There’s nothing worse than the dreaded writer’s block and procrastination.
You’ve been staring at the blank page for hours. You don’t feel like writing your name, let alone an entire essay. You start fantasizing about turning in 1,000 words that repeat, “I hate writing.” After all, it’s exactly how you feel.
Or maybe you distract yourself with “important” tasks like making elaborate snacks, writing and rewriting to-do lists, or “clearing your head” by watching videos of cats for an hour.
Then you start to get angry with yourself. You think, “Why can’t I just do it? Why can’t I put words onto paper? Everyone else I know just cranks out essays like they’re nothing!”
I’m here to tell you that it isn’t your fault, that you’re not alone, and that there are things you can do right now to make the essay writing process easier for you.
For the sake of this post, I’m going to focus on writer’s block and procrastination in terms of the overwhelming funk you get into when you’re supposed to be writing something, but you just aren’t motivated. Essentially, when wild horses couldn’t drag a complete thought out of you.
I love writing, but I have absolutely been in this awful place during school, at work, and even when I had a fire lit under me while job searching. Sometimes, you just don’t feel like writing, but you have to, whether it’s for an assignment or because it’s one of those “adulting” things.
What This Blog Will Cover:
- Identifying the Root Cause of Your Procrastination
- Write, Doodle, Talk: Get it Out of Your Head
- Talking to Your Professor
- Get Invested in Your Essay
- Defeat the Blank Page with the “Very Bad Rough Draft”
- Create a Sense of Urgency
- How Self-Awareness Can Make for Less Stressful Essays
1. Identifying the Root Cause of Your Writer’s Block and Procrastination
If you’re feeling discontent, try to identify why. Is it the paper itself? The topic? The class? The professor? Are you unhappy with the major you picked at the beginning of school? Are you afraid you’ll let your parents down if you don’t get a perfect grade?
Use my favorite method of asking “Why?” like an insatiably curious toddler until you find an answer that hits the nail on the head. This might take some digging, and the answer might be uncomfortable at first, but it is so worth it to identify these emotions. Rather than letting them fester, you can look at them objectively and begin to let these limiting beliefs go. I find it helps to write them down, whether with pen and paper or by typing thoughts out on the computer.
I personally had moments of pure overwhelm, especially early on in my college career, when I felt like I was way behind the curve in terms of my education. All of the students in my entry-level humanities course had read and discussed Greek literature in depth in high school. My class, however, had only been shown a video of “The Odyssey.” And our teacher pronounced Penelope “penny lope.”
Both in class and in my writing assignments, I felt completely unworthy, and it showed in my work. If I had spoken to my college professor about this problem, I know for a fact she would have been supportive. Instead, I let my feelings of resentment get the better of me, stayed angry, and didn’t get as much out of the class as I could.
2. Write, Doodle, Talk: Get it Out of Your Head
A little journaling or doodling can go a long way toward answering this “why” question. You can even get on the phone and talk it out with a trusted friend or family member. Many schools also offer counseling services, of which I urge you to take advantage.
I was very lucky to attend a small college where the professors had lots of open office hours and were eager to help students who needed to talk through their academic problems. If you are lucky enough to have such a professor, they would be an excellent sounding board. Not only can they help you work through your writing hang-ups, but you will be signaling to them that you are doing everything in your power to make this writing thing work. Even though it’s difficult for you, they will respect that.
3. Talking to Your Professor
If you are working with a good professor, they will want you to come talk with them so that they can help you with your essays. If you have an indifferent professor, get advice from someone you trust at the school, like another professor or counselor.
Talking to Your Professor in Person About Writer’s Block and Procrastination
Do all that you can to find time to talk with the professor in whose class you’re having trouble. It’s a sign of respect on your part that you’re willing to talk through your issues with them specifically. This may include using email to set up a time to chat or dropping by during their office hours, but this discussion is one that should ultimately take place face to face.
Depending on the class size and number of classes they teach, professors can be responsible for hundreds of students at a time. Having an in-person conversation not only helps them get to know you and what you’re going through. It can also help you get to know them, their preferred essay style, and what they’re looking for in a paper. An in-person chat also gives your case more weight and urgency, signaling to the professor that this is an extremely important matter.
Document, Document, Document!
Document the conversations you have with your professor and the specifics of what you talk about. This will include any general writing and essay tips that they give you. Some professors have a very particular style they want you to follow, and following it can make a real difference in your grade. Ask them to walk you through a recent assignment if you have one on hand to get real-time feedback of where you can improve.
With notes in hand, you can now refer back to, and work on, the exact areas your professor has identified.
BONUS: Always follow up with a thank-you email to show appreciation for the time your professor has taken to listen to and help you. This shows them that you have heard their advice, are invested in their class and are ready to put these new ideas into action.
It is the duty of your professors to support you and help you work through your academic problems. It is their job. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them when you feel you’re struggling—that’s your job.
4. Get Invested in Your Essay
Maybe it’s the subject of the paper or the course itself that is giving you trouble. Maybe it’s a course you have to take purely for the credit, and you can’t graduate without it. “What’s the point?” you think. “This doesn’t even have anything to do with me!”
