Coping with Writer’s Block

April 1, 2021

What to do if you can’t start writing: my personal strategy.

by Cezar Braga, MA student in the Department of Political Science

You’ve been there: the deadline is approaching; your sense of guilt is overtaking you. Yet, you just can’t start writing the piece you’re supposed to. Even worse: you have no idea how to get in the mood for doing it. Your head wanders around, filled with worries and thoughts which have little to do with your assignment. Yes, this is quite uncomfortable. I’ve been there myself. Countless times. Over the years, however, I have developed a strategy to cope with writer’s block. It is a gradualist approach, which hacks my brain by taking small steps and enjoying the feel-good rewards which fulfilling them provides. It can be summarized in four stages: 

1 – Breed inspiration: create a document. 

The process of writing begins in your mind when you command yourself to start working. If you don’t, inspiration won’t come. The romantic ideal of the creative genius, passively illuminated by inspiration, is a myth. For most people – me included – inspiration comes from leaning over a project. This might be unpleasant at first, but it becomes gradually easier. It’s like entering a swimming pool: at first, you are cold and uncomfortable. After a minute though, you are enjoying yourself. Don’t stand on the edge, wishing for the weather to change before you dive: take the first step and create a text file. It’s just a couple of clicks. 

2 – Organize your thoughts: brainstorm. 

So, you took the first step and created the document: congratulations, feel that well-deserved dopamine discharge! Now the project is right in front of you, but the sheet is blank. That’s ok, just fill it with some ideas! Don’t worry about aesthetics: write down some basic arguments which you can further develop. They might be single words, sentences, whatever. Then give yourself a couple minutes of rest. You deserve it. 

3 – Giving forms to the ideas: begin writing. 

In case you haven’t realized it, at this point you have your piece written in your mind! These ideas are the basic framework of your paper. You just have to give them coherence using text. Choose one of the ideas from your brainstorming and start developing it. Write three or four sentences (they don’t have to be the introduction). 

4 – Are you inspired already? 

Congratulations, you are writing your paper! At this point, time is probably passing by faster and you are having to deal with other ideas which keep popping up, some demanding major revisions to the text. Well, now you’re in the zone! If you’re not there yet, give yourself some rest, then come back and develop some other ideas from brainstorming. Don’t give up pursuing inspiration. 

This might seem a bit silly for some. Why break the act of writing into so many stages? Am I not treating myself like a baby? The answer is simple: never underestimate the power of incentives. Our mind is overwhelmed by big tasks, but if you separate them into small bites, magic (a.k.a. high-performance) happens. My strategy is by no means universal. If you want to try it, feel free to adapt it to your circumstances. Just remember to take it bit by bit.