Overcoming Writer’s Block as a Graduate Student. By: Omomayowa O. Abati

Omomayowa Abati, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Political Science, Stellenbosch University, South Africa

How funny it is that I spent over ten minutes staring at my computer screen, deciding how to start this article. The thought that made me blank was, “what is the ideal way to start a blog post?” which I believe is different from the familiar academic writings. That is one of the causes of writer’s block for many people – the frustration of trying to write in conformity with some conventional writing structures or the desire to produce a perfect draft that wouldn’t need editing.

The former and later are not achievable, whether as a writing newbie or an experienced writer. I make bold to say that every writer experiences writer’s block; the difference may only be that, for experienced writers, they have come to understand what works for them to get their creative juice flowing again. So, it is not uncommon as a graduate student to experience writer’s block.

Before I share some of the strategies that have worked for me whenever I find myself stuck in my writing process, it is important to note that people experience writer’s block differently and what works for one person may not work for another. Take for instance; while anger over something may cause writer’s block for someone writing an academic piece, the same anger may serve as the creative fuel for a fictional writer who wants to depict an angry character. However, it is still instructive to know how others are navigating their way around this common but unique challenge. Here are 5 strategies I employ to get back my creative flow back when I’m writing:

1. Stop writing/take a break:

It is usually advisable to take a break from writing for some time and find some exciting activities to engage in. The activities could be reading an article (academic or non-academic) or taking a walk. It is, however, important to note that, depending on the level of blockage experienced, the aim of the engaged activity is to exercise the creative part of the brain in a bid to resume writing. For me, seeing a movie will not be appropriate if I am experiencing a mild blockage, for instance. This is because the movie could be self-indulging which defeats the purpose of the break.

2. Read what you have written before:

This works effectively when I am experiencing a mild writer’s block. I pretend as if I am not the author of a paper and that I am reading it for the first time. This way, I pay attention to every word, and try to do logical proofreading. I am also able to reconnect and identify where I lost track.

3. Do something physical:

It has been proven scientifically that physical exercises are not only effective in keeping the body fit, they are equally effective in stimulating mental alertness. So, get up from the writing desk and do something that doesn’t require your creative mind like cleaning, cooking, gardening, laundry etc. This way, you put your creative mind on autopilot and allow your brain to recover from the strain that is causing the blockage. For me, I go ahead to do something I have been postponing due to the writing task, and tell myself that “if I cannot make progress in my writing, I can at least make some progress in other areas of my life”.

4. Use visual thinking/visual board:

Often times when we experience writer’s block, what we are looking for are the right words to convey our thoughts not that we don’t know what to write. So, if the right words are eluding, visual designs can help graphically represent thoughts on paper in the immediate time. The advantage of visualizing is that it helps to capture “overview first and details on demand”.

5. Write freely:

Free writing is a strategy that works for any writer. For me, whenever I resume writing after a major writer’s block, I write freely without pausing to edit grammar, spelling or punctuation. It may turn out that when I eventually get to edit it, a lot of what I have written may have to be rewritten, still, the free writing helps me to overcome writer’s block.

6. Sleep over it:

If after trying all the strategies mentioned above none seems to work, I recommend that you sleep over it. Try getting some rest, free your mind over the inability to write. I understand that this is easier said than done, especially when there is a deadline staring at you. But the earlier you decide to allow your mind to rest, the better and quicker you can recover from the block and resume your writing again and possibly, still meet your deadline. The way I overcome the guilt of ‘sleeping when there is work to do’, is to remind myself that the ‘process’ is equally as important, if not more important, than ‘outcome’.

So, when next you experience writer’s block, remember to apply any one or a combination of some of this strategies and viola, you’ll realize that it isn’t because you are not a good writer, rather it is just part of the process of writing to sometimes get stuck. Enjoy your writing!

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