While that may technically be true, there are a few ways to potentially make this assignment less dreadful.
Pick a Topic That Aligns With Your Interests
Once, I was asked to write a paper for a chemistry class. I find science interesting, but this particular paper seemed like a total snooze fest.
Instead of picking a random chemistry topic, I chose to write about a chemical weapon that had recently been discussed in one of my international studies courses (my major). I found the subject fascinating and was much more motivated to write my chemistry paper.
Many classes have a lot of overlap with other subjects. If nothing comes instantly to mind, this is again a great opportunity to talk to your professor and ask about ideas for a more interdisciplinary topic. This will make the paper more interesting for you and will make you a much more out-of-the-box thinker, both on paper and in person.
Chairs Majors: Don’t Be Afraid to Change Your Mind!
If it’s your major that’s bugging you, don’t sweat it. I changed my major three times in the first two years of college and still managed to graduate in four years. College is all about learning new things and having new experiences. Most students change their minds and majors several times. I even had a teacher who completed almost all of his college education before switching from pre-med to music!
Absolutely nothing is impossible. This is your college experience, and your life—if you want to change your major, change it!
5. Defeat the Blank Page with the “Very Bad Rough Draft”
A blank page can be one of the most intimidating things when it comes to writing an essay. It seems to hypnotize you into a state of writing paralysis.
Or you may start to write, only to hate your opening line, and keep deleting and rewriting one sentence for hours. You never get past the first paragraph.
If the thing holding you back from writing is a sense of anxiety or perfectionism, try to identify where this pressure is coming from. Is it a teacher, a parent, or perhaps society in general? In today’s age of social media, it often seems like every step has to be the correct one, and that the entire world is watching and waiting for us to screw up.
Simply identifying the root cause of this anxiety can help you overcome your sense of procrastination. You may need to discuss it further with your professor, a counselor, or a trusted friend/family member. Then ask yourself, “In a year, will this assignment matter? In a month or a week, will it matter?”
It may not—it may just be a stepping stone, a part of your much bigger and more important educational journey. If you’re still feeling the pressure, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Something this important to you might require having all hands on deck, including additional help and resources. Knowing that that’s the case should give you a few action items to move forward. This could include reaching out to a professor, hiring a tutor, or reading a blog like this one!
A wonderful professor of mine once shared the old adage “Done is better than perfect.” Accomplishing a task is often more important than executing it perfectly.
This article from Harvard Medical School gives some excellent tips on how to cope with anxiety in college.
The “Very Bad Rough Draft” Can Bust Writer’s Block and Procrastination
A recovering perfectionist myself, I know that “Done is better than perfect” can be hard to achieve. That’s why I always give myself permission to write something very, horrendously, awfully bad: the “very bad rough draft.” After all, that’s why it’s called “rough!”
The first thing you put down on paper doesn’t need to be perfect, or even very good. A beautiful sculpture doesn’t spring into existence immediately. It first must exist as a wet, lumpy piece of clay. And that’s good, because without that wet, lumpy piece of clay, the beautiful sculpture could never exist. That piece of clay could be anything when it starts out! So brain-dump your ideas onto the page and don’t worry about the flow or sentence structure or thesis yet. Just allow your ideas to exist first, without being perfect.
Keep writing, and don’t look back! Even if you have to write something like, “No idea what to write for this paragraph, need to review class notes,” put it on paper! Bold it and come back to it when you’re rewriting a second draft. Now, at least, you have some clay with which to work.
6. Create a Sense of Urgency
If you’re feeling a little lazy, creating a sense of urgency can help get the ball rolling. Give yourself a deadline—the shortest deadline possible—and crank out as much as you can during that time. For example, set a timer for five minutes with the goal of getting your thesis onto paper.
“Five minutes?! That’s no time at all!” is probably what you’re thinking, and you’re right. The sense of urgency you’re now feeling, the one that is making your heart rate speed up, is exactly what we’re aiming for!
Again, this isn’t about getting a perfect thesis down on paper, but simply getting something on paper. Even if you only end up with a bunch of bullet points, you will still have accomplished something and will be moving in the right direction. It can also show you where you might be getting stuck. For example, it might show you where you’re lacking information on a subject and need to go back to the drawing board. Now you know!
Once you’re in your flow, you might find you don’t want to stop when the timer is up. If you’re on the right track, keep writing! If you’ve hit a wall, set the timer again (remember, keep the deadline as short as possible) and try a different approach, subject, or part of the paper. Race against the clock to see how much you can get done in as little time as possible. Once you have enough material to work with, you can go back and more thoughtfully piece your paper together.
7. How Self-Awareness Can Overcome Writer’s Block and Procrastination
What it all comes down to is “know thyself.” Even the world’s greatest writers sometimes struggle with writing. But they make sure that they know what their most difficult personal challenges are so that they can work through them and consistently improve.
Knowing why you have trouble getting started writing a piece can be the most powerful step in overcoming procrastination and writer’s block. Remember that you are not alone, that you can always find help, and that these tips can allow you to break through to the other side of writer’s block and procrastination.
Don’t miss my tips on how to start a college application essay.