Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Writer's block

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Writer's block:
What causes writer's block and how can it be overcome?

Overview[edit | edit source]

There are many types of writers, and many types of written content. One problem that many writers face is writer's block. Writer's block is a common complaint of writers from every profession, referring to the inability or difficulty in creating written content. This topic is not well understood, and information provided may be general or vague. This chapter addresses the issue of writer's block considering psychological theory and research in order to offer some practical solutions for dealing with writer's block.

Focus questions:

  • What is writer's block?
  • What are the theories surrounding writers block?
  • How do you overcome writer's block?

Defining writer's block[edit | edit source]

Writer’s block, an inability to write (Huston, 1998), varies in its definition (Boise, 1985). The generally accepted definition was provided by Rose (1984), who defined writer’s block as the inability for someone, who has the skills and the commitment to write, to create written content, distinct from the inability to write due to lack of skill, or lack of effort. However Boise (1985), commenting on the vagueness of the term, raised the issue of what the label of writer’s block might cover. Was there one type of block or many? Should those suffering from anxiety be placed into the same category as those who display procrastination? An individual experience, it can occur to writers of any age or group, at any stage in the writing process, though most blocks happen during the composition and articulation processes of writing (Bastug, Ertem & Keskin, 2016; Ahmed, 2019; Boice, 1985). Rose (1984) describes experiences of procrastination, missing deadlines, feelings of anger, fear, and confusion due to unproductive work. Productivity is not necessarily stopped completely (Rose, 1984). The average length of a block is a few weeks but blocks can vary from a few days to over a year (Ahmed, 2019).

Self-determination continuum
Figure 1. The self-determination continuum, showing intrinsic, extrinsic and amotivation.

Writer's block in theory[edit | edit source]

Various theories have been connected to writer’s block, describing causes from a variety of perspectives. Theories describing motivational, cognitive, affective, and stress related causes have been suggested in connection with writer’s block (Ahmed, 2019; Davidson, 2014; Rose, 1980). Here the self-determination theory of motivation, Csikzentmihalyi’s theory of flow, and theories relating to stress, arousal and anxiety will be discussed.

Self-determination theory[edit | edit source]

Self-determination theory differentiates between intrinsic motivation, performing a task for its inherent value, and extrinsic motivation, in order to obtain some desired outcome (Ryan & Decia, 2000; Ryan & Decib, 2000). The theory describes amotivation as the state of being unmotivated by a task, and further defines extrinsic motivation into types, varying by degrees of self-motivated behaviour, as shown in Figure 1. The theory takes the position that the ideal motivational state, the most productive and helpful for well-being, is the self-motivated extrinsic, or intrinsic motivated state, the theory assumes that this is the state all people naturally grow into given the right circumstances (Ryan & Decia, 2000; Ryan & Decib, 2000; Stone, Deci & Ryan, 2009). To develop intrinsic motivation an individual must satisfy three innate psychological needs, autonomy, the experience of being self-directed, competence, the belief that an individual has the ability to affect their circumstances, and relatedness, the experience of contentedness and support from others (Ryan & Decia, 2000; Ryan & Decib, 2000; Stone, Deci & Ryan, 2009). Fulfilling these needs by making changes to surrounding contexts, aids intrinsic motivation, and hindering these needs damages intrinsic motivation, causing amotivation (Deci et al., 1994; Ryan & Decia, 2000; Ryan & Decib, 2000).

According to self-determination theory, writer's block, would be primarily caused by hindrance, or unfulfillment of these needs. A writer may be blocked if they are not interested in the task, if the task has no appeal or meaning to them or if they are pressured by others, via deadlines, directives and uncontrollable circumstances, blocking may occur if the writer does not feel capable of completing the task, or if they are lacking a supportive, connected environment with others (Stone, Deci & Ryan, 2009; Ryan & Decia, 2000). A writer may improve intrinsic motivation by making changes to their environment, to allow for the fulfilment of these needs (Ryan & Decia, 2000; Deci et al., 1994;). Working on something interesting or worthwhile, and removing constraints by others, being flexible with deadlines, topics and directives, would allow writers to work on their own volition, increasing autonomy. Getting helpful feedback from others, and increasing skills may help a writer's feeling of competence. Forming supportive connections with peers, colleagues or a writing group may aid a writer’s sense of relatedness.

Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory[edit | edit source]

Challenge and skill flow model
Figure 2. The challenge vs skill, Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow.

Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow is another theory mentioned as an explanation of writer’s block, [grammar?] Davidson (2014) attributing writer’s block to an inability to enter the state of flow caused by anxiety. Flow theory describes a state of focused attention and concentration that an individual can experience when undergoing a task that they find intrinsically enjoyable (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Fullagar, Knight & Sovern, 2013). Described as a state of peak enjoyment, its main features are an intense concentration on the task, a distorted sense of time, and a clear sense of one’s goals (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Abuhamdeh & Csikszentmihalyi, 2012). In order to achieve this state a key element is the balance of skill and challenge (Fullagar, Knight & Sovern, 2013). In order to achieve a state of flow the activity must be challenging enough to stretch skills, as shown in Figure 2, if the task is too easy, apathy and boredom are produced, but if the task is too difficult, one experiences anxiety (Fullagar, Knight & Sovern, 2013; Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). Anxiety, being an opposite state to flow, it and other distractions, may prevent an individual from entering flow (Fullagar, Knight & Sovern, 2013). A failure to enter flow could cause anxiety, or anxiety or distractions could prevent a writer from entering flow. According to the theory, one could help overcome writer’s block by adjusting task difficulty or increasing skills and reducing anxieties and distractions (Fullagar, Knight & Sovern, 2013).

Stress, anxiety and arousal theories[edit | edit source]

Yerkes-Dodson curve
Figure 3. The Yerkes-Dodson curve, showing the relationship between arousal and performance.

Other theories which have been put forth as explanations for writer's block are theories surrounding the high intensity, affective and arousal states of stress and anxiety (Huston, 1998; Bane, 2010; Ahmed, 2019). The concepts of evaluative anxiety and writer’s anxiety, fear surrounding negative evaluation, are often linked to writer’s block (Peterson, 1987; Bastug, Ertem & Keskin, 2016; Rose, 1984). Theories such as the distraction arousal theory, and the distraction conflict theory, put forth that states like anxiety and stress decrease creativity and productivity by using up valuable cognitive resources that would otherwise have been devoted to the task (Teichner, Arees, Reilly, 1963; Baron, 1986). Similar concepts, relating to higher arousal states like stress, are the inverted U theory and the Yerkes-Dodson law, which suppose that some level of stress increases performance, to an optimum level, but any stress beyond that level decreases performance, as shown in Figure 3 (Muse, Harris & Feild, 2003; Teigen, 1994). Though these theories have been criticised, with some suggesting bias (Muse, Harris & Feild, 2003), and others claiming a lack of empirical validity (Corbett, 2015), these theories have received support (Muse, Harris & Feild, 2003; Teigen, 1994).

Byron, Khazanchi & Nazarian in 2010 suggested that the effect of stress on an individual, depends on the type and the amount of stress. High levels of stress and stress events that the individual had little or no control over, such as deadlines, or harassment, decrease performance, where as stress events that can be seen as challenges, like work evaluations can improve productivity in low amounts. This concept is similar to the self-determination theory, where events that reduce autonomy and competence lead to reductions in motivation and performance (Stone, Deci & Ryan, 2009; Ryan & Decia, 2000). According to these theories, anxiety, stress and other such distractions would be the prime causes of writer's block, and managing those intense states and removing stressors and distractions would be the primary methods of overcoming such a block.

Example

Sally has a research essay due for class in a number of weeks, but she feels unmotivated and uninterested in the task. She’s tried to start writing but finds her unable to put words on the page. It’s a topic that Sally didn’t choose and doesn’t care much about, since she doesn’t find it relevant to her own life. On top of that the deadline is getting closer and she’s feeling anxious about her grades. Sally lives alone, as has fallen out of touch with friends due to studying, and has no support group. Sally has writer’s block, most likely caused by amotivation and anxiety. To overcome writer’s block Sally could try the following:

  • Find some aspect of the topic that she finds interesting or relevant to herself, or worthwhile to discuss and focus on that while writing.
  • Take a small break to relieve anxiety and plan her approach through clear reasonable goals.
  • Get in contact with friends and peers to discuss ideas for essay and form a supportive network.

