Have you ever heard Michael Pollan’s famous nutritional advice? He is a food writer, and he rallies against the endlessly contradictory dietary advice we often hear by boiling his advice down to these seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
I have a similar perspective to beating writer’s block.
We hear so much advice on writing, yet it’s still something that many of us struggle with. Why can’t we just happily scrawl words onto paper (or screens) the way we did at school? What stops us from spewing out our ideas?
Often it’s a lack of time, or too many distractions. But I suspect the culprit is usually fear. It’s that pesky inner critic who sits in our brains as we agonise over the words we want to commit to our thesis and stops us at every potential phrase.
Mine is a finicky little monster. I’ve named her the Buttress, partly because she upholds the brick wall in my brain that stops me writing, and partly because her objections usually start with “but.”
Me: I could write something about the connection between subject A and historical event B…
The Buttress: But then you’re ignoring events C, D, and E.
Me: OK, well what if I describe the way subject A is treated in text F?
The Buttress: But then you’re hinging your argument on one source.
Me: Fine then, I’ll at least type out this quote. Word for word. How are you going to criticise my writing if it’s not mine, Buttress? Huh? Huh?
The Buttress: But your supervisor hates it when you quote too often.
Me: [Take exasperated nap on keyboard.]
The only thing that liberates me from the Buttress is trying to write poorly.
Yes, you read correctly. When I’m really stuck, I open up a blank Word document, and I give myself instructions to write 5,000 awful, unacademic, shoddy words on whatever it is I need to write about. These words are not going to go into my thesis, but they are about my thesis topic.
Now, 5,000 words is a lot. When the Buttress is in session, the most I can write in one day is about a quarter of that – maybe a third if I work until midnight and neglect my personal hygiene.
But 5,000? That’s only achievable if I pay absolutely no attention to quality. And therein lies the beauty of this technique. Writing vast screeds of bad text is very freeing. What comes out is pure, uncritiqued ideas. In this kind of bulk writing, I ignore my phrasing. I ignore language choice, implications, potential examiner comments, and supervisor critiques. I just write. Hence my Michael Pollanesque mantra:
Write words. In bulk. Not well.
Quite often, there is thesis-worthy material within my bulk of text. Even if there isn’t, there are ideas that can be crafted into precise academic writing later on, when the Buttress is back in session. At the very least, I beat my writers’ block and get back into the habit of writing productively.
So here is my challenge to you. Pick a day, and pick a topic. Then sit down on that day, and write 5,000 words of imprecise, sloppy, unrefined text on that topic. You might be surprised what you come up with.