Women in Academia: Tackling Writer’s Block

You wouldn’t believe how long I’ve stared at this Word document before I started typing. You’d think that after reading article after article on how to beat writer’s block, I’d have this thing down and words would bend to my every whim. Defeating writer’s block is a process ““ a long, arduous process ““ but hopefully this list of pointers can help us all along the path to writing superstardom.

Before I can delve too deeply into how to battle the Blank Dragon, it’s necessary to examine the roots. Writer’s block can come from a variety of sources, but the two that I encounter and experience most frequently are anxiety about my writing and feeling burnt out on the subject.

Writing anxiety usually comes about when one is working on something that must be assessed by someone one’s either trying to impress or who has a stake in their academic and/or employment future. Even writing a simple email to my advisor can be an arduous task because what if this is the email that makes her realize that I’m not that smart?  Logically, I know that that little italic voice makes no sense, but since writing is such a highly valued skill in academia, I tend to feel a bit of performance anxiety.

Feeling burnt out is almost on the other end of the spectrum from writing anxiety ““ the subject has been walked so many times that thinking about it becomes a burden. There is no worry, only dread. My friends who are finishing up writing talk about how they just can’t think about their dissertation. I have a paper manuscript that I just leave open sometimes, unable to face the same well-trodden ground.

These two different sources of writer’s block require two different (but potentially overlapping) sets of techniques.

Fighting writer’s anxiety:

Talk yourself down.  Remind yourself that your writing assignments have stood up well so far and that if you work hard, you’ll be fine, again. Remind yourself that this paper/manuscript/chapter won’t suddenly reveal a hidden side of your academic personality. It’ll be alright. You’re competent and prepared: you’ll be fine.

Free write. This one helps me more than anything else on the list. I spend too much time worrying about making my first draft a perfect draft instead of just getting the words out and working from there. I try to put myself in a relaxed mood and just spew words onto the page. I can tidy it up later, but for now, all that matters is getting stuff out there. This took a big adjustment in my attitude towards writing, but it’s been productive.

Seek out writing resources. Talk to your peers or mentors, visit the writing center, and take advantage of writing circles that focus on thesis/dissertation work. These don’t work for everyone, but if you’d benefit from additional resources, check out what’s available on campus ““ it surprised me how much was around when I actually sat down and looked.

Reigniting that passion:

Live a balanced life. Apparently, spending sufficient time relaxing, focusing on friends and family, trying out hobbies, and working on other work, makes writing easier. As you know, the whole work-life balance thing is something I’m still sorting out, but hey, I know this is good advice even if I’m still trying to implement it.

Get stoked. What gets you pumped? Do that. For me, it’s a mixture of listening to rockin’ music and talking to a friend or acquaintance or poor soul stuck on the elevator with me about what got me into the field in the first place and the cool, weird things I saw while collecting data. It’s rejuvenating.

The middle ground:

Find a productive work place. It can be your bedroom, it can be the neighborhood café, it can be your office, your work space should be wherever you feel like you can really buckle down and let those writing juices flow. Make it a point to make time in your schedule for being at your writing spot.

Take breaks when you need them, but don’t go too far. Taking well-placed breaks allows you to clear your mind and realign your thoughts, and it keeps your fingers from cramping into painful home-keys induced crone’s hands. I suggest going on a walk and getting bagels. Mmm”¦bagels”¦

The most important tip of all though is this: celebrate. Celebrate reaching a goal, or being a BAMF of an academic. You fought the word document and YOU won.

How do you deal with writer’s block? What tools/techniques do you use? What advice do you wish you had had about writing going into academia?


21 replies on “Women in Academia: Tackling Writer’s Block”

I’ve been suffering from writer’s block ever since I graduated from college. Part of my problem is I have a hard time motivating myself and finding a subject to focus on and sticking to plans and deadlines without the structure of school surrounding me and forcing me to stay multiple nights in libraries in fits of otherworldly existence where insanity, ecstasy and rage blend seamlessly.

The other problem is I was quite successful in school and feel I’ve spent most of my life working to get to “this point,” where now I suddenly need to deliver brilliance. I was even given a cultural trust grant from the state and have been unable to commit to anything, or even hardly THINK about writing, since that time. AAAAAAAAAAh.