Writer's block in research[edit | edit source]

Throughout the literature, there are many reported causes, and factors contributing to writer's block, and a majority of researchers identify multiple causes including; procrastination, stress, perfectionism, rigid rules and evaluation anxiety. (Ahmed, 2019; Boise, 1985; Rose, 1984). Researchers have suggested that writer’s block may be a multi-dimensional construct (Boise, 1985), with some suggesting multiple types of writer's block (Huston, 1998; Peterson, 1987), each existing at different levels or through different causes. However some causes of writer's block have been identified as more common than others, such as stress, anxiety and depression, as well as motivational causes, namely the loss of intrinsic motivation (Ahmed, 2019; Bastug, Ertem & Keskin, 2016). Other frequently reported causes of writer’s block include cognitive causes such as possessing rigid rules and perfectionism, and other behavioural factors like procrastination (Rose, 1980; Boice, 1985).

The importance of environments: Connections to self-determination theory and stress/anxiety theories[edit | edit source]

In a study exploring the causes of writer's block on prospective teachers, Bastug, Ertem & Keskin, (2016) found that the environments and context that teachers were writing in had a large impact on blocking. Limitations on topics, lack of time to write, anxiety of being assessed and controlled, fear of criticism, lack of information or poor instruction on how to write as well as the negativity in the environment were found to be among the major causes of writer's block. The study suggests that writer's block may occur more often when writing less interesting, academic or instructive texts, as opposed to texts the writer feels intrinsically interested in. This connects with self-determination theory, supporting the importance of the environment and intrinsic motivation on writer's block, and the need for choice, contentedness and feelings of competence in motivation. It also supports the theories surrounding flow and stress, demonstrating the effect of anxiety and stressful events on writer's block. In their suggestions for combating writer’s block Bastug, Ertem & Keskin, (2016) reinforced the importance of the context or space that the writing happens in, suggesting that writers choose a space that they find comfortable. The results of this study, which uses adult prospective teachers, cannot necessarily be generalised to other populations, and other types of writing. The research also qualitative and not quantitative methods, so though common causes were identified, the study could not determine which had the most effect.

Stress and anticipatory anxiety on writer's block[edit | edit source]

Several other studies have suggested the importance of stress and anxiety on writing, including Bane (2010) who supports a distraction-arousal view of stress, suggesting that a stressed state inhibits cognitive processing, affecting performance, and Huston (1998), who considers writer's block to be caused by anticipatory anxiety of writing, leading to stress. In their study Bastug, Ertem & Keskin, (2016) suggested that anxiety and writer's block were connected processes that feed off each other. Various studies have suggested similar ideas with many implying anxiety and writing apprehension play an important factor in many types of writing blocks (Boice, 1985; Rose, 1984; Peterson, 1987).

Rigid rules, and inflexible plans: Faulty cognitions in writer’s block[edit | edit source]

Other studies on writer's block have focused on a cognitive perspective (Rose, 1980; Boice, 1985; Rose, 1984), but even those studies propose that writer's block has several causes, including cognition, and emotional causes (Rose, 1980). Rose (1980), through a case study examining a group of blocked and unblocked student writers, found that those who were blocked possessed rigid and inflexible rules about the process of writing, compared to those students who weren’t blocked, claiming that these rules impeded the problem solving process of writing, which requires a flexible approach. The treatment he applied to these cases of writer's block involved altering the students cognitive rules about writing allowing them to be more flexible. This approach was found to be successful in most, but not all cases. Rose suggested that those other cases may have more deeply rooted emotional causes of writer's block. Rose’s studies, were conducted as case observations of a small number of academic students, and the generalisability is limited to that group. As well as cognition, it has also been found that attitudes and dispositions towards writing itself, had a major effect on writer's block (Bastug, 2015). This gives weight to the idea that writer’s block is not a simple concept, but that there may be many different varieties.

