When I first started college, I referred to myself as a “professional procrastinator,” especially when it came to writing. Instead of starting an assignment, I’d put my creativity to use by finding all the things I could do instead and coming up with good reasons to do them. I’d call my mom because she missed me. I’d hang out with friends, investing in intentional community. I’d go to bed early in the name of self-care.
My ultimate motivator? A deadline. I’d start something right before it was due. Unfortunately, it often began with tears and frustration, and it ended in a caffeine-fueled frenzy of typing. Maybe this narrative sounds a little too familiar to you. If you’re anything like me, you hate it too.
So how do we stop this vicious cycle?
I’ve explored this question as I’ve moved from “professional procrastinator” into “recovering procrastinator.” I finally realized that my writing process was the source of all my problems.
By waiting until the last minute to start writing, I placed an absurd amount of pressure on myself to write perfect first drafts. This made me get stuck frequently. And when I did run into writer’s block, I forced myself to push through it, because I was trying to meet a deadline. And as much as I enjoyed trying to start papers at 12 am in Lower Beamer, my friends can confirm that I stop speaking coherently after 11 pm. How can I expect myself to write anything coherent if I can’t even speak clearly?
I realized that my writing process itself had to change. Here are five things I’ve learned that help me combat writer’s block and stop procrastinating.
1. Brainstorm early.
When I first get a writing assignment, I block off an hour in my calendar at least a week before it’s due. This hour is for brainstorming only. I take the assignment and write down some things that interest me. If it’s a very broad topic, I’ll use this hour for research (e.g., skimming a book to find an interesting part to think about) and then write down my immediate thoughts. Writing is a form of thinking, so take some time to let yourself think on paper. This may prompt you to discover the root of your thesis or main idea. Remember, this session is judgment-free—silence your inner critic and allow yourself to think outside of the box!
If freewriting is difficult for you, another one of our Writing Center consultants wrote a great guide to brainstorming with lots of strategies. You can always schedule an appointment at the Writing Center to jumpstart your brainstorming process with a consultant.
2. Set the scene for success.
Like I mentioned earlier, I know that I don’t do my best writing at night. Therefore, I block out time during the day to write.
I’ve learned that I can’t write in silence, so I put on non-distracting background music. I write almost all of my papers to Sara Groves albums (I’m listening to her now!). I turn on as many lights as possible to make my writing space bright and happy. Often, I’ll get a cup of coffee or tea too—but if my writing is going well, I usually forget to drink it!
I also learned that I don’t write well when I’m with friends. When I sit down to write my first draft, I have to physically remove myself from my friends. If I can’t find a quiet spot alone, I have to physically move across the room and put on headphones.
3. Remember that a first draft is not the final draft.
I often get stuck halfway through writing a paper because I can’t find the right words or a completely disconnected idea interrupts my paper’s flow. This is a frustrating moment, and it’s easy to get discouraged.
But first drafts aren’t meant to be perfect.
Remembering this is freeing—it allows me to put imperfect words on the page and move on. Sometimes I’ll even drop a comment to myself: “Fix later!” If I have an idea that seems disconnected, chances are it will fit somewhere else. The most important thing is to get ideas on the paper. The revision stage is a great time to reorganize your paper: you have all the content, so it’s a lot easier to see how it fits together.
4. Talk it out.
When I get stuck, it’s really easy to blame myself, my ideas, and my writing. But the more I criticize my ideas and judge my writing, the more I dislike anything else that I write.
Now, when I realize I’m stuck, I talk to someone else. My friends often have a more charitable viewof my writing than I do (because I’m often overly critical of my work).
You can always bring your paper to the Writing Center—there’s nothing that we love more than reading your work in progress. Talking to someone is also a great way to discover words and ideas you do like, instead of dwelling on ones you don’t.
5. Get out of your head.
Although last on my list, this is probably the most important practice for combating writer’s block. More often than not, writer’s block means you’re overthinking.
During my first semester of college, I ended up crying in my professor’s office a few days before our first big paper was due. I’d spent hours working on it, and I was still stuck. He took one look at me and said, “I have new homework for you. You’re not allowed to touch your paper for at least 12 hours.”
This stressed me out way more.
Looking back, I realized he couldn’t have given me better advice. It was a beautiful fall afternoon, so I walked to Five & Hoek, bought a coffee, walked to a park, called my mom, and did not mention my paper once.
The next day, I tackled my paper and found that my head was no longer a jumbled mess of unintelligible words. The ideas had been there all along, but I had been so tangled in overthinking that I couldn’t articulate them. Sometimes the most important thing to do is set your work aside.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not telling you to procrastinate! But if all you can think about is your paper, and you’re staring angrily at a screen, it’s time to step away. If you’re on a tight schedule, a short walk around the block may help. You’ll come back refreshed and ready to work after your break.
The next time you get stuck on a writing assignment, think about your process. Are you setting yourself up for success? If you are and you still can’t get anything on paper, be patient with yourself. You’re on a journey to finding a workable writing process. I’m on this journey, too. I’m learning to find a balance between being my own harshest critic and giving myself grace to grow.