desk chair to another corner).
  1. Talk to someone. Call up a friend or another colleague and tell them you’re having a case of Writer’s Block and talk to them about what you’re working on. Tell them the gist of the project, what you’re most excited about, or if there’s something you were surprised to learn. (Using messaging apps or in-person meetings are also perfectly fine!)
  1. Meditate. I recommend starting with breath mediation if you have no experience with meditating, and I also encourage you to do meditation exercises more than once or twice. (Seriously, if you’re not doing meditation on a regular basis, I highly, emphatically suggest adding 10 minutes of meditation to your daily routine.) Just Google “breath meditation” or “breathing meditation,” and you’ll find a ton of tutorials that can guide you through the practice.

Finally, one of the best things you can do for yourself when you’re going through a stretch of Writer’s Block is to be nice to yourself. Try to get as much rest, nutritious food, water, and sleep as you can but don’t give in to the negative self-talk. Everyone goes through periods where they can’t focus or produce the results they’d like to, and you’re no different.

Got your own remedies for Writer’s Block? Share them with us, @rhbond_phd and @envhistnow!