The multi-faceted approach: Types and layers of writer's block[edit | edit source]

A similar approach has been adopted by others, suggesting that there are often layers to writer’s blocks, varying in severity. Huston, 1998 supposes three levels, with the most mild being caused by cognition factors, such as rules or perfectionism, and the deepest blocks requiring professional counselling. While others suggests that writer's blocks vary more broadly, or by type, (Smeets, 2008). In a 1985 study Boice discovered seven types of faulty cognitions that contributed to writer's block. The most significant being procrastination, perfectionism, evaluation anxiety and dysphoria. Rigid rules and planning during the writing process was a contributor, but contrary to other studies (Rose, 1980; 1984) it wasn’t a major cause of writer's block. Factors such as procrastination, perfectionism, and anxiety have also been identified as causes by other research (Boise, 1985; Peterson, 1987).

The four causes of writer's block[edit | edit source]

Ahmed, in her study of professional writers in 2019, identified four categories of causes; affective causes, such as stress, anxiety and depression, motivational causes, cognitive causes, including perfectionism and behavioural causes, namely procrastination, bad writing habits and interruptions from others. She identified affective causes such as general anxiety, life stress and depression as the most common causes of writer's block, followed by amotivation and evaluation anxiety. Cognitive and behavioural causes, were not as common among professional writers, as in previously studies frequently involving less intrinsic, academic writing (Rose, 1980; Boice, 1985; Rose, 1984). This not only gives support to the inverted U theory, Yerkes-Dodson law, Csikzenymihalyi’s[spelling?] flow, and distraction arousal/conflict theories, with the suggestion that stress and anxiety impede productivity, this also supports the self-determination theory. In this study, Ahmed identified the most common, and most effective strategies used to overcome writer's block. These were taking a break from writing, working on a different project, ignoring the block, and discussing ideas with others. Another strategy was going for a walk, though this was not common, it was 100% effective (Ahmed, 2019). In comparison to some other studies, the participants in Ahmed’s study were those who had much interest and experience in writing, which are factors in writer’s block, and affect results, as well as generalisability, however it provides a good contrast to most other studies.

Combining research and theory[edit | edit source]

Writer's block may be caused by a number of factors and several types of blocks may exist (Rose, 1984; Ahmed, 2019; Huston, 1998). Research has identified that anxiety and stress related causes, and motivational causes are among the most common (Bastug, Ertem & Keskin, 2016; Ahmed, 2019). The nature of the writing task, the writer’s attitude, experience and the environment, are major influences (Bastug, 2015; Bastug, Ertem & Keskin, 2016). The importance of context and motivational causes, show that much of this research and theory are connected. The distraction-arousal theory, distraction-conflict theory, Inverted U theory, Yerkes-Dodson law and Csikzentmihalyi’s flow all propose that high levels of internal arousal, such as stress and anxiety are the underlying causes of writer’s block (Fullagar, Knight & Sovern, 2013; Muse, Harris & Feild, 2003) which has been supported by research. The anxieties and stresses themselves relate to self-determination theory, as a majority of the described stressors in research are hindering competence and the need for autonomy (Byron, Khazanchi & Nazarian, 2010; Stone, Deci & Ryan, 2009).

Procrastination, perfectionism and inflexible, and rigid rules, do not fit with many of these theories, and though they are not among the most common (Ahmed, 2019), they are still reported causes of writer’s block (Rose, 1984; Ahmed, 2019). Suggesting that there are multiple causes, belonging to different dimensions of writer's block[grammar?]. The cause of a block likely depends on the writer, the environment and the task itself.

Overcoming writer's block[edit | edit source]

Since there are multiple causes of writer’s block, the best way to overcome a block is to choose a method suitable for the cause (Smeets, 2008; Ahmed, 2019). There are several methods of overcoming writer's block according to literature. Suggestions from theory primarily involve altering the environment so the needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness may be met, as well as reducing intense arousal states of stress and anxiety (Stone, Deci & Ryan, 2009; Fullagar, Knight & Sovern, 2013). There is some overlap in these suggestions with methods tested in research, giving further support for these theories of writer’s block.

