The Center for Writing Studies

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Navigation: Quick Links

Professor writing on a chalkboard




Writers Workshop: Writer Resources

Writing Tips: Strategies for Overcoming Writer's Block

What Causes Writer's Block

Writer's block is often caused by conflicted feelings. We want the writing to be perfect and we want the paper done as soon as possible. We know what we know but we don't know what our readers know. We know how the memo should sound, but we don't have all the facts we need. We know everything about the software, but we don't know what an article should look like. We know what we have to say but we are afraid that it won't measure up to our expectations or to our readers' expectations.

All of these feelings are natural and normal. Everyone finds writing a challenge. Many writers, however, compound their problems by employing weak writing strategies. When these methods fail, they give up.

Weak Strategies for Dealing with Writer's Block

Using trial and error

Since our short-term memory is limited, trying to juggle in your head all the possible ways to phrase something usually means we repeat the same rejected phrases over and over. One way to avoid this is to make a quick list of alternative phrases.

lnsisting on a perfect draft

Perfectionism is the surest way to writer's block. Expecting everything to come together at once leads to paralysis and heartache. Insisting on a perfect first draft is really much slower than writing several quick drafts focused on different goals.

Waiting for inspiration

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. What seems like inspiration is usually the result of internalized hard work. In a moment we'll talk about some useful strategies for pushing "inspiration" along.

Using words looking for an idea

We all know those phrases which click so easily into the keyboard but then go nowhere:

These phrases can be building blocks but they won't help much until you know what you're building.

Effective Strategies for Avoiding Writer's Block

Taking notes

Jot down ideas and phrases as they occur to you. Free yourself from paragraphs and sentences for the moment--use flow charts, arrows, boxes, outlines, even pictures. Right now, you are worried about getting things down before you forget them.

Freewriting/Brainstorming

When you're not just blocked, when you're stonewalled, try freewriting. Sit down for ten minutes and write down everything you can think of about your topic. The object is to write without stopping for the whole ten minutes. If you can't think of anything to say, write "blah, blah, blah" over and over. If other things occur to you as you write, go ahead and record them, even if they are not directly related to your topic. These distractions may be part of what is keeping you blocked.

Freewriting is good for uncovering ideas--it's a good way to nudge "inspiration." But the main purpose of freewriting is to get you moving! Most of what you write in those ten minutes will go in the recycling bin, but you'll be warmed up and your serious writing should go more smoothly.

Brainstorming resembles freewriting but is more goal-directed. You start not only with a topic, say PROFS, but also with a goal: What do new users need to know about this system? Then allow yourself to jot down ideas for a set amount of time without censoring any possibilities and without striving for perfect prose. When the "storm" has passed, you can rearrange ideas, put thoughts into complete sentences, edit, and polish.

Piecework

Sometimes, starting at the beginning induces Perfect Draft Syndrome. It may be easier to get started if you approach the task sideways. If you've got a plan for the article or manual, choose a section from the middle or a point you know well and start there. Then do another section. After you've gained some confidence, you can work on the opening and smooth out the transitions.

What I Really Mean Is (WIRMI)

When you're stuck in a quagmire trying to find the perfect phrase, switch to What I Really Mean Is and just say it the way you think it. Once you know what you mean, it is easier to refine the phrasing.

Satisficing (satisfy + suffice)

You "satisfice" when you take the first reasonable solution instead of searching endlessly for just the right word or sentence. If you're unhappy with the choice, you can bracket it and promise yourself you'll fix it later.