It was 3:34 p.m. . . . 3:35 p.m. . . . 3:36 p.m., and I was unsure how to move forward in my text. I wrote the words “I was unsure how to move forward,” deleted “forward,” then rewrote “forward” because I didn’t have a better word. I had about 30 minutes before my next appointment, and since I was at work, I needed to spend that time working.
I had done some research on writer’s block and procrastination the semester before. It was more a pet project than a research project with a measurable objective, but then my boss asked me to create a workshop on the topic. The beginning of a purpose! I would focus my research to put together a workshop or blog post--or a linked workshop and blog post! Yes, that could work. And so in the time between appointments, I was to begin this good, measurable, fulfilling work.
Instead I filled out my timecard.
In this instance, I was a perfect example of both writer’s block and procrastination. When I didn’t have a purpose, I could do research and take notes easily, but when I wanted to produce something for consumption, the fear of not having enough to say or the fear that what I would say was not good enough kept me from thinking about what I could write. This led to procrastination: putting off writing to read more, putting off writing because I had no deadline, putting off writing because I was so in my head that I could not write about anything outside of it.
The common view of these writing problems is that writer’s block is a passive state that keeps you from producing material and procrastination is an active state of avoidance, but they are two parts of a cycle fueled by anxiety, shame, and fear. Often procrastination is discussed as a failing of morality or discipline, yet useful solutions are not easily had by the struggling writer. Quips to “just sit down and focus” may help the child close to finishing their spelling homework, but they don’t do anything for the root of the blocked writer’s issues. Instead of compounding shame and fear by putting off work, it is important to see the myths we perpetuate and use active tools to reduce the power this cycle has over us.
The following is a list of four common myths and active tools to combat them, but the most effective tool of all is trial and error—if a tool in this list doesn’t work right away, keep trying!
Myth #1: A great writer waits for inspiration to strike. If I’m experiencing writer’s block, I should just wait until the muses give me direction.
Reality: Muses don’t exist and inspiration is not lightning, although it strikes the unpracticed writer just as often. Waiting to write until you feel the need to write is a recipe for sitting around until the panic of deadlines come upon you.
Instead: Try Automatic Writing. Automatic Writing is a style of free writing in which you write without being fully-conscious of the text, originally through hypnotism. Since we can’t all easily find a hypnotist to help us write, try this solo version instead—respond to a writing prompt without crossing words out, erasing, or pausing for 5-10 minutes. If you cannot think of what to say next, repeat whatever word you wrote last or add in whatever thoughts you have.
Myth #2: Everyone procrastinates; it isn’t a problem unless you overdo it.
Reality: “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it?” This phrase, so often uttered by TV moms in after-school specials about peer pressure, is so well known it is a cliché, but it is relevant here. While it can be beneficial to take time away from a project, it should be to avoid exhaustion or over-saturation, not to put off working on the project at all. Because at its root procrastination is a behavior born of negative emotion, even if a procrastinator finds they can produce something passable by the deadline, they are putting themselves through an unhealthy practice of increased stress. Rather than putting yourself through this stress with the mindset that your peers are doing it as well and getting good grades, you need to find a way to personalize your writing process.
Instead: Form a new practice by writing a little bit every day. Many novelists have their own preferred goal, whether that is 1,000 words a day, 5 pages a day, or 15 minutes a day. For someone who has not gotten into the habit of daily writing, this can seem daunting, so take it slow. Think about what you already do and give yourself a reasonable goal. Have a fifteen minute break between classes MWF? Rather than stopping for a snack or socializing, get to class early and write until your professor starts their lecture. Have a hard time falling asleep? Turn off all screens and then write in a notebook each night until you start to feel drowsy. Find you don’t have the concentration to work on writing during the week? Schedule out an hour every Saturday morning. The most important part of forming a new writing practice is scheduling in dedicated time to work.
Myth #3: The goal of the writing process is the product, so why put energy into anything that isn’t in the final draft?
Reality: At first, writing multiple drafts may feel like busywork. In these moments, it does seem counterintuitive to rewrite something when you’re really just saying the same thing. Yet the true purpose of revision is not to find different phrasing of ideas, but to challenge your conceptualization of the topic, to rethink the depth of the argument, or to consider how the counterargument would engage with your point of view. Often, the cause of a poorly written paper is less about the writer being insufficient and more about has not been enough thought development. When you put energy into the process, you can find different directions and deepen the work, improving the quality of the final draft far more than touching up a first draft ever could.
Instead: To focus on the process, rather than the product, create smaller goals within the overall project. This could mean creating a research question one day, followed by skimming research until you have a source or two per required page, creating a working thesis and outline, followed by a paragraph a day, or setting mini deadlines of when to have each draft. These smaller goals help to induce a feeling of accomplishment or, if you feel the most inspired by a deadline rush, a false feeling of working until the last minute.
Myth #4: I’m not a procrastinator, I’m just soooooo busy. I don’t have time to write, so I have to put it off until the night before.
Reality: Have you ever sat down to do your homework with the good intention of working ahead, but then suddenly realized that there were many other things you had to do first, requiring you to put it off? Whether you’re juggling school, family, jobs, or all of the above, something seemingly more pressing will always pop up. Sometimes these are truly necessary distractions, like if a child or roommate gets violently ill, your house catches fire, or a hurricane warning forces you to evacuate, but in other cases, the anxiety of writer’s block presents as a feeling of busyness that you cannot shake; even if everything else necessary is taken care of, there is still the show you need to watch before the website locks it, the chapter of assigned reading you have to scan through again because you didn’t understand it, the funny smell coming from the fridge that must be found by emptying, cleaning, and reorganizing the entire kitchen. If you don’t make your long term projects a priority, the busyness of life will always take over. This, however, does not mean that you have to put off the rest of your life to make sure to work for long periods of time.
Instead: Try snack writing to fit your longer projects into the natural breaks of your life. It is much more difficult to fit long, drawn-out writing sessions into an already full life, but it is also much more difficult to make those long, drawn out sessions productive. Snack writing means taking smaller, bite-sized sessions throughout the day where it fits. This could be using a dictation app while you drive, taking notes on research during commercial breaks in a show, or drafting for 15 minutes, doing something fun for 15, and continuing with another 15 of drafting. These smaller writing sessions are easier to digest as a writer and easier to schedule into an already busy day, week, month, or semester.
Allie Frazier, MFA
Allie's passion for helping others in the writing process started with her first coaching experience as a 3rd grade tutor to 2nd graders in her elementary school. Since then, she has earned her BA in Writing from Point Loma Nazarene University and her MFA in Creative Writing Fiction from Chapman University. Now she uses her past experiences of being a paper editor, writing consultant, and grammar TA to guide APU students through the writing process and develop their writers' voices.