I actually really enjoy academic writing, and for me, the hardest part is often analysis of data and the discussions portion of a paper. If I’m completely at a loss as to how to start, I begin with the background section. This generally involves summarizing key findings from other studies, so it requires little creativity and is an easy starting point. Plus, one of the biggest parts of writing is reading, so it forces me to catch up on relevant literature in the field. So, even if that means that I read for 2 hours and then write 2 paragraphs, that’s still progress. Another easy starting point is the methods section. Also, I have often written a poster abstract, thesis or grant proposal, or research description for my CV or an application before I have to write a paper describing my findings, so I’ll borrow a little from my own previous writing to get over that initial daunting blank page.

I also find that my perfect spot is a Starbucks, with snacks and a venti beverage, and enough background noise that I can talk to myself out loud without drawing stares.

In my field, writing is an important skill but one that many scientists lack, so there are a lot of university-sponsored writing workshops and courses to give people the skills they need. I strongly suggest taking one if you have anxiety about writing; it may help you to feel more equipped and give you the confidence you need in your own abilities. It’s hard enough to express yourself eloquently (and in my field, briefly) without doubting your own abilities on top of that.

This is a great post! In my own (sadly, extensive) experience dealing with writer’s block, all your advice is spot-on.

Something that I think cannot be emphasized enough is the fact that having writer’s block does not mean simply “not being sure how to start writing”. When I mention writer’s block as something I really struggle with, I often hear things like “Oh, I totally have to deal with writer’s block too, I always have to think and plan for hours before I do any actual writing, and I’m never sure how to start. You just have to stick to it until the words come.” Well, let me tell you, this is not all there is to writer’s block, and this is terrible advice! In my case, a serious bout of writer’s block involved being completely unable to add a single word to my draft, because my hands would shake and I would get nauseous just by looking at my computer screen. This went on for several weeks, during which, the harder I tried to “just stick to it”, the worse I felt about it – mentally, emotionally, and even physically. Comments like the one I quoted above made me feel frustrated and guilty, like it was my own fault because I was too lazy to “really work on it”, or simply not cut for academic work.

You hint at something that is often the cause of writer’s block, and that I think should get its own post in this series: impostor syndrome, aka “what if this is the email (or presentation, or paper, or chapter, or comment) that makes [my advisor/my superiors/my peers] realize that I’m not that smart?” Not to blow my own horn, but just so you see how pernicious this is: I’ve graduated first of my clas in everything I’ve graduated from in my life, and I have received plenty of positive feedback on my research, but I still can’t shake the fear that my dissertation defense will be the moment when people finally discover that I’ve been fooling them for ten years. This fear can be extremely difficult to rationalize, and ultimately paralysing.

Isn’t it amazing how we can do this to ourselves?

And academia is so competitive one can feel alone with these thoughts and insecurities because it’s not exactly like you want to share them with the person next to you when you may be competing with them to get grants/jobs next semester. Certainly I’ve had thoughts along these lines at times.

Exactly! This is why I’m thankful for online spaces like Persephone where we can discuss this stuff openly. It’s really difficult to establish a real support network in the academic world, because the people who really understand how this world works are often your peers/competitors, and the people who love you and care for you are often outsiders.

Thank you so much for your post. The part about hurtful “advice” is seriously dead-on, and could be expanded into a post of its own.

I’ve talked about impostor syndrome a little bit before (both touching on the issue and also trying to post a pep post in the face of that), but I will definitely come back to it because you’re absolutely right – almost everything I mention, I have to come back to (broadly) “performance anxiety”.

Here’s the deal – I want these posts to be a safe space to share your anxieties and concerns AND to toot your own horn (you’ve fucking earned it).

I’ve got a few things that work for me. First, for getting the more creative writing flowing I go for a drive. A non-city drive. Something about no stop-lights, taking corners fast, I dunno, but it almost always works. For more critical thinking, I have a dialogue partner. He asks me the questions about my thesis/ideas that I haven’t thought of yet. Often infuriating, but good for generating more thought. Lastly, the group discussion thing. This isn’t so much for getting the text on the page, but for generating ideas. I have both a creative group (writers I workshop/book club with) and a critical group (eco-feminists and post-structuralists) that always leave me jazzed to get on the page. Without the inspiration I just watch reruns of Buffy and wash dishes.

I know a woman who re-decorated her entire apartment in the time she was trying to finish her dissertation. The internet is a beautifully distracting thing and there are so many websites selling so many things! Things! To buy!

Rewarding myself is the way I get from one page to the next. And appreciating very small victories. For example: “If you write one more page you can have a glass of wine and watch an episode of Modern Family!”

