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Symptoms and Cures for Writer's Block

Summary:

A description of common causes of writer’s block and advice for overcoming these blocks.

Written by Kylie Regan.

Most writers experience writer’s block at some point in their life, at various stages of the writing process. Often a solution can be found by speaking with your instructor (if you are a student) or a writing tutor. But there are ways to combat writer’s block on your own, too! When you’re having trouble figuring out what to write next, consider these common types of writer’s block and try the strategies that sound most promising.

If you're having trouble finding a starting place for the assignment...

  • Brainstorm topics that are interesting to you. Use the invention strategies suggested by a tutor or teacher to generate questions or thoughts that serve as useful starting places.
  • Write down all the primary ideas you'd like to express and then fill in each with the smaller ideas that make up each primary idea. This can easily be converted into an outline.
  • If your paper involves conducting research, you can look for places where you disagree with another thinker’s claim or feel more work needs to be done. Identifying gaps or conflicts in the existing conversation around a topic is often a great starting place.

Example: You’ve been asked to analyze a television commercial. You remember three commercials that you found interesting and re-watch them, taking notes on details that stand out to you. You freewrite for five minutes on each of the three commercials, and discover that you have much more to say about one than the others. You focus on that one, expanding your freewrite into the an outline for the entire essay.

If you have a topic and an outline, but can’t think of an interesting beginning…

  • Try beginning in the middle. Start writing at whatever point you like, and leave the introduction or first section until later. The reader will never know that you wrote the paper "backwards." Besides, some writers routinely save the introduction until later when they have a clearer idea of what the main idea and purpose of the piece will be.
    • After the paper is completely drafted, you can get all the sections in the correct order and read it start-to-finish to ensure that transitions are smooth.

Example: You have to complete a lab report and hate writing the “Introduction” section. In order to complete the project on time, you overcome your anxiety about writing that section by first writing the “Materials,” “Method,” and “Results” sections. You write the “Introduction” last, reorder, and revise holistically.

If you’ve chosen or been assigned a topic that bores you…

  • Determine how much control you have over the assignment’s topic. Talk to your teacher or supervisor and discuss how much the assignment can be adjusted. If there is a lot of room for flexibility, choose a particular aspect of the topic you are interested in.
    • If you’ve chosen a common topic just because you thought it would be easy to write on, reconsider: it’s easiest to write about something in which you have a personal interest.
  • Talk to your instructor or a tutor about how you can personalize a topic.
    • If you can’t change the major scope or goal of the assignment, try to understand why you’re being asked to write it. What knowledge will you gain from completing the assignment? What skills will you be able to practice? Who would benefit from reading my finished product, and how would that positively change that community?

Example: You work for your campus newspaper and have been assigned to write an article on an upcoming career fair. Although at first your editor asks you to simply inform students of what companies will be represented at the event, you find that you’re much more interested in profiling a certain company that’s new to the fair. You talk to your editor and get permission to write the article that engages you more.

Example: The same scenario as above, but your editor tells you that you have to write the original, more general article. Although it’s boring to you, you reflect that you’ll gain practice presenting a mass of information in concise language, certainly a useful skill for a journalist. Additionally, there are thousands of students on campus who would benefit from the information your article will cover. This motivates you to write the article.

If you don’t understand the assignment…

  • Find out what is expected of you. Read the written instructions you’ve been given again, and make a list of questions you still have about the assignment. Consult your teacher, a textbook, a classmate, a tutor, or your project coordinator. Make it clear that you’ve read the teacher’s or supervisor’s materials and tried to solve the problem on your own, and be specific about what’s confusing you.
    • The better you can articulate the source of confusion, the more help others can give you.

Example: Your composition instructor has asked you to write a Digital Literacy Narrative. The assignment sheet provides a definition of “digital literacy,” and you have some class notes that further clarify the concept. But after reviewing these materials, you’re still not certain if your instructor would allow you to write about how you learned to use different coffee-making technologies, as they aren’t traditionally considered digital devices. You go to your instructor’s office hours to ask if this topic would be acceptable, taking your annotated assignment sheet and class notes with you.

