Thoughts From a Writing Specialist: Writer’s Block
Tuesday, September 08, 2009 Expert AdviceBy Brian Timmerman, Senior Writing Specialist
Finding yourself stuck, staring at a blank page? I’ve been there. Really. I shed tears on a paper once, an essay about Robert Bage’s novel, Hermsprong: Or Man as He is Not. Real tears. And I was 25. A 25-year-old man shedding tears over a 200-year-old book. No joke.
What I learned from that experience, though, was invaluable. It wasn’t so much that I had forgotten how to write, but I simply hadn’t thought about what I was writing. I was too focused on the blank page knowing that this thing, this paper, was supposed to grow to at least 25 pages plus. What I needed to do was to step away from the computer and just think about the material. What was my argument? What was the purpose of my paper? Why was I writing it (you know, aside from the fact that it was assigned to me)? How was I interacting with the text? Instead, I had jumped in foolishly focusing on the logistics (I need to have a 25-page paper completed by next Tuesday), as opposed to the real task at hand: taking the time to think about what I was going to say about the material I had read. I had put the cart before the horse.
Below are a few things I learned about writing over the years, most of which have helped me overcome writer’s block at some point in time or another.
1. A blank page does not mean that you’re searching for the right word or words to begin your essay. It means you literally have no idea what to say or why you’re saying it (aside from the fact that it’s been assigned). Take the 20-minutes of prep time and construct a thesis. The rest of the paper is then written with that thesis in mind, giving it direction. Trust me. Spend 20 minutes doing the prep work or spend an hour and a half staring at a flashing cursor wondering why nothing’s coming out.
2. If you find yourself stuck midway through your paper (or literally saying, “What the heck am I doing?”), go back to your introduction and make sure that you’re not confusing a thesis with a subject. A thesis is an argument; you can structure a paper around that. A subject on the other hand is a topic, something that has no beginning, no opportunity for narrative, and no way of getting to a reasonable conclusion (thus causing the block). If you find that you have a subject, there’s a good chance you’ll have to go back to the drawing board (which still should be less time consuming than trying to make what you have “fits” into a coherent paper).
3. If you’re stuck, there’s also a chance that you haven’t taken the time to think about what your research means to your essay. In this instance, remove yourself from the paper and return to the literature. As you reread, think of what this information means in the context of your essay’s purpose as well as in the context of the other material you’ve read. You may find that you’ve been trying to write about something that isn’t necessary. You may also discover something new that will jump start the writing process for you.
4. Don’t get caught up in the way your paper sounds. If you find yourself reading and rereading what you do have, listening for the ways that the words dance on page, stop, take a breath, and move on. If you don’t, you’re going to lose sight of the bigger picture (the essay as a whole). You can always address issues of precision during the revision process.
5. If after three or four paragraphs you find yourself stuck, take inventory of what you do have by jotting down a one-sentence purpose statement for each paragraph. This way, by getting a brief synopsis of what you’ve written so far, you’ll know where you are in the argument and what’s needed next.
6. Remember that you’re not working with stone tablets. You can commit anything to paper and delete it later. Go ahead and write something, anything, even if you know it’s a placeholder. You can always go back and change, delete, or revise what you’ve written. At the very least, this’ll keep the process moving. It might even help in just getting a few ideas on the page.
7. It sounds silly, but you might even want to consider using a voice recorder. Some writers are simply more comfortable expressing thoughts orally than through the written word. Once you’ve recorded those ideas, you should be able to fine tune them on the page.