Page Fright

For many academic law librarians, scholarly writing is recommended or required for professional advancement. Despite this imperative, I know I’m not alone in finding it difficult to make time for writing at work. There are a thousand other pressing duties, big and small–meetings, projects, and reference requests, not to mention the maelstrom of teaching. Nights and weekends seem better suited for uninterrupted writing, but my extracurricular work time has been devoted to recording and updating videos for my advanced legal research course.

As real as these external demands are, if I’m being honest with myself, I must admit that at least one obstacle to writing comes from within. I frequently struggle with writer’s block. I love the inimitable Anne Lamott’s description of this condition in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

“There are few experiences as depressing as that anxious barren state known as writer’s block, where you sit staring at your blank page like a cadaver, feeling your mind congeal, feeling your talent run down your leg and into your sock….Things feel hopeless, or at least bleak, and you are not imaginative or organized enough to bash your way through to a better view, let alone any interesting conclusion. You know where every idea, quote, and image came from; none of them is fresh.”

Ugh, I feel seen (and not in a good way). I keep a list of possible writing topics on law and librarianship, from the mundane to the strange, some scholarly, some not, all of which I have great fun researching. But do I really have anything new to say about them? Anything at all that would be of interest to others?

The sheer abundance of articles on overcoming writer’s block that I found while researching for this post was comforting. Apparently, I’m in good company. But why do so many of us experience writer’s block, anyway? Some frequently mentioned reasons include perfectionism, negative self-talk, and fear of failure. These causes of writer’s block ring true for me–even when I do manage to get words on the page, I am far more Miss Shields than Ralphie in reviewing my own writing. (Happy holidays, by the way!)

So how can we escape this anxious barren state, uncongeal our minds, and tame our inner Miss Shields? Among the seemingly infinite articles on strategies for beating writer’s block, I found two authored by therapist-writers to be particularly helpful. (Both are available in ProQuest.)

– Eric Maisel, Writer’s Block, 114(4) The Writer 30 (April 2003)(recommends forgiveness, of  yourself and others, and presents six exercises to help you get back on track in your writing).

– Dana Shavin, How to Cure a Case of Writer’s Block, 133(3) The Writer 30 (March 2020)(explains fifteen frequently-encountered problems and offers lots of practical tips for overcoming them). Also available free online (through a lot of clicks) under the title 15 of the Most Common Causes of Writer’s Block—And How to Cure Them.

Here are a few strategies suggested in these and other sources that I am going try out in 2023:

Lower the stakes: It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around. Also, for the time being, don’t worry about what your eventual reader might think. Just get something, anything, on the page, and focus on editing later.

– Just do it: Don’t wait for an ideal time for uninterrupted writing. Instead, practice putting pen to paper on a regular basis. Lamott recommends one page or 300 words every day. Others advise writing for thirty minutes daily. (Half an hour seems like a lot to me right now. Maybe I’ll start with ten minutes, fully caffeinated, first thing in the morning. Baby steps!)

Separate research and writing: If you, too, get distracted by shiny objects and previously opened tabs, try researching and writing separately. Keep a running list of follow-up questions to research later, rather than detouring back into research as you write.

Enlist a friend: A trusted writing buddy can bring accountability and make the writing process feel less lonely. The RIPS-SIS Scholarship Committee’s Write This Way groups are a great way to get some accountability and meet other librarians interested in writing.

Law librarians who write (a little or a lot), what are your resolutions on writing in the new year? How do you stay productive in your writing? And when you experience writer’s block, what are your tried-and-true methods for getting unstuck?

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1 Response to Page Fright

  1. David Whelan says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Sometimes it just helps to know that everyone shares struggles expressing their thoughts! I mostly write on a blog, so it’s low stakes compared to scholarship, which helps a lot. I really like the advice about just starting; drafts arrive on a spectrum and some need more or less work, and your drafts will get better with practice, no matter where you start. I wrote a couple of books too and found that I sometimes started and the first thing I wrote ended up in the middle or end. It was just important to put something down.

    I always find going for a walk helps when I’m totally stuck. I grab the dog and hit the sidewalk and think about everything else around me. I find that often does a bit of a reset – lateral thinking – and helps me figure out how to move forward. And, in some cases, start over. The other thing I do is keep lots of notes of ideas. Eventually I have enough aggregated that sort of go together that it makes a blog post or an idea for a published article. It means I’m usually not starting entirely from scratch.

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