My thesis adviser observed that many of the women she has worked with were less confident in trusting in their ability to present research and write than the men. This is just one professors observation, but it did make me wonder if it’s something other academic women have experienced to be true.

Haha, a glass of wine and Modern Family would certainly be an incentive for me, too.

Your thesis advisor’s observation is an interesting one, (especially, for this post, in the context of writer’s anxiety). I did a cursory google/lit search and found that writer’s block hasn’t been directly studied all that much. There was a paper* that found that women and men experience writer’s block at the same frequency, but that women tend to experience longer bouts of writer’s block and they tend to beat themselves up over it more than men. It looks like your thesis advisor was onto something.

More papers that I found (just now!) focus on issues with language itself and that’s something I plan to address in a future post, so, you know, if that interests you, keep your eyes peeled!

*Cayton, M. K. (1990). What Happens When Things Go Wrong: Women and Writing Blocks. Journal of Adv. Comp. 10(2):321-337.

My favorite anthropology professor during my undergrad talked about impostor syndrome a lot during her classes. She was the “-isms” professor, taught classes on gender, class, and race, so she was uniquely positioned to discuss impostor syndrome in these particular interstices.
She always welcomed students to come to her with their anxieties and talked freely and openly about her own in class. I know for me and some other classmates, just having someone acknowledge our impostor anxieties did a lot to mitigate them.
So whenever I’m feeling like a fraud, I seek out friends in academia (in different fields) to vent my frustrations. We’re able to shore up each other’s morale, give beer-fueled pep talks, and generally just be there for each other. That’s how I finally finished my independent study project this past summer, and I suspect that’s how I’ll survive graduate school.
I’m really glad that I can find that same kind of support at Persephone (and to some extent on Tumblr.) You’re all the best!

When I’m seriously blocked, I take a shower. By the time I’m soaping up my pits, my brain is exploding with ideas and I’m wishing I had a waterproof laptop. I don’t know what it is about the shower that helps me punch through block.

(It’s also very useful for revisions when I know that something is fundamentally wrong and I cannot figure out what it is. Hop in the shower, let that water sluice, and the click moment happens. Every time.)

TRUTH. Right here. Half an hour ago I was trying to convince my student that, even though she was having trouble starting her conclusion, the previous six chapters she’s written count for something. Then there’s Sunday afternoon student, who’s just now starting her dissertation even though she finished classes five years ago. Then there’s me, who gave up altogether in favor of… teaching writing.

Love this post, love the series!

I struggle with writer’s block like crazy but I find I do well when I stick to one particular method I picked up in undergrad: the power hour. Not the fun version that people at normal college do, of course, but the special one from my special institution.

Basically, you sit down in your writing space, disconnect from the internet if you can, and do nothing but write for one hour. NOTHING. Don’t go to the bathroom. Phone off. No emails. Don’t even move if you can avoid it. It’s much, much easier to start free writing when you know you can get up in an hour and do something else.

When the hour is up, you must get up and go somewhere. Don’t sit at your computer messing around on the internet – go for a walk, make a cup of tea, do your laundry, organise life crap like that. See a friend! Personally I work upstairs in our spare bedroom, so I come downstairs and relax. Just respect the break, because the power hours don’t work if you don’t take proper breaks. They say to do 30 minutes of breaktime, but I usually reach maximum productivity when I take a full hour. I find working in this way I can produce on average 2000 words a day in only four hours of ‘work’ – and I still have time to enjoy a normal lunch break, do my laundry and stay on top of my life.

Hope that helps some people! It really works for me. That, and a glass of wine – really makes it easier to stop second-guessing myself!

Ha, yes the wine helps. I wouldn’t say one should dissertate under the influence, but a beer or two got me out of a block more than a few times during my dissertation.

Also, I agree with the power hour idea. I think it helps to not put pressure on yourself to write anything brilliant, but just sitting and typing something for an hour straight helps. Eventually you will hit a groove and what you need will come out.

I did a softer version of this for the last two chapters of my diss. I wrote in HUGE LETTERS across the top of my monitor “WRITE ONE PAGE,” and once I sat down to work for the first time in a day I wouldn’t let myself do anything else until I finished a page. Now that I am on my last chapter it has lost its magic power over me.

So, I am going to try your method. One hour. It is 11 now, and I am freakin’ inspired. Go!

Leave a Reply