Writer’s Block for Students: The 3-Step Cure

Writer's Block for Students

Did you know that writer’s block is a myth? Yes, that’s right, a complete and utter myth. There isn’t a single professional writer anywhere in the world who experiences this phenomenon known as “writer’s block.” How would newspapers ever function if journalists were constantly worried about their brains shutting off? It makes no sense, right?

What, then, is this phenomenon? Does it happen in other fields? Do programmers suddenly black out when they have to finish some code? Do chefs stare blankly at cast-iron skillets and wonder what to do with the eggs? Do pianists bang their head against the keys because their fingers don’t know what to do?

No, of course not. Never.

Why then do so many students claim “writer’s block” when they delay working on a research paper or application essay?

More importantly, if you’re staring at your laptop screen, biting your nails, growing ever anxious because you have absolutely no idea what to write…what can we do to solve the problem?

Well, if this has ever happened to you, you’re in luck. Because I’m about to banish “writer’s block” from your vocabulary forever. Read on, and we’ll turn you into a lean, mean writing machine who can function with grace and lucidity in even the most high-pressure situations.

What Is Writer’s Block Really?

Curiously, the writer’s block myth stems from another myth – that of the “muse.” The ancient Greeks believed in nine goddesses of inspiration – the muses – who would fly giggling down from Mount Olympus, place their pretty fingers on someone’s forehead, and cause them to explode into feverish bursts of poetry, music, dance, or astronomy.

This idea became a bit of a meme in 18th century Europe. In the artistic movement known as Romanticism, poets all but worshipped the idea of free artistic expression. In his Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth said that poetry should spring from “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Thus, a bunch of pale, limp-wristed, consumptive poets spawned the myth that we still struggle with today: the idea that writing just bursts forth from nothing in a fit of muse-prompted inspiration.

But herein lies the problem: what if you’re not a full-time poet?

What if you’re not a “writer,” per se, at all?

What if you’re a genomics researcher who hasn’t written a paper in years, but who needs to bang out 3,000 words on the history of shotgun sequencing?

Why would Clio, that lovely muse of history, ever bother to stop brushing her hair and come down to inspire an undergrad science student? She wouldn’t. She’s too busy worrying about the historians who’ve been practicing their writing craft for years.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a muse for coding, neuroscience, data analysis, or microbiology. There are no muses for financial accounting, nursing, or aerospace engineering. In fact, there are no muses at all for confused undergrads, because muses only visit people who are prepared to receive them.

Writer’s block isn’t simply not knowing what to write.

It’s not being prepared to write.

From now on, I want you to consider this new definition of “writer’s block:”

An anxiety-inducing form of procrastination, experienced only by novice writers, who don’t know which step to take next because they don’t have a well-practiced method at hand.

Luckily, if you can accept that definition, then I can tell you exactly how to eliminate writing anxiety and start producing real, valuable work.

Writer’s Block for Students: The Cure

All successful writers are masters of 1) planning, 2) time management, and 3) focus. The first is easily the most important. But without 2 and 3, the words never make it to the page – at least not in a clear and stress-free way. By mastering these concepts in order, you ensure that when you sit down to write, your muse will be there waiting for you, hair brushed and giggling and holding her glowing fingertip in the air.

  1. A Plan

Your freshman writing teachers undoubtedly taught you about the importance of outlining. You undoubtedly ignore this advice every chance you get. I don’t blame you. Outlining is a pain.

But the thing is…outlining has a powerful purpose, and it’s a far lesser pain than trying to write without an outline at all. It allows you to structure your thoughts without worrying about grammar, style, and MLA requirements. We say that outlines are the skeletons of essays. This is true, but I hate the analogy. It’s much more important to think of outlines as roadmaps.

Google Maps is great because you type in the destination, and it tells you exactly where to go next.

Creating an outline has the same function. It allows you to figure out, step-by-step, what to write next. Not creating an outline is the same as stepping on the gas before you’ve even figured out the destination.

