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Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

MAY the Writing Force Be With You: How to Use Freewriting to Get Past Writers' Block

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Because of punniness, May has unofficially become Star Wars month. And as a writing instructor, I love a good pun.

I also love Star Wars movies. I love the concept that people of all different backgrounds, histories, identities, can come together to work for an important change. I love that so many of the franchise's heroes are misfits: a scavenger with a bounty on his head, a thief who lost her parents as a child and was abandoned by her guardian to fend for herself, a farm boy from a plane that no longer exists, a run-away Stormtrooper, a re-programmed Imperial security droid. And I love the idea that our thoughts can be super powers.
I think this is an important idea to remember when staring at a blank page or a blank document on the computer screen. While I know that willing words to appear doesn't actually work (and I've tried!), there is something almost as simple that does. It's called freewriting, and it's a technique I've promoted to students for years. But I never realized its true power until I hit a major roadblock in my dissertation.
Freewriting involves writing non-stop for a set amount of time. I used a five-minute sand timer to start; and it's surprising how long five minutes can feel when you're not allowed to stop creating words on a page. I've read that writing by hand can be especially helpful*, but I personally set a timer and told myself to type until it ran out. I started by trying to type out what it was I couldn't get past. It looked something like this: 

    how do i move from one topic regarding the protagonists of these novels to talking about realworld
    situations and how they might influence and be influenced by such novels and why this is important
    to anyone else in the world

I forced myself not to delete or worry about grammar or punctuation. The not deleting was especially difficult for me, but it was also what ultimately led to my breakthrough. As the sand ran from the top of my timer to the bottom, my document started to meander:

    the idea that i know i can't move into a new thing the concept of real world and literary
    representation and characterization and my general themes the themes need to transition but how do i
    where can i go from the theme of this protagonist to the theme of this other protagonist and
    differntiate enough do i need multiple chapters about these protagonists to make sure i can write
    about all the ideas i wanted to mention....
By attempting to articulate my problem--and not worrying whether or not I was articulating it well--I realized what was keeping me from moving on: I was organizing my chapters in an ineffective way. I had created an outline and, while it helped me remember different points I wanted to make, I was trying too hard to stick to its structure. I hadn't even realized I was doing this...at least not consciously. By allowing myself to ramble without any specific objective or goal, I allowed my brain to follow its own course rather than the one I'd initially intended. 

In the Star Wars films, characters go through physical, emotional, and developmental journeys--and they usually don't go as planned. And while they might "have a bad feeling" about where something is going, they push past fears and frustration and disproportionate odds to attain their goals. 
Fortunately, we're not (usually) up against an Imperial foe when it comes to writers' block, even if it sometimes feels that way. But I encourage you to channel your inner Jedi and trust your instincts when it comes to working through a difficult project. Walden students are focused on making positive social change with their scholarship. And that's a Force I can really get behind.

*If you're interested in the benefits of writing by hand, here are a few great reads:

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159-1168. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581

Tank, A. (2020, November 23). The psychological benefits of writing by hand. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90578555/the-psychological-benefits-of-writing-by-hand

Kacy Walz is a writing instructor from St. Louis, MO. She is not a Jedi (sadly), but she is a doctor of philosophy. Along with her work on the blog, Kacy also cohosts the Walden Writing Center podcast. Her favorite Star Wars film is Rogue OneSend me new posts by e-mail! button 

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Making it Through the Messy Middle

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My family and I recently moved into a new house, and with new views and rooms has come the challenge of turning this empty house into a home. One aspect I was especially excited about was the way the empty house served as a blank canvas for me to create a home for my family.

Fast forward a few months, and I’m in the middle of my living room with my collection of decor strewn around me as I stare at my empty bookcases. My goal is to create beautiful vignettes in my bookcases. That one small word—vignette, a fancy way of saying 'beautifully put-together decorations on a surface'--belies the incredible amount of trial and error, frustration, and confusion I was dealing with as I worked to arrange my books, keepsakes, and pieces of art.

empty shelves and open cupboards

My first instinct was to walk away: Walk out of the room, away from the problem, and come back to it another day—or maybe never.

But, as I sat there with my anxiety growing, a realization dawned on me: What I was doing, the moment I was in in this design process wasn’t wrong: I wasn’t failing, it was just the messy middle of my process. The middle part of the journey where you know where you want to go (sort of?) and possibly how to get there (almost?), but the path isn’t quite clear yet; the fuzzy middle stage where your vision is just a little bit clouded, but (you can almost feel it) clarity is just around the corner.

I know the messy middle well. I enter into the messy middle on every writing journey I’ve ever had. Each time I sit down to complete a writing project, whether it’s content for our website, a blog post, a presentation, or an article, I have found myself in the messy middle. And, because I have so much experience with the messy middle, I can recognize it when it arrives, and I know how it feels—it feels like crafting a vignette on my bookcase. I often want to get up, walk away, and give up on my project. However, since I write for a living, I also know how to work through and around the messy middle so I get to a place of clarity in my writing.

writing tools

·       Take a step back: Just as with writing, I took a step back from my design problem. I did walk away—but only for a short break—and came back with fresh eyes. Taking a break from something you’re in the messy middle of can provide you perspective. Instead of focusing on everything that’s not quite right, after stepping away you can better see what you like and build from there. 

·       Ask for help: In the messy middle of creating my bookcase vignette, I pulled my husband into the room to provide me his perspective. Then, I took a picture and posted it to my Facebook community for their insight. Both groups gave me helpful feedback that allowed me to see what was and wasn’t working. This works well with writing too! Alternative perspectives can help all writers understand what is and isn’t working in your writing; writing is usually for an audience beyond yourself, after all, as Kacy explained in her post last month

·       Use input judiciously: When I asked for feedback on my bookcase vignette from my husband and Facebook community, I got a lot of opinions. Opinions are good, and much of the feedback was really helpful. However, if I had used all of the suggestions, my bookcase would have looked a hot mess. Instead, I had to use the input I received wisely, picking and choosing the input that helped me achieve my design goal. Similarly, when you receive input on your writing, especially a long writing project like a doctoral capstone study, be mindful to use feedback judiciously, in a way that helps you get closer to your writing goals. Otherwise, you may get lost in a maze of feedback that sends you in different directions. 

Don’t get attached: Sometimes getting out of the messy middle means letting go of something you’ve been trying to make work from the very beginning—and thus, something you might be attached to. For my bookcase, I had been trying to fit so many keepsakes that I love—and had been brought with me from my old house—but that didn’t all fit. So, I had to emotionally let go of the idea that all of my beautiful things would work in the space, and this allowed me to see new possibilities. The same thing happens in writing: We can sometimes get so attached to a certain sentence or idea, that it’s hard to let go of it even though it’s not working. 

·       Create a “reserved” space: When working on my bookcase and editing the number of things I had in it, I would often take off items and put them in a box behind me. I told myself that anything in this box was on hold or reserve, and I could always add it back in down the line. Doing so made me more less afraid to remove something, because I wasn’t making a permanent decision. The same technique works with writing; rather than deleting sentences, paragraphs, or sections when you’re in the messy middle of a writing project, cut and paste that writing into a “reserved” Word document. You can then pull it back into your project at any point, if needed. 

tidy living room shelf
Now that you’ve heard me talk about how I worked with and through my messy middle when decorating my bookcases, I hope you can see how you, too, can learn to embrace and work with this part of your