Stress, arousal, anxiety and other distractions[edit | edit source]

If the block is primarily caused by distressing, intense arousal states such as stress and anxiety, impeding creativity or interrupting flow, managing or removing these distractions may improve the block and increase productivity (Byron, Khazanchi & Nazarian, 2010). As suggested by Bastug, Ertem & Keskin (2016) and others (Bane, 2010; Ahmed, 2019), helping to manage arousal, especially stress and anxiety by altering the environment, or changing locations, making the writer more comfortable were among the most common and the most effective solutions for all causes of blocks.

Improving intrinsic motivation, autonomy, competence and relatedness.[edit | edit source]

The theories suggest that altering the environment may also improve intrinsic motivation for writing (Ryan & Deci, 2000b; Stone, Deci & Ryan, 2009) and offered such suggestions as, working on a topic that is interesting or worthwhile, exercising freedom in writing choices, while, where possible, seeking to remove or adjust constraints such as deadlines, and directives from others, increasing skills to improve feelings of competence, and getting helpful feedback and information from others, and forming supportive peer networks or joining a writer's groups to feel a sense of relatedness with others. Ahmed (2019), describes some similar suggestions in her study of professional writers, finding these to be the most successful methods of overcoming writer's block, including; taking a break from writing, working on a different project and discussing ideas with others to promote creativity.

Rigid rules, perfectionism, procrastination and other bad writing habits[edit | edit source]

Other suggestions for overcoming writer’s block described in research include, correcting mental attitudes about writing, rigid rules, unrealistic expectations and perfectionism. These methods are primarily useful for those who posses cognitive based blocks (Rose, 1980; Bastug, 2015; Huston, 1998). Encouraging positive behaviours and habits, like routine and structure (Davidson, 2014; Wallace, 1977). Using cognitive or behavioural therapy for more persistent blocks (Smeets, 2008; Huston, 1998), or simply persevering and writing anyway (Ahmed, 2019)[grammar?].

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

There are many reported causes and factors that contribute to writer’s block. Some of the most common causes have been identified as affective and motivational causes, other causes such as cognitions, procrastination, perfectionism and other behavioural factors are also shown (Ahmed, 2019; Rose, 1984; Boice, 1985). A first step in overcoming writer's block should be to attempt to identify the cause of the block (Peterson, 1977; Smeets, 2008). There are methods of overcoming that may be effective for a variety of causes, such as writing about something interesting, talking with others about ideas, taking a break from writing and choosing to write in a space that is comfortable (Ahmed, 2019; Bastug, Ertem & Keskin, 2016).

For causes related to stress and anxiety, removing stressors and finding ways to relax would be a primary method of overcoming the block. For lack of motivation, due to an uninteresting topic, constrictive conditions that hinder autonomy, a lack of competence in ability to do the work, or lack of a supportive network (Ryan and Deci, 2000a; Stone, Deci & Ryan, 2009), adjusting the environment to allow for the fulfilment of these needs would be the primary method of overcoming writer's block. Joining a writing group, exercising flexibility with restrictions, such as deadlines, or topics, increasing skills or getting helpful feedback from others and adjusting the difficulty of tasks to improve feelings of competence. For writer's blocks that are based on cognitive causes, methods such as making strict rules more flexible, or creating better writing behaviours may improve productivity.

See also[edit | edit source]

Procrastination (Book chapter, 2011)

Intrinsic motivation (Book chapter, 2013)

Artistic creation motivation (Book chapter, 2016)

Depression and motivation (Book chapter, 2014)

Creativity (Book chapter, 2011)

Flow (Wikipedia)

Yerkes-Dodson law (Wikipedia)

Writer's block (Wikipedia)

Affect (Wikipedia)

References[edit | edit source]

Abuhamdeh, S., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2012). The importance of challenge for the enjoyment of the intrinsically motivated, goal-directed activities. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(3), 317-330. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167211427147

Ahmed, S. J. (2019). An analysis of writer's block: Causes, characteristics, and solutions. [Graduate Dissertation, University of North Florida]. UNF Graduate Theses and Dissertations. https://digitalcommons.unf.edu/etd/903

Bane, R. (2010). The writer’s brain: What neurology tells us about teaching creative writing. Creative Writing: Teaching Theory & Practice, 2(1), 41-50.

