writer’s block – can’t write/won’t write

Many researchers see writing as a chore, as something to be done after the fun part of generating and analysing data. Even though they know that putting analysis into words and a textual genre is part of the process of making meaning, they still feel  that the writing is something they would rather not do.  It’s a tedious task. And it makes them ANXIOUS.

Some researchers get to the point of debilitating anxiety where they are blocked, unable to make a start on composing the text. They just cannot get the words onto a page.  Or conversely, they produce reams of words, none of which actually do the kinds of elegant sense-making that is required.

The conventional approach to writer’s block is to use strategies such as speed writing, brainstorming and mind mapping to overcome these periods of complete inactivity or restless writing. Yet some research into writer’s block suggests that proliferating ideas may in fact not be a universal panacea. It might fix some problems but actually compound others.

Mike Rose, a Professor at UCLA and an academic writing specialist, suggests that writer’s block is often produced because the writer has a set of tacit and rigid ‘rules’ about how good writing occurs. These are generally tacit: they are theories-in-action, not theories that are explicit and espoused.

Rose says  that some writers write as if they believe that one must work on a small bit of writing so that it is ‘correct’ before advancing to the next bit. They might apply  this rule to a sentence or a paragraph. This rule effectively keeps them working away at one thing for a long period of time with little success and a great deal of frustration. Rose calls this ‘over-editing’.

When an over-editor brainstorms, and then tries to put the resulting proliferation of ideas into some order, they are stymied. This is because they lack the meso-level strategies necessary for ordering information and getting focus.  Their over-editing compounds their problems as they have no way of tackling the overall text. They are stuck in between macro-mess and the micro-textual manipulations. Simply brainstorming hasn’t resolved the combined issues they face – an incorrect belief that all text emerges small and perfectly formed and no strategies for organising random ideas into a logical sequence.

Premature editing is equally problematic, according to Rose. This is when a writer starts to edit a text without having a useful set of syntactical strategies –  such as the use of headings and subheadings and the use of topic sentences for paragraphs – to bring a logical order  to what is written. If a text is disorganised, then it needs to be structured before it can be finely edited.

Rose suggests that it is helpful for writers and those who work with them to focus, not on writing skills and textual errors, but rather on understanding the writing processes that are habitually used. He suggests that supervisors or writing friends might have a struggling writer bring all of their texts – scraps, drafts etc – to a discussion to talk through how a text was composed.  Or they might talk through a paper or chapter, record the conversation, and then listen back to identify the points of tension, confusion and problems. At all times, Rose suggests, the focus of the friend/supervisor needs to be on looking for hidden and debilitating ‘writing ‘rules’ and for the kinds of structuring and focusing strategies that are used/not used. Such diagnoses can then lead to the development of new approaches.

Rose suggests that we all need to become much more interested in the writing process. He recommends reading what experienced fiction/nonfiction/academic writers say about how they work. Hearing what they have to say will help us to understand the actual lack of rules about the process of writing. Hearing writers talk about what they do also builds a reservoir of possible strategies that can be drawn on when the writing gets tough – as it almost always does at some point.

Rose  also suggests that it might be helpful for researchers to systematically research their own writing processes in order to identify their own blocks and gaps in strategies, as well as their strengths.

Rose, M 1984/2009 Writer’s block: The cognitive dimension. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, crafting writing, writer's block and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to writer’s block – can’t write/won’t write

  1. Julia says:

    Oulala, comme disait De Gaulle: ‘vaste programme!’ Enfin, pour moi, a niveau personnel…. tres vaste programme…
    But thank you for this post, which has come to confirm many of my suspicions. The writing ordeal makes me more sad than anxious though…
    Anyway, lots for me to ponder on! 🙂


  2. eft says:

    This is very interesting! Great information and it is also very well written. I will bookmark and comeback soon.


  3. Shuhua says:

    I think the time when you write fluently is the time when you “feel at home.” That is, when you know what you want to say. therefore, I think a major reason for writer’s block is thinking. When we are not very clear about what we want to say, we feel uncomfortable to put it on paper. I feel I do a lot of thinking before writing and I sometimes feel this delays my writing but I don’t know to what degree, or how much thinking I do before putting a word on paper. Any ideas?


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  5. Donna Franklin says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this! It makes me feel that I CAN WRITE after all!. AH!!! It makes so much sense for me as I reflect on the mammoth struggle I have had over the years with academic writing! and that im not as dyslexic as I have previously thought I might be. I have a pile of drafts which I would dearly love to post to my supervisor 😉 hummm…. Yes, understanding the scaffold process of writing that I use from a meta-perspective, is the key to identify what i actually do and more importantly DONT DO, and didnt know Im supposed to be doing/ using it, which is something ive never done, or known would be useful to do usually because im too stressed by the anxiety to get something on the page, as confirmation that im thinking! Rather than read and let the ideas and insight/meaning germinate in my mind, which we all know happens at in the dead of night – around about now 5am ;0). Structure is something which I have had many ‘babies ;0) over for many years, due to not understanding the concept, use and critical nature of it, hence producing work which sometimes hits the mark and others where it misses completely! Understanding the importance of headings and more importantly how to use them I now realise helps me start to feel more secure about creating this illusive ‘structure’ and therefore break the deadlock of beginning and start towards coherence Yee!! Finally, I agree, I can see clearly when I write something and its clear to the reader (usually myself after a few days of leaving it to ‘rise & rest’) that I have neither understood nor made or developed (my) ‘meaning’ of what ive read alerting me that, it needs further ‘ kneading’ and ‘rolling out’ by asking myself ( what am I trying to say here? )in order to find clarity, which is – ding dong! the hard work of writing. Press on though we must! Thanks again! Please keep feeding us these golden nuggets…;0)


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  8. Matt Ferri says:

    Great stuff! Lots of perspectives to think on. I’m glad I found this blog.
    I think another issue people face is that, when they sit down to write and fail to pen anything within the first five minutes, they begin to believe that there must be something wrong with them, and they call this problem ‘writer’s block’. They think that anyone without writer’s block wouldn’t experience this kind of lapse (though it’s only been five minutes), and that all good writers process thoughts into words at rapid fire frequency, all the time. This belief reinforces their self-doubt, discouraging them from writing and ushering them out of the chair.
    I don’t think this is the case for everyone, but it’s something that I certainly believed for a time. It wasn’t until I realised that even the best writers have to ‘stop and think’, and, moreover, that writer’s block isn’t a condition but a doubt-based belief, that it stopped being an issue for me.


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