OPINION: Academia needs to better accommodate writer’s block

A figure struggles to push a large red box. The background is covered in handwriting.
(Lucia Marquez-Uppman • The Student Life)

The hallway falls silent as the last of your neighbors descend into slumber. Having slouched in front of your laptop for almost four hours, you impulsively raise your watch just when the counter reaches 1 a.m. Surprised at how much time has elapsed, you nevertheless refuse to return your gaze to the laptop, lest the flashing cursor on that irritating blank screen vex you even more. 

The essay is due Monday, but you have accomplished nothing besides typing out some unsatisfactory sentences and deleting them afterwards. You desperately attempt to write something down, but the muses, fickle as they always are, have deserted you tonight. Writer’s block has come for you.

I have encountered this scenario more often than I’d like to admit, and it’s reasonable to assume that other college students have experienced similar difficulties. Writer’s block is simply inevitable, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We cannot escape those chin-scratching, sometimes gut-wrenching, moments when writing, because nobody draws inspiration from an inexhaustible source, regardless of how accomplished or ingenious they are as a writer.

In a recent interview, novelist Jhumpa Lahiri confesses that despite her proficiency with creating stories, she finds that writer’s block just cannot be avoided. Rather than viewing it as a frustrating impediment, however, she sees this phenomenon as a natural component of the writing process, where “ideas gestate within the mind.” Thinking takes time, and ideas don’t just appear out of thin air. 

While some authors disavow the term as a fiction that undisciplined writers use to justify their procrastination, their alternative approach — namely that “you can always write garbage,” according to Rumaan Alam — is just a different incarnation of writer’s block. Yes, drawing a blank on a writing assignment doesn’t mean that the student becomes physically incapable of writing, but in the absence of inspiration, their scribbling is no different than their premature thought process manifested on paper.

At the end of the day, there is no hierarchy between the two types of writer’s block: silent preponderance and active scribbling are both constructive, as long as the writer keeps working on their ideas with the goal of writing in mind. This positive approach to writer’s block facilitates good writing, as it acknowledges the writer’s need to take time and think about what they are doing. The writer maintains an optimistic mindset throughout this process, knowing full well that after some prolonged consideration, they will eventually resummon their muses. 

One might even argue that writer’s block is a necessary prerequisite to effective writing, since if the author completes their work without ever pausing to reflect on their themes, organization and language use, that work might turn out to be substandard. An unexamined work is not worth publishing, and writer’s block, when resolved with a positive approach, enables the writer to undertake this crucial examination.

Despite the constructive and indispensable nature of writer’s block, many people (college students in particular) still view it as an excruciating experience that should be eliminated altogether. This view is more than understandable, as it represents how the incessant need for evaluation within the academia warps students’ writing process. Having lived through four midterm seasons, I know just how frustrating things can be when I get stuck on one writing assignment while being pursued by five other deadlines. 

I want to spend more time analyzing the prompt and drafting an outline, but those deadlines, alongside the punitive implications they entail, dissuade me from doing so. Instead of tackling my writer’s block with the reflective approach, I would instead strive to churn out as many lines as I could, despite my mind failing to keep pace with my hands. The outcome often proves disastrous: I would either sink deeper into the quagmire of literary blankness or disdain my thoughtless writing so much that I’d have to start over. 

This creates a vicious cycle of stagnation, where the writer, uncertain about how to proceed while facing the exogenous demand for constant productivity, has their creativity drained by this mentally taxing contradiction. By forcing students to write on demand and withholding from them the time necessary for overcoming their writer’s block, compacted deadlines make students dread academic writing and lose self-efficacy, leaving them satisfied with merely “getting that pesky assignment done.” 

Writing is no longer a challenging yet fulfilling process of knowledge creation. Instead, stifled by deadlines and the punitive academic tradition they embody, it becomes just another hoop to jump through.

The academic traditions surrounding evaluation and discipline have distorted writer’s block from a natural occurrence into an intolerable hurdle, but there is still hope for revitalizing college writing. To accomplish this, institutions of higher education must discard their current conventions on student writing for a more flexible and collaborative alternative. While they should maintain a deadline system to keep courses structured, they should make deadlines serve only a suggestive role. Students must be allowed to turn in their work later than stipulated by the syllabus provided that they are putting in sincere efforts to overcome their writer’s block. Rather than punishing them for violating deadlines, professors should more actively engage with students struggling with their writing, and offer to assist them in their thinking process. With these simple steps, academic writing will once more become a worthy and enjoyable endeavor.

Yifei Cheng PO ’24 is from Nanjing, China. He enjoys hiking, reading (especially fantasy literature), and playing Starcraft 2. 

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