Procrastination and writer’s block

One way of avoiding unpleasant tasks is to put off doing them – or to procrastinate.  The trick here, I suppose, is to learn to recognise that these activities are distractors, and then to allow yourself the luxury of doing them – well,
some of them – as a reward, after completing some writing.

It is a short step from writing apprehension and procrastination to writer’s
block – ‘a temporary or chronic inability to put words on paper’ (Nelson,
1993, p. 1). In its extreme case, this means that nothing gets written for a
week or two, a month or two, or even a year or two. Writers in this situation
often complain that the task is too complex, that they have too much
conflicting material to deal with, and that the task is just too big. Problems
such as these make them depressed, their initial enthusiasm disappears, and
they feel inadequate and not up to the job.

Most studies of procrastination and writer’s block have been conducted
with students. There is, however, some literature relating to researchers and
academics. Silvia (2007), in a surprisingly short book, given its title, How
to Write a Lot, provides some practical advice, and Boice (1990) provides a
more detailed treatment. Silvia and Boice discuss the following factors in
writer’s block:

• procrastination
• fear of failure
• self-censoring criticism
• perfectionism
• time pressure
• personality factors and mood disorders.

Boice includes a questionnaire in his text and he uses the patterns of
responses to questions on these different features to prescribe personally
tailored methods for overcoming an individual writer’s block. More generally,
Silvia and Boice’s solutions to handling these problems lie in:
1 rearranging the writer’s environment
2 rearranging the writer’s writing habits.
To rearrange the writing environment, they suggest that writers should:
• establish one or a few regular places in which to work
• minimise distractions
• limit social interruptions.
To rearrange writing habits, they suggest that writers should:
• make writing a daily activity;
• write while fresh;
• write in small, regular amounts, and avoid ‘binge sessions’;
• schedule writing tasks in small sizes in order to keep up;
• capitalise on post-writing thinking: here, one might jot down issues or
make notes on the back of an envelope, use a mini dictating machine,
or even phone or text ideas home to a message machine; and
• share their writing with supportive, constructive friends.
Some other practical suggestions that help some people to get started are
as follows:
• Make time to write: if possible, set aside a specific time for writing each
• Recognise and label distractors as distractors, and ignore them.
• Do not aim for perfection on the first draft. Let it flow, and then come
back to polish it.
• Start by reading what you have produced so far, and spend a bit of time
rephrasing things, clarifying or adding in a reference or quotation.
• Make a note of the structure of the text you want to write – and list
its main headings. Then work to these, perhaps one at a time, and not
necessarily in order.
• Do not stop writing at the end of a section. Write one or two sentences
of the next one and then finish. Pick up from where you left off when
you next begin.
• Do not finish the end of a section by running the spell and grammar
checker before you switch off. You can do this the next time you begin.
• Do not stop to correct and revise. Keep going and then come back to
do this later.
• Reward yourself for meeting your targets.