Dr. Judith M. Newman

On Being Stuck

There are two kinds of writing blocks:

  • Procedural Blocks — we have difficulty deciding what to write next
  • Psychological Blocks — we cannot bring ourselves to write anything

Procedural Blocks

  • We can be in the position of not knowing what to write next
    At a global level we know and can specify clearly what we want to write about, and we have no trouble putting one word after another—we're lost in between—perhaps in deciding precisely what we want in the next paragraph
  • Procedural blocks are particularly acute at the beginning—the problem arises because we can visualize a set of alternatives without obvious reason for selecting any particular one
  • There are several reasons for procedural blocks
    • Trying to pack too much information into a sentence, a paragraph, leaving too many directions to follow at once 
    • Digressions which we've been led into by our developing ideas 
    • Our proliferating intentions getting ahead of us 
    • Crossing into a new section of the writing 

Psychological Blocks

  • We can't let words come—the most difficult moment with any piece of writing is at the beginning when the first words should come
  • It's not a matter of having no words, but we can't bring ourselves to let them appear on paper or screen
  • There are three major reasons for not being able to write:
    • The magnitude of the task seems overwhelming 
    • Anxiety regarding our fears that what we produce won't be good enough 
    • Being afraid we don't have anything worthwhile to say—being reluctant to write anything

Strategies For Overcoming Blocks

  • Write!
  • Write anything, no matter how irrelevant you think it is
  • If in doubt, PUT IT IN!
  • Open a new file and experiment
  • Too many directions at once?
    List them and flesh each one out (brainstorm, make lists...)
  • Don't have a beginning?
    Start somewhere else.
  • Can't get what you want to say next from what you've just written?
    Write what you want to say anyway (later you'll figure out how to handle the transition)
  • Not sure how to shape the next part?
    Try a couple of alternatives
  • Don't have the next bit sufficiently clear in your head?
    Take a walk, cook a meal, watch TV, sleep on it...
    Our brain doesn't solve problems under pressure, give yourself incubation time
  • Can't pick up from where you left off?
    Begin rewriting the last paragraph, or just start somewhere else
  • Avoiding a particular writing project by answering mail?
    Stop procrastinating and make yourself write on the task you're avoiding
    Anything you write can be thrown away (or put in an "out-takes" file for later rescue if necessary)
  • Deadlines help!
    Set a time for completing a particular writing assignment
  • Writing blocks are resolved ONLY by writing!