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Other Strategies for Getting Over Writer's Block

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If you’ve read through our list of symptoms and cures for writer’s block and are still having trouble getting started, try these concrete exercises to get some words on the page.

 Exercises to Get Inspiration 

  • Get started by transcribing the prompt or some quotes: Sometimes just writing out the assignment prompt, and thus being forced to pay attention to each individual word in the directions, can help you get started. This fills an intimidatingly blank screen, and it provides a starting place that’s less intimidating than immediately voicing your thesis.

    • The same is true for quotes from readings you’ve done on the subject. Once you’ve gotten them on the page, begin to type around these quotes, explaining why they struck you as important, whether you agree with them, or what they reveal about your topic. You may find that by commenting on your quotes, you’ve basically developed an argument for your piece.

    • If you opt to transcribe the prompt, don’t forget to remove it before submitting your assignment. You don’t want to unintentionally give the impression of having plagiarized.

  • Change the audience: Pretend that you're writing to a child, to a close friend, to a parent, to a person who sharply disagrees with you, or to someone who's new to the subject and needs to have you explain your paper's topic slowly and clearly. Changing the audience—especially to one that would need you to proceed very deliberately—can clarify your purpose and help get some words on the page.

    • You can revise to address your assigned audience later. It’s easier to revise existing work than to start from scratch!

  • Play a role: Pretend someone else is writing your paper—someone with a very personal interest in the topic or someone with a viewpoint very different than your own. Pulling yourself out of your usual perspective can help you see things that are otherwise invisible or difficult to articulate, and your writing will be stronger for it.

    • Better still, have a conversation with someone who you know has a very different perspective than your own. You may be surprised to see how starkly this illuminates your most closely-held assumptions.

Exercises to Organize Your Thoughts

  • Map or draw your paper: Write some keywords (or even any thoughts you have on the subject) on a series of notecards, then shuffle them. Lay them out on a large table and spend some time moving them around, writing out connections between different cards as you see them. Even if the thoughts and words seem unconnected at first, you might make some surprising connections that will form a good thesis statement. You can get started writing later by transcribing the content of some of your card clusters.

    • This practice is very similar to the strategy used by John McPhee, the celebrated author of modern classics in creative nonfiction like The Pine Barrens. See this profile for a more detailed description of his process. 

  • Talk out the paper: Talk about what you want to write someone who's willing to listen to your ideas for fifteen to thirty minutes. Having to explain ideas or tell the story of your paper’s development to someone else often clarifies your main argument. If your listener is willing, they can ask guiding questions as you speak or take notes on what you say that you can reference or transcribe later.

  • Tape the paper:If you’re too shy to talk out the paper to someone else, recording yourself largely accomplishes the same purpose. You can even start writing by transcribing parts of the recording.

Exercises to Stay on Task

  • Write by hand: Put all electronic devices on the other side of the room and try to fill up a notebook page without their help. You can edit the work as you transcribe it to the screen—suddenly, you have a second draft on your hands!  

  • Use timers:Set a timer for ten minutes and write continuously, without opening the Internet or leaving your computer, until the timer goes off. The sentences don’t have to be polished, but you’ll be surprised how much content you can generate in just ten minutes at a time.

    • If you’re feeling confident, or you’re pushing against a deadline, you can increase the time span.

  • Write in a place with no internet connection: And temporarily disable your phone’s internet access, using it only as a timer.

Strategies to Manage Your Stress Level

  • Set manageable goals: Writing an entire paper in an hour is daunting, but writing just two paragraphs in an hour is very doable. Plan out how much time you have before the deadline and how much writing you need to do, and make yourself a manageable schedule of small tasks.

    • It can be productive to think of even modest achievements like reaching a low word count or writing continuously for a short amount of time as goals worthy of reward. Anticipating the break or treat you’ve promised yourself can motivate you to keep going just a little while longer.

  • Take short breaks when you need them: It’s hard to write anything when you need sleep or have been staring at a screen for too long.

  • Remember that no one has to see your first—or even second—draft.Even an awful opening sentence is a better start than a blank document. Everyone has to work through disorganized thoughts and jumbled sentences before they get to their final, polished state.

NB: If you'd like more help, many of these ideas are borrowed from Peter Elbow's Writing with Power, [Ch. 8; 59-77] and Mack Skjei's Overcoming Writing Blocks. Both of these books are fantastic resources for writers at all levels of experience.