Thursday, 5 July 2012

Procrastination or There's No Such Thing as Writer's Block

From @benwhitelaw
Last year I was talking to a newly published author (let's call them NewAuthor) at a book launch dinner, and discussed with them my theory on the non-existence of writer's block. Later I found out from a friend who had also been talking to NewAuthor that they had also had a conversation about writer's block, except it had been NewAuthor telling my journalist friend (or Journo) that they were suffering badly from this thing I had insisted doesn't exist, and had moved countries in an attempt to unblock. After hearing that from Journo my first reactions were to feel guilty and tactless. I'd like to blame it on the wine with dinner, but the truth is I'm incredibly opinionated, and rarely think at the time about how my opinions will be received by others. That's normally left until something like this happens, and then I feel guilty. I've been thinking about NewAuthor and our conversation that night quite a lot this week, as I struggle with my own writing.

I've mentioned before that I don't perceive my creative and my academic writing as widely different. While not a widely held view, most people I know who do both agree that these two seemingly disparate writing practices face many of the same issues and require many of the same skills. The myth of write's block is common to both of these practices, however in academic writing it's most often referred to as procrastination. Stories of fellow academics' spotlessly tidy homes and offices abound. My own personal favourite is re-ordering my bookshelves, although last week I discovered that the Goodreads app for the iPad uses the camera to scan your books and add them to your virtual shelves thus allowing me to catalogue and re-order. Hours of extra fun.

So, am I saying that writer's block is just procrastination? Yes and no. Very often the root cause of  our impulse to procrastinate is the same as that of what we call writer's block. Sitting down in front of the keyboard and monitor (or, for me often the pen and paper) and being unable to write anything is down to something very simple; not being prepared enough. Finding it tough to write that paper? That's likely to be because you aren't ready to write it. Unclear writing is a sign of unclear thinking, and if you don't have at least a competent grasp of your line of argument then you will never be able to construct a good paper.

The idea that creative writing is all about inspiration is another myth, perpetuated by writers, critics and publishers alike. Having writer's block is not about waiting for the muse to enlighten you, its about not being willing to power through the difficult bits. No novel ever arrives from Olympus, fully formed and perfectly written. It's about crafting the story, and grafting over the details. It's enough to drive you crazy, but by all accounts the best writers are.

Now to get off the blog and go write that thesis chapter...


  1. I think not being prepared enough is one issue contributing to writer's block (or sparking procrastination, or however you view it) but there is more to it than that. Preparation doesn't give you a multitude of great ideas, for example, or teach you how to deal with emotions that may contribute to block. Sometime, too, you might not have yet learnt the most appropriate methods for approaching certain aspects of the writing process, in which case it's about learning new techniques and also being aware enough to analyse which ones to use. All these things, and much more, can contribute to block. It's a complicated issue. I've actually just finished writing an ebook on the matter, which I'll be launching within the next few weeks.

  2. Hi Sophie. Your book sounds like a really useful resource for writers. If you send me an email ( I'll link to it on the blog.

    I think you make some very good points. For me, the ideas stage of writing is a crucial, but small part of the writing process and learning new techniques and working on the craft of writing is part of 'being willing to power through the difficult bits'. Being prepared encompasses so much more than doing a little bit of research into an historical time period (for example). It's about being willing to learn as much as it is about outlining. in my opinion.

    I didn't mean to imply that dealing with writer's block, or the urge to procrastinate, is obvious or simple. More that it's about the attitude we take to our writing. I have to give a nod to P C Cast, author of the 'House of Night' series (among other things) and her blog about advice for aspiring authors:

    "What do I do to overcome writer’s block? Answer: I don’t believe in it! Again, writing is a job. When I was teaching there were many days I didn’t particularly feel like showing up at school and teaching 100+ teenagers, but it was my job and I did it (and did it well) whether I felt like it that day or not. That’s what writing is, too. Some days it’s a pleasure to be an author. Some days it’s hard as hell. Actually, most days it’s hard as hell. But I write whether it’s a breeze or whether it’s sloughing through mud, and so will you if you’re a real author."

    That is why, for me and my writing, writer's block doesn't exist. It's my job as well as my passion, and I can't bunk out on it because it's not always easy.

  3. I believe Writer's Block exists, but not in the sense that it is this autonomous exterior entity that lives outside the author. It is within the author, and is part of her. Writer's Block may be procrastination, but when I pricrastinate I make the willing choice to avoid that which I should be working on. With writing it's something different, when I sit down to writer and can't squeeze anything out onto the page I call that Fear. I fear that it won't be good, or will be held to a high standard, and more often than not, the high standard I set for myself.

    For NewAuthor, who has just published her first book, the pressure to perform and do better than before was probably very prevalent in her mind. This created in essence, a block, because her fear was cutting her down before she could ever get anything onto the page. Me, in the bloody throes of hacking my into and through my first revision, and stymied by fear. I feel like as a second draft I should know exactly what ails my rough draft, and thus my second one should be inevitably better than the first. But every time I sit down to write, even before I have a full sentence on the page, I freeze and convince myself that it doesn't work.

    The best way, I feel, to combat writer's block/fear is to own it. Recognize it is something you create within yourself, and power through. We are, after all, masters of our own fate.