The worst advice I’ve ever been given to beat writer’s block can be summed up in two words: just start. Let me tell you why that advice sucks.
First, there is nothing more terrifying than a blinking cursor on a blank page combined with high expectations.
Do you have a million ideas and no idea which one to choose?
Do you have a quickly approaching deadline?
Are you a perfectionist?
Whatever form your high expectations take, being told to just start is a recipe for disaster. Staring at a blank page is the surest way for me to do just about anything else instead.
Second, when someone tells you to just start, they rarely if ever tell you where to start. Put another way, they never tell you what to start with. It’s like giving you a box of furniture parts and some tools, but no instruction manual.
There are two ways to approach this situation.
You might abandon the task entirely, which is entirely fair. They put you in an impossible situation!
Alternatively, you might break down and choose a place to start that looks straightforward enough. But it would be a lot easier if you had a piece of paper that enumerated each of the steps for you.
For most of us, the stakes are too high to go with the first option, so we figure out where to start eventually.
All About Writer’s Block
A 2017 study on university student’s writer’s block levels in Turkey found that:
- 6% of first-year students never had writer’s block
- 24% of first-year students nearly always had writer’s block
- 70% of first-year students only experienced writer’s block occasionally
Things aren’t much better for graduate students in the U.S.: according to the PhD Completion Project (as cited by Schuman 2014), a decade after starting 55-64% of PhD students in STEM, 56% in the social sciences, and 49% in the humanities still hadn’t finished their dissertations.
The data is pretty conclusive then: writer’s block happens to all of us.
You’ve probably experienced it when writing research papers for your classes. It also happens when you’re writing a conference paper, a fellowship application, a research proposal.
For me, it happens a lot when I’m working on my dissertation (here’s hoping it doesn’t take me more than ten years to finish it).
If writer’s block is such an inevitability, what’s an academic to do?
I could sit here and run through a list of best practices, tips and tricks, but there are plenty of those out there already. Instead, I want to let you in on the one way that I always overcome my writer’s block.
The secret? Data analysis.
Tackling Writer’s Block Using Your Data
Let me explain.
When you write something, there’s almost always data involved.
That data can look different for different people: for example, a philologist’s data might be one or several ancient texts, while an archaeologist’s data would be some form of material culture.
It can also look different for different types of writing: the data for a research paper would be quantitatively different than, say, a personal statement, in which the ‘data’ would be your personal and professional experiences.
The principle for overcoming writer’s block in all scenarios, however, is the same.
Whenever you feel stuck, just turn to your data and figure out what it’s telling you. What do you notice about your data? Are there trends or patterns you recognize? Does what you see remind you of anything you’ve seen or read before?
Feeling stuck? Check out this handy worksheet!
Whatever your data is telling you, write it down.
When I get stuck, I always turn to descriptive writing. I just look at a vessel, or a text, or an architectural feature and I describe it in as much detail as I can. Sometimes I describe two or more things and compare them.
Here’s an example from an early draft of one of my dissertation chapters:
On one side of a red-figured bell-krater attributed to the Painter of the Louvre Centauromachy dating to ca. 475-425 BCE (216005) is a depiction of a “standard” symposium.. there are two youthful male symposiasts reclining on couches… the symposiasts are separated in the middle of the scene by a single female entertainer who faces to the right and plays the double flute. Each of the two symposiasts has his own table, under which the painter has added their respective pairs of shoes. The symposiasts themselves are bare-chested, draped only from the waist down. The symposiast on the left turns to look at his companion over his shoulder, while holding in his right hand a vessel resembling a skyphos, or deep cup. The symposiast on the right faces forward, holding a stemmed vessel, likely a kylix, aloft in his right hand, echoing the position of the first symposiast
It might seem trivial, but they’re words on a page. And words on a page are better than no words on a page, especially when you’re under strict time constraints.
I’ll also add that this is just a first draft.
What you’ve written will grow and evolve the more you work on it. The ellipses in the passage I shared above represent places where I did in fact go back and insert a quotation from scholarship I had read and was relating my analysis to.
My biggest piece of advice to you in this process is to start with writing what you see.
Worry about how your observations relate to previous scholarship later.
Doing so will help you avoid falling into a trap that I fell into early in my dissertation writing journey: privileging other scholars’ words over my own. Practicing writing what you see helps you get comfortable with your own ideas and seeing them on paper.
Your thoughts are important – treat them that way!
Do you struggle with writer’s block? Let me know how you’ve overcome it!
If you’re still stuck, I’ve created this handout you can download in order to help you out.