Writer's block can happen to anyone who writes. Most famously, it happens to literary authors, but it can also happen to students of literature, even though an academic essay is a quite different form of writing. Writer's block is not procrastination; it is an inability to work, rather than an avoidance of work (University Counselling Service leaflet, Work Block). Like procrastination, writer's block can happen for a diverse variety of reasons, and different strategies will work for different people. Many writers feel passive in the face of writer's block, that they must simply wait for the muse to appear. However, there are steps you can take to get your ideas or words flowing again, encouraging inspiration to strike.
If ideas won't come to you, or you can't find any connection between them, you could try:
- Mapping out the information you have about the task and the topic, and seeing if there are any gaps. You may not have all the knowledge you need to allow your ideas to develop, or have misunderstood some of the information you have been given. Some targetted research may help. See the section on Finding Information for further guidance.
- Creative thinking strategies. Introduce a new, random element into your thinking, and see how your existing ideas bounce off it. This could be another text, or an aspect of the text you are focussing on such as a character or theme. It could even be something non-literary such as an object in the room. The resulting ideas may not be strictly relevant to your essay topic, but the purpose of this exercise is to find a fresh way of viewing your existing material by putting it in juxtaposition with something unexpected.
- Using a different planning method from your usual one to work out your ideas. If you are a linear planner (i.e. bullet points), you could try a non-linear technique such as mind mapping to allow your ideas to develop more loosely, before reviewing them and putting them in order.
- Freewriting. Writing can be a way of 'thinking out loud'. Use a paper and pen to write continuously for five minutes. Don't worry about what you produce - just keep going without worrying about the style and without judging the content or relevance. This may help to free up your ideas and overcome blocks. It may result in some useful text you can edit, but this is not the primary aim.
- Interrogating the topic with questions. The pressure to produce answers may be causing the block, or limiting your thinking. Ask as many different questions as you can think of about the topic and see where they take you.
If words won't come to you, you could try:
- Freewriting (see above). A blank page can be intimidating, as can the pressure to write something usable first time round. Give yourself permission to write a bad draft, use your natural voice rather than worrying about academic style or even grammar. It can always be edited later. You could even just doodle, or use a scrap of paper with notes already on it, to overcome the blank page.
- Starting in the middle. Introductions and first sentences in particular can be daunting. Begin somewhere else in your essay, and come back to the parts you are stuck on. You don't have to write the draft in order.
- Talking through your ideas, with a friend or using a voice recorder. Using a medium other than the written word to express yourself can free you up to produce material which can then be turned into a written draft.
If you're feeling under too much pressure and have gone blank, you could try:
- A change of scene. If you always work in the same place, you could be getting stale.
- A routine. This can reinforce associations with productive working sessions.
- Taking a break. Do something physical, whether stretching and relaxing, a walk, or sport. It is tempting to feel you ought to keep going if your work session has been unproductive, but breaks are something you need, rather than deserve. If you are getting tired, you will not work efficiently.
- Talking to someone non-judgmental about work pressures. This might be your Supervisor or Director of Studies, or it could be the College Nurse, student mentor, Librarian, friends or family.
The University Counselling Service can offer further guidance on dealing with writer's block, helping you explore what is causing it, and strategies to help you overcome it or manage it in a productive way. You might like to read their leaflet on work block or attend a 'Can't Work' group session.