Deal constructively with writers block

It's a writer's worst fear. The deadline is fast approaching. You sit down to write and absolutely nothing useful happens . . . You chew your pencil or tap a rhythm on the computer console, stare out the window, get up for a drink of water, decide to run an errand or shop for groceries . . . The inspiration to write has vanished. You have writer's block. Or do you?

Those who write about writing debate whether writer's block - particularly in scientific writing - is a real phenomenon or just a bit of folklore used to explain garden-variety distraction and provide an excuse to stop working. Whatever may ultimately be decided, a great number of solutions fortunately have been suggested. Many of them sound like the ideas we've already mentioned. Here are a few other imaginative suggestions:

• Alley (1996) suggests that writer's block can arise because many of us are inhibited by hidden voices, such as criticism from our eighth grade English teacher or our department manager. He proposes drowning them out with classical or jazz music.

• Even when you can't get a word down on paper, Shortland and Gregory (1991) point out that you might find that you could easily talk to friends about your topic. Write down what you would say, much in the manner of a rambling letter to a close friend. (Or, as a colleague suggests, record your conversation, and listen to it for ideas.) It will become easier to keep going once you have words on paper instead of still in your mind, and you may even make your story more understandable to your audience than it would otherwise be.

FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE © 2000 Lynn Johnston Productions. Dist. By Universal Press Syndicate. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

By permission of Universal Press

For particularly severe cases, Mack and Skjei (1979) recommend a technique called "kitchen-sinking it," in which one repeatedly sits down and writes nonstop for a fixed but short time (such as 15 minutes) about any aspect of the paper's topic. One ends up with "everything but the kitchen sink," but these bits can be revised and pieced together for a first draft. It may be crude but it is a start, and this is often enough to get the writing process flowing once again. Reading over this mixture helps promote a focus on ideas.

In an interesting turnaround, Nelson (1993) suggests that, rather than treating the symptoms, an author should view writer's block as an asset -the creative mind's healthy response to an inner imbalance - and use it as a stepping stone to new levels of creativity and artistic growth. Presenting writer's block as a constellation of problems with different causes and treatments, Nelson offers ideas tailored to such situations as beginner's block, perfectionism, notes and plans that refuse to make a book, and obsessive rewriting.

• If you feel the need for the structure and directedness of an entire program with both short- and long-term solutions, see the Four-Step Plan and Nihil Nimus approach developed by Boice (1990, 2000), a psychologist who has spent most of his professional life coaching academic writers in moderate but productive ways of writing.

Perhaps the most important defense against writer's block is simply to keep in mind that a first draft is a first draft. It will not go to the editor, the typescript consultants, the printer, your department head, or perhaps not even the coauthors. You are the only one who ever needs to see it. A first draft will have intellectual faults and flaws in prose. You will have many chances to correct these later. Instead of worrying about its imperfections, congratulate yourself. With the first draft in hand, you have successfully completed the hardest parts of scientific writing! Now, if at all possible, set it aside to "cool" a bit, and go work on something else.

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