Many researchers see writing as a chore, as something to be done after the fun part of generating and analysing data. Even though they know that putting analysis into words and a textual genre is part of the process of making meaning, they still feel that the writing is something they would rather not do. It’s a tedious task. And it makes them ANXIOUS.
Some researchers get to the point of debilitating anxiety where they are blocked, unable to make a start on composing the text. They just cannot get the words onto a page. Or conversely, they produce reams of words, none of which actually do the kinds of elegant sense-making that is required.
The conventional approach to writer’s block is to use strategies such as speed writing, brainstorming and mind mapping to overcome these periods of complete inactivity or restless writing. Yet some research into writer’s block suggests that proliferating ideas may in fact not be a universal panacea. It might fix some problems but actually compound others.
Mike Rose, a Professor at UCLA and an academic writing specialist, suggests that writer’s block is often produced because the writer has a set of tacit and rigid ‘rules’ about how good writing occurs. These are generally tacit: they are theories-in-action, not theories that are explicit and espoused.
Rose says that some writers write as if they believe that one must work on a small bit of writing so that it is ‘correct’ before advancing to the next bit. They might apply this rule to a sentence or a paragraph. This rule effectively keeps them working away at one thing for a long period of time with little success and a great deal of frustration. Rose calls this ‘over-editing’.
When an over-editor brainstorms, and then tries to put the resulting proliferation of ideas into some order, they are stymied. This is because they lack the meso-level strategies necessary for ordering information and getting focus. Their over-editing compounds their problems as they have no way of tackling the overall text. They are stuck in between macro-mess and the micro-textual manipulations. Simply brainstorming hasn’t resolved the combined issues they face – an incorrect belief that all text emerges small and perfectly formed and no strategies for organising random ideas into a logical sequence.
Premature editing is equally problematic, according to Rose. This is when a writer starts to edit a text without having a useful set of syntactical strategies – such as the use of headings and subheadings and the use of topic sentences for paragraphs - to bring a logical order to what is written. If a text is disorganised, then it needs to be structured before it can be finely edited.
Rose suggests that it is helpful for writers and those who work with them to focus, not on writing skills and textual errors, but rather on understanding the writing processes that are habitually used. He suggests that supervisors or writing friends might have a struggling writer bring all of their texts – scraps, drafts etc – to a discussion to talk through how a text was composed. Or they might talk through a paper or chapter, record the conversation, and then listen back to identify the points of tension, confusion and problems. At all times, Rose suggests, the focus of the friend/supervisor needs to be on looking for hidden and debilitating ‘writing ‘rules’ and for the kinds of structuring and focusing strategies that are used/not used. Such diagnoses can then lead to the development of new approaches.
Rose suggests that we all need to become much more interested in the writing process. He recommends reading what experienced fiction/nonfiction/academic writers say about how they work. Hearing what they have to say will help us to understand the actual lack of rules about the process of writing. Hearing writers talk about what they do also builds a reservoir of possible strategies that can be drawn on when the writing gets tough – as it almost always does at some point.
Rose also suggests that it might be helpful for researchers to systematically research their own writing processes in order to identify their own blocks and gaps in strategies, as well as their strengths.
Rose, M 1984/2009 Writer’s block: The cognitive dimension. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press