Baron, R. S. (1986). Distraction-conflict theory: progress and problems. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 1-40. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60211-7

Bastug, M. (2015). Effects of primary school fourth-grade students' attitude, disposition and writer's block on writing success. Education and Science, 40(180), 73-88. https://doi.org/10.15390/EB.2015.4279

Bastug, M., Ertem, I. S., & Keskin, H. K. (2017). A phenomenological research study on writer’s block: Causes, processes, and results. Education + Training, 59(6), 605-618. https://doi.org/10.1108/ET-11-2016-0169

Boice, R. (1985). Cognitive components of blocking. Written Communications, 2(1), 91-104. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741088385002001006

Byron, K., Khazanchi, S., & Nazarian, D. (2010). The relationship between stressors and creativity: A meta-analysis examining competing theoretical models. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(1), 201-212. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017868

Corbett, M. (2015) From law to folklore: work stress and the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 30(6), 741-752. https://doi.org/10.1108/JMP-03-2013-0085

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975) Beyond boredom and anxiety. Jossey-Bass.

Davidson, R. (2014). On writer’s block. Overland, 261(1), 25-32.

Deci, E. L., Eghrarl, H., Patrick, B. C., & Leone, D. R. (1994). Facilitating internalisation: The self-determination theory perspective. Journal of Personality, 62(1), 119-142.

Fullagar, C. J., Knight, P. A., & Sovern, H. S. (2013) Challenge/skill balance, flow, and performance anxiety. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 62(2), 236-259. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1464-0597.2012.00494.x

Huston, P. (1998). Resolving writer's block. Canadian Family Physician, 44(1), 92-97.

Muse, L. A., Harris, S. G., & Feild, H. S. (2003) Has the inverted-U theory of stress and job performance had a fair test? Human Performance, 16(4), 349-364. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327043HUP1604_2

Peterson, K. E. (1987) Relationships among measures of writer’s block, writing anxiety, and procrastination. [unpublished doctoral dissertation]. Ohio State University.

Rose, M. (1980). Rigid rules, inflexible plans, and the stifling of language: A cognitivist analysis of writer's block. College Composition and Communication, 31(4), 389-401. http://www.jstor.com/stable/356589

Rose, M. (1984). Writer’s block: The cognitive dimension. Studies in writing & rhetoric. Paper presented at the Composition Communication, Urbana, IL.

Ryan, M. R., & Deci, E. La. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classical definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67. https://doi.org/10.1006/ceps.1999.1020

Ryan, M. R., & Deci, E. Lb. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, self-development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. https://doi.org/10.1037110003-066X.55.1.68

Smeets, S. (2008). Writer’s Block as an Instrument for Remaining in Paradise. Communication in Science, Zeitschrift schreiben, 1-8.

Stone, D. S., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Beyond talk: creating autonomous motivation through self-determination theory. Journal of General Management, 34(3), 75-91.

Teichner, W. H., Arees, E., & Reilly, R. (1963). Noise and human performance, a psychophysiological approach. Ergonomics, 6(1), 83-97. https://doi.org/10.1080/00140136308930678

Teigen, K. H. (1994). Yerkes-Dodson: A law for all seasons. Theory and Psychology, 4(4), 525-547.

Wallace, I. (1977). Self-control techniques of famous novelists. Journal of Applied Behavioural Analysis, 10(3), 515-525. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.1977.10-515

External links[edit | edit source]

10 Online writing communities (writersdigest.com)

Tips to manage anxiety and stress (adaa.org)

Coping with depression (helpguide.org)

Quick stress relief (helpguide.org)