By Susan Carter

I’ve long felt that ‘writer’s block’ is too general a term. It is a bit like saying ‘I’m sick’—people know something is wrong, but to find a cure, you need more detail than that. In the last post, I reported on an excellent talk by Professor John Bitchener on giving good feedback on doctoral writing. He was also critical of the catch-all phrase ‘writer’s block.’ John suggests that what ‘writer’s block’ usually means is limited reading, limited thinking and limited scoping of the topic. His tonic for unblocking writer’s block is more reading, thinking and scoping.

The pointer to more reading rings especially true to me as being helpful for many reasons: to get the jargon of the discipline; to see how good paragraphs and sentences are constructed when the writing is clear; to locate any tensions of opposing view; and to re-inspire. And there is of course the content that literature offers too…. However, a friend says that reading is her favourite writing avoidance strategy, so I guess the trick is to know and manage yourself.

John explained how he gives his doctoral students four tasks before they begin writing. Even before they are at risk of writer’s block, they are encouraged think their way into the task as a way of pre-empting blockage. To develop thinking and scoping musculature, along with better understanding gained through reading, they are to:

  1. mind-map the topic;
  2. design a rough content page projection;
  3. build a powerpoint with just five or six slides on their thesis content; and
  4. write an argument overview.

These tasks orient each thesis writer into the overall shape of the thesis, and, perhaps more importantly, force recognition that there will need to be such a thing and that its design is their responsibility. Such realisation is often alarming.

John’s point is that, by the time they have completed the quite challenging thinking involved in each of these four tasks, students will be well placed to start writing, and the quality of the early drafts will be much better. They will require less feedback from supervisors, and the writing will be more sure of its own direction.

It seems to me that the tasks John sets his research students before they write are also likely to help should they fall prey to writer’s block further into the thesis. My own approach when I am in the grip of writer’s block is to hunt for what its cause is really. If I find I am avoiding writing I should be working on, I hunt for more specifics by asking myself why I am avoiding it. What is the problem, precisely?

It may be that the next task required is to restructure my manuscript and I dread beginning cutting and pasting because I know that I will lose orientation. In that case, I take a single-sided print-out and scissors to a large table. I cut it into sections and then physically rearrange them. It means that when I am at the computer, the word document won’t turn into a swamp as I cut and paste. I’m guessing that this is what John’s tasks help to avoid: if you have spent time figuring out how things connect before you right, you avoid creating a quagmire. Sometimes, for me, the quagmire route results from the fact I think through writing–the act of choosing words pushes me to think more deeply, and it can mean messiness.

I may need to spend a few more hours reading literature to get more confidence within the zone of my topic. Often I find that reading motivates me towards writing again. It might be some evocative language that inspires me to be more creative, or something moving that reminds me of the significance of my area of research: doctoral writing and pedagogy.

Scoping can be helpful too; often one chapter or article is made too difficult to pull together because it has several strands. Itemising what these are and considering whether or not they should all be in there, somehow breaks the work down into manageable sections.

I also suspect that most doctoral students, and maybe most academics too, are sometimes angry, despondent or disinclined in their relationship with their writing. ‘Writer’s block’ has emotional symptoms in addition to slowing progress. So I’m curious as to other ways of locating what specific dis-ease writer’s block symptoms point to and/or ways of overcoming it.


This post was inspired by my notes from an excellent talk by Professor John Bitchener at the Faculty of Education, University of Auckland.