Stuck in a Writing Rut

Even if you haven't yet tackled your summer writing project, you still have plenty of time to make significant progress, writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore.

July 6, 2016
Willie B. Thomas/iStock

Dear Kerry Ann,

As I turned my calendar to July, I realized I have hit the midpoint of my summer break. I had high hopes that I would get a lot of writing done this summer. But the truth is, I haven’t written anything. I feel guilty that I’ve wasted so much time and panicked that I have only six weeks left, and I’m so overwhelmed by the amount of work I need to do that I keep avoiding my writing.

I need to get out of this writing rut but I don’t know where to begin.


Summer Procrastinator

Dear Summer Procrastinator,

If you were the only academic writer who made big plans in May but has not yet written a single word this summer, I would be worried about you. But guess what? You’re not the only one.

Many dissertation writers, postdocs and professors are so exhausted that the first part of their summer is spent physically and emotionally recovering from the academic year. Others procrastinate as a form of resistance to writing. And others consciously choose to take a break from writing for the first half of the summer session to travel, teach or attend to personal projects.

It really doesn’t matter why you haven’t written anything thus far, because the first half of your summer break is gone. It’s in the past, and it’s not coming back. Ever. What you do have available is the six weeks between now and your first meeting on campus for the new academic year. And that’s plenty of time to make significant progress on a writing project.

I have worked with many academic writers who feel guilty about not writing, overwhelmed by unrealistic goals, panicked about time and stuck in the rut of procrastination. Based on that experience, I know that there are several things you can do that will get you out of your rut and moving forward. But the trick is that you can’t sit back and theorize, analyze and/or criticize these suggestions. Instead, experiment with them over the next two weeks. Then, after two weeks, you can decide if they work for you. If they work, keep doing them. If they don’t, stop. Either way, I guarantee that by following these steps, you’ll get more written than the zero words you’ve accomplished thus far!

Step 1: Forgive yourself. We experience guilt when we imagine that we’ve done something wrong. But guilt isn’t a useful emotion when it comes to getting out of a writing rut (i.e., it’s unlikely to motivate you to write). So if you’re feeling guilty about how you‘ve spent the first half of your summer, it’s time to take responsibility for the choices you’ve made and forgive yourself. I don’t care how you do it: give yourself a hug, write yourself a letter or look yourself in the eye in the mirror and say it out loud. But take two minutes to do whatever you need to do to release yourself from the guilt, let go of the past and move forward.

Step 2: Commit to a 14-day challenge. The single most important step you can take to break out of your writing rut is to write every day. I’m not suggesting that you go from not writing to spending six hours per day writing. Instead, challenge yourself to write for 30 minutes every day (Monday through Friday) over the next two weeks.

While there’s no magical time for writing, I encourage you to write as early in the day as possible. Writing is hard work, and you’re starting a new habit, so you need all the willpower and focus you can muster. Given that every day you have a finite amount of willpower and focus that drains down (just like your cell phone battery) throughout the day, it makes sense to do the most difficult and important work when you have the highest amount of willpower available. And as a bonus, you’ll feel great for the rest of the day if you can get your writing done early.

Step 3: Pick one goal for the next two weeks. Do not make the mistake of trying to accomplish 12 weeks of work in six weeks. That’s not realistic, and the fantasy that you can do that will keep you firmly stuck in your writing rut. Instead, the way to break out of your rut is to pick one realistic goal that you can accomplish in the next two weeks, and then use your success to build momentum for the remainder of the summer.

Once you pick the realistic goal, start chunking down the writing tasks you need to accomplish each day in order to meet that goal. For example, let’s say your goal is to revise and resubmit that article you’ve been avoiding all summer because you don’t want to read the reviewers’ comments. Start by making a list of the first wave of tasks that would be necessary, such as:

  • Reread the manuscript.
  • Read the reviewers’ comments.
  • Make a list of things to revise.

These examples are specific, measurable and possible in 30 minutes. Once you’ve got the list of things to revise, you can further delineate what additional tasks that you need to get done each day.

Why get highly specific about your writing tasks? Because you will feel differently at the end of your writing time each day if you have a specific goal than if your goal is to "work on the article." When you break the big goals (revise and resubmit my article) into the smallest possible steps (make a list of things to revise), you're more likely to actually do the tasks, you will start to get a clearer idea of how long writing tasks take and you will feel a sense of accomplishment by checking off that they are done at the end of your work period.

Step 4: Turn off all distractions and set a timer. Writing requires the ability to focus on one -- and only one -- activity for a sustained period of time. Every time you get distracted and change contexts, your brain has to return to what you were doing and you lose focus. Because writing requires intensive focus, distractions are the enemy of your writing time! It may sound simple, but many academic writers struggle to focus without distraction for 30 minutes. So let me make a few concrete suggestions:

  • Turn off all distractions (i.e., disable anything that sends you notifications, rings, beeps or generates a pop-up window).
  • Turn off your phone.
  • Log out of all social media accounts.
  • Close your email.

I also strongly recommend that you use a timer for your writing during the two weeks that you are working to bust out of your writing rut. It will help you to have a clear start and end time, it will enhance your focus, and it will release your mental energy from having to monitor time. (The timer will do it for you.)

Step 5: Don’t go it alone. This is the most important step to break out of your rut. What most academic writers don’t realize is that our worst tendencies fester in isolation (perfectionism, procrastination, self-criticism, to name just a few). And let’s be honest, isolating yourself hasn’t worked for you thus far, so there’s no reason to lean farther into that strategy. Instead, the best way to change your pattern is to add the magic ingredients: community, support and accountability.

I’m calling these “magic ingredients,” but they are based on years of hosting 14-day writing challenges, where I’ve observed thousands of writers break out of their ruts by forming a pop-up community that’s committed to genuinely supporting one another in two weeks of summer writing. Committing to daily writing, making your goals visible, tracking your writing, all while being cheered on by an enthusiastic group of peers, is a turbo booster to build new habits. You’re welcome to join us next week, but there are many other ways to plug into supportive accountability. What matters most is that you come out of isolation (that is not working) and get connected to others who are committed to summer writing.

I hope that these suggestions for breaking out of your writing rut are helpful to you. I’m certain that readers who have been stuck in a writing rut in the past will have additional suggestions for how to move forward. I encourage you to share them in the comments section below.


Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


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