“But Jordan,” you say. “Google maps already knows the steps! I have to write a statement of purpose for a thesis-based master’s degree, and I have no idea what the steps are!”

Not true, friend. I’ve already listed the steps for you. All you have to do is follow them. Why try to reinvent the wheel when I’ve already spent a billion hours engineering a race car for you?

But what if you’re writing something else? A research paper? A diversity statement? A graduation speech? What is my next step then?

As I often tell my younger students, drafting outlines, creating your roadmap, is where the real intellectual work takes place. When I wrote my own master’s thesis, the actual composition of sentences only took about two hours. No joke. I’d already spent a semester gathering research and moving the evidence and citations around in an insanely detailed outline. When I sat down to put these pieces together, to “write,” it certainly felt like I had a muse sitting on my shoulder. But in truth, I’d been preparing for months. There was no thinking involved. Everything was laid out for me.

This, then, is your next step: sit down and prepare. You’re not William Wordsworth. You have no muse. None of us do, and no one ever writes anything of value in a single flash of inspiration. As H.L. Mencken said:

“In my own somewhat narrow experience, the value of writing seems to be in inverse proportion to the ease of writing. Whatever flows freely and bubblingly turns out to be sorry stuff a week later.”

Your next step is to make an outline. Or Google existing outlines. If you have to write a research paper, you can’t do better than this wonderful guide and outline from the famous Dr. Peterson.

“Okay, Jordan. Great. I need to outline. You’re a real genius, aren’t you? But outlining is a big task too, and I still feel anxious and ready to procrastinate, so what gives?”

Don’t worry, friend. Our next step, if you actually try it, is going to blow you away.

  1. Time Management

If you haven’t read the work of Cal Newport, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Dr. Newport is a Computer Science professor at Georgetown who’s written extensively in the past few decades about what it takes to become an elite performer in knowledge-work fields.

In How to Become a Straight-A Student, he detailed an extraordinary method for “time blocking” that the best students in the world use, in some form or another. I recommend this book to EVERY undergraduate I know (and any hopeful graduate with a subpar GPA).

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, he explains how to build a truly impactful and rewarding career in fields that require deep thought. I recommend this book to EVERY graduate student I know.

Finally, in Deep Work, Dr. Newport revealed the time-blocking and focus-enhancing habits used by the greatest writers, artists, and academic researchers. I recommend this book to EVERYONE.

The magical key in all of these books is this: writing, or any kind of intellectual effort, is massively enhanced when we eschew multi-tasking and work in dedicated “time blocks” that have a hard end. Essentially, it means working according to a schedule much like your typical high school day.

“A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.” — Cal Newport, Author of Deep Work

You can find a primer on time blocking here. You might also be familiar with Pomodoro Technique, that beloved study method of med school students everywhere. But instead of explaining what time blocking is, I want you to understand its effect on your brain.

When we sit down to write in a dedicated time block of 1-2 hours, something magical happens. Anxiety vanishes. The stress of deadlines dissolves completely. The dopamine drip of social media grows numb.

Suddenly, you enter “writing mode.”

It seems simple, but it’s incredibly powerful, and you can’t really understand until you experience it.

This simple act of scheduling, of dedicating a limited block of time to the task at hand, shuts down competing stimuli in our brains. It’s kind of like how, in high school Calculus class, you weren’t thinking about your AP English homework. You were focused explicitly on Calculus until the bell rang.

When my students begin using this technique, 100% of them marvel at how it helps them get work done. Even better, they love how, almost magically, it leaves them happier and more relaxed at the end of the day.

This, then, is the second key to eliminating writer’s block. You’ve already got a plan. Now, give yourself one hour to flesh it out.

Don’t say: “I’m going to work on my essay now.”

Say: “I’m going to work on my essay for one hour.”

Then, at the end of the day, schedule in another dedicated hour the following day.

