How to Break Your Writer’s Block

… or Getting Ideas Out of Your Head And Onto The Page

This post by Bristol PGR Pam Lock, who’s been running Writers’ Retreats at Bristol since 2014, was originally shared on the Bristol Clear Blog.

A man slumped in front of a laptop

Some days writing is hard. Whether you have writer’s block or just can’t translate your ideas into writing, here are some practical ways to get your ideas out of your head and onto the page.

Free Writing

What is Free Writing? Free Writing is a brain dump, a way to write down your thoughts and ideas without constricting them by constantly editing yourself. It can be particularly useful for people who are afraid to ‘dirty the page’ with words that aren’t quite perfect or who lose track of ideas because they are constantly editing as they write.

Free writing is not about creating beautiful prose. That is the next stage, or even the stage after that. As Terry Pratchett once said, ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story’. Once you understand what story you want to tell, you can shape and translate it for others to read and understand. Free writing gives you a different way to access and explore your ideas.

How do I do it? For five minutes, write non-stop: don’t lift your fingers from the keyboard or your pen from the page. Just keep writing. Don’t stop to ponder or make corrections or look up a word’s meaning in the dictionary. Just keep writing.

If you find yourself stuck for something to say, write, ‘I don’t know what to write next’ or repeat the last word you wrote again and again until a fresh thought emerges. It won’t take long.
Be strict, finish your sentence at 5 minutes and stop writing.

When can I use free writing? There are lots of uses for free writing. I recommend it:

  • As a warm up. If you want to get started at the beginning of a writing day, five minutes of creative free writing is a great way to get yourself into the groove before you start tackling your academic writing. It can also open up creative pathways in your brain allowing you to write more smoothly. Write on anything: the view from your window, your journey to work, a painting or photo.
  • As a method to move forward when you are stuck. We all get stuck. Sometimes we just can’t quite work out what we think about something. Sometimes a walk around the block can be good to clear your head. Or five minutes of free writing to help you access deeper thoughts or accept ideas you may have been blocking for some reason.
  • As a way to develop or close an idea. It is easy to get into an inescapable circular pattern of writing. You get obsessed with one idea and end up writing it in slightly different phrasing again, and again, and again until you have thousands of words repeating one thing. Sometimes you just need to close the idea. Free writing can be a great way to do this so that you can move onto the next thing.

Want to know more? For more information about free writing, take a look at:

Peter Elbow, ‘Freewriting Exercises’, Writing without Teachers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 3-11.

Richard Nordquist, ‘What Is Freewriting? How Writing Without Rules Can Help You Overcome Writer’s Block

Six-word summaries

If you find free writing too unstructured, you could try creating a six-word summary of your article or chapter, or even of a single paragraph that isn’t working.

  • Take a few minutes to think about what the piece you want to summarise is about.
  • You may find it useful to write down a few key words to get you started.
  • Spend five minutes sculpting a six-word summary of the piece
  • Not only can this help you work out the essence of your writing piece, the summary you produce can be helpful in the editing process too.
    • Ask yourself: Does every paragraph or sentence help me to communicate the essential ideas of this piece to my reader?
    • Use it to ensure you don’t include anything redundant or miss anything essential from your writing.

Talk to someone else

For some people, writing can be a lonely process. I advocate finding someone you like to write with and meeting up with them regularly for company and motivation. Writing doesn’t have to be a solitary.

Writing buddies can take many forms. Finding someone you trust to be quiet and productive during your writing time but who will be good distracting company during those very important breaks is a great way to improve your writing.

They can also help you break through writer’s block. Talk for 5 minutes at the beginning of a writing day about what you want to each. Challenge each other. Can you help improve or clarify each other’s writing projects? If you are stuck on something, talk it through with your writing buddy. Even if they are not familiar with your subject, they may just ask the right question to make you look at your ideas in a new way.


Want to get involved in WriteFest 2018, the celebration of academic writing held during November? Find out how the Bristol Doctoral College is marking the month in our round-up blogpost.

WriteFest 2018


text which reads "writefest"

What is WriteFest?

November is Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo), an academic write-a-thon that happens every year, inspired by NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) but catering to the specific needs of academic writers. It’s hosted by PhD2Published, as an online space where the global academic community can pledge their writing projects, record progress, and share thousands of writing tips via the #AcWriMo hashtag on Twitter.

WriteFest (#AcWriFest18) is our local University of Bristol contribution, and will bring together academics and researchers from across the university to recognise and celebrate writing. Drawing on the format of the very popular academic writing retreatsWriteFest 2018 has some added workshops, a guide to crafting your own ideal writing soundtrack, a creative writing element, and lots of curated articles about academic writing. We encourage all academics, research staff, and research students to join us and write. 

WriteFest started at Sheffield University. This year, there are 11 partner universities contributing to the festival! ExeterBristolManchester, Kings College London, Keele, Sheffield Hallam, Liverpool, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Derby, and Adelaide! 


What is the University of Bristol doing for WriteFest 2018?

The Bristol Doctoral College Blog will be posting information and articles throughout the month to support you in all matters related to writing – and help you to take a break from writing!

Alongside Bristol Clear, who support Research Staff at the University, we have organised the following workshops and writing retreats. All BDC-run activities are free for postgraduate researchers to attend, and all Bristol Clear-run activities are free for academic and research staff to attend*. 

Look out for our upcoming blog posts and shared articles on social media throughout the month of November. 

All of our planned activities will take place in the PGR Hub, 1st Floor of Senate House, unless otherwise specified.

*Please note that all Bristol Clear offers are in italics. If you are an academic or research staff member, find out more about taking part on the Bristol Clear blog. 

Week 1 

  • Writers Retreat (in conjunction with a Bristol Clear Writing Day)– 1st November  

Week 2 

  • Bristol Clear: Writers’ Retreat – 5th November 
  • Thesis Bootcamp – 5th, 6th, 7th November 
  • Drop-in Writing Day, PGR Hub – 9th November

Week 3 

Week 4 

  • Bristol Clear: Regular Productive Academic Writing – 19th November 
  • Bristol Clear: How to Peer review research manuscripts for journals – 20th November 
  • Take a break: relaxation afternoon – 21st November
  • Drop-in Writing Day, PGR Hub – 23rd November

Week 5 

  • Drop-in Writing Day, PGR Hub – 27th November
  • Writers Retreat – 30th November

How else can I get involved?

The University of Bristol is aiming to write a collective total of 500,000 words* throughout the month, and you can help us to reach this ambitious target (and see our little chart change) by letting us know your word count!

You can share your tally every day, every week or at the end of the month — whatever works for you. To take part, just tell us your word count by using #AcWriFest18 and #BristolPGRs in your Twitter or Instagram post. You can also send us an email, contact us using Facebook Messenger or post a comment on this very blog.

*Our original target of 100,000 words was jettisoned after some outstanding word counts in week one. So the Bristol bar has been raised…