If you’re worried that you’ll write the wrong thing…

  • Remember that the first draft is not the final draft. If you’re not sure that an argument will pan out, just start writing it and see where it takes you. You can always delete paragraphs that don’t work out later, but the best insights often come from pushing yourself into uncertain territory—if you never feel unsure about your claims, you’re probably just reproducing existing findings!
  • If you’re worried that a small detail is incorrect, that’s okay in the draft phase. Rather than spending a lot of time checking every small detail as you go, just leave a note to yourself to check your sources later. Or, leave the troublesome paragraph for later and work on a section that you’re more confident writing about.

Example: You’re writing a paper on King Henry VIII and can’t remember off the top of your head whether he beheaded two or three of his wives. The answer to this question wouldn’t change your major argument either way, so you decide it’s not important to look up right now. You write “two,” highlight it, and leave a note to yourself to check this minor supporting fact against your research notes later.

If you’re worried that your sentences aren’t polished enough…

  • Remember, again, that the first draft is not the final draft. The sooner you get some words on the page, the more time you’ll have to edit your prose for clarity and style later. Complete an entire draft before you start editing on the sentence level.
  • If you find yourself consistently obsessing over individual sentences as you go, try dimming or covering your laptop or computer monitor’s screen so that you can’t see what you’re typing. You can also try writing in a notebook and typing up your work later.
  • Consciously stop any non-productive comments running through your head by replacing them with productive ones. Rather than labeling yourself a “bad writer,” think about what parts of the writing process you excel at (idea generation, conclusions, sentence style, etc.) and plan to allot more time for the steps that take you longer.

Example: You’re writing a paper on the effects of all-nighters on college student’s health. You can’t think of the word “deleterious.” After a few seconds of futilely scanning your brain for it, you write “super harmful,” knowing that you can find the more professional word later.

If you’re so stressed out that you can’t seem to put a word on the page…

  • Take a short break! If you’re close to a deadline and worried about losing track of time, then set a timer for ten or fifteen minutes and use that short window to relax before getting back to work. Stretch, move away from your desk, and don’t neglect your sleeping and eating schedule. It’s much harder to write if you’re sleep-deprived or dehydrated.
  • If you have several days left before your deadline, break the assignment into manageable parts. Set measurable writing goals for yourself, like writing without interruption for thirty minutes every day, or writing a certain number of words by a given deadline.
  • Finally, ask for help! Writing is most stressful when you’re doing it by yourself for a long period of time. Asking a tutor or a friend to talk through your ideas can help you get some perspective on the assignment, and remind you that it’s nothing to be anxious about.

Example: You have a week before an important job application is due and you’re anxious that the search committee will dislike your cover letter before you’ve even written it. Since you still have plenty of time before the deadline, you plan to work on it for just thirty minutes every day. You talk to a friend who helps you make a list of reasons why you’re qualified for this job, and you stick to your writing schedule.

If you’re easily distracted when you open your computer to write…

  • Try temporarily disabling your internet access. Take your laptop to a space that doesn’t have internet access. Draft by hand in a notebook and type up your work later. Or, simply turn your computer’s wifi detector off, or put your document into full-screen or “Focus” mode: these obstacles are easy to overcome, but the time it takes to make the few extra clicks to open an internet browser is sometimes enough to stop yourself.
  • You can also try setting a timer forcing yourself to do nothing but write for a short period of time. Even a ten-minute focused writing session can help you break through initial writer’s block and build momentum on your project.

Example: You start to work on your paper, and after writing one sentence feel the impulse to watch just one YouTube video. However, as you have wisely decided to take your computer to the house of a friend who doesn’t have internet, your browser gives you a frowny face and an error message. You return to your paper and keep writing.