Don’t sit around waiting on a muse. They don’t exist. Instead, just sit down and get work done for one hour. Don’t worry about the end result. That only builds stress. Just focus on working for one time block. Your only goal is to work until the alarm goes off.

This is the method used by virtually every high-output and high-quality writer in existence, and it’s exactly how you’ll conquer writer’s block.

Want to get insanely effective with time-blocking? I highly recommend Dr. Newport’s manual Time-Block Planner. I use it myself every day, and it’s how I manage to write novels and blog posts and edit hundreds of essays without ever slowing down or feeling anxious.

  1. Focus

Time blocking itself does wondrous things for our focus. BUT…we can go further.

The muse myth persists because, occasionally, writers do experience creative bursts when the words flow out unobstructed. It’s a supernatural feeling you never forget. For me, it happens about once a year.

At least, it used to happen once a year. Now it happens nearly every day.

That’s because every morning, when I sit down for my 2-hour blocked writing session, I insert my AirPods, set my phone on airplane mode, and then turn on Focus@Will.

I’ve already written about how this miraculous app can improve your focus by 200-400% when coding or studying. The effect is uncanny. It’s a perfect complement to time blocking for two reasons:

  1. The app’s neuroscience-driven music prevents your mind from reaching two dangerous states: distraction and habituation. Distraction arises when outside tasks (or phone notifications) poke at your mind. Habituation occurs when your grow bored with your surroundings, or the task at hand. Both are almost impossible with Focus@Will.
  2. The app has built-in, infinitely customizable timers, to suit any length of scheduled work block. When you reach the end of your time block or Pomodoro session, the alarm goes off, and you breathe a tremendous sigh of satisfaction.

(In fact, my alarm just went off, so the rest of this blog post I’ll happily write tomorrow. The last hour passed by so quickly and easily, I hardly noticed.)

If time blocking makes us more productive, brain entrainment apps like Focus@Will make the world disappear. You write within a silo of undiluted focus. You become a writing machine.

Interestingly, it also allows for significantly longer blocks of “deep work” time.

Since 2015, I’ve tracked my writing and editing every day. I note start and finish times, subjective feelings of productivity, as well as the total number of hours per day, per week, and per month. After reviewing this data, I found that when I “free write” without Focus@Will, I can concentrate for about 75-90 minutes. At that point, my brain starts to feel heavy and I have to take a break.

But with Focus@Will, I work for two hours straight, and never feel mentally drained when I finish. In fact, I usually have to force myself to quit working when the alarm goes off.

Is Focus@Will necessary? No. Writers worked perfectly fine for thousands of years without fancy apps. But it does help tremendously when you’ve got a lot of work to accomplish in a limited period of time. It provides the closing thing I’ve ever found to a writing superpower.

Conclusion

The 3-step cure for writer’s block is this:

  1. Plan: Only begin work when you have a roadmap/outline to follow. If you don’t have one, then this is your first task – begin compiling your roadmap. Break the task into smaller and smaller chunks. Give yourself easy wins.
  2. Manage Time: Schedule finite periods of time in which you’ll work on writing and writing alone. Start with one hour. But when that hour is done, stop working. Take a break, or take the night off. Don’t start again until you’ve scheduled another time block with a hard end point.
  3. Focus: Do yourself a favor and check out the free trial for Focus@Will. Quickly, you’ll understand what it feels like to have a muse poke your brain and send you off on a whirlwind of productivity. It will make your time blocks doubly effective.

Honestly, it’d be nice if we did have muses who could inspire us with flashes of intellectual brilliance. But, at the same time, it’s nice knowing that “writer’s block” doesn’t exist, and that we can become writing machines with only a little preemptive planning and digitally enhanced focus.

No excuses, folks. You’ve got a lot of work to accomplish. Now you know how to get it done, beautifully and efficiently, just like a thousand Greek bards and high-achieving intellectuals before you. Just promise me you won’t be like those pesky Romanticist poets. The world already has too many faux-artists sitting around complaining and waiting on a muse, and I know you can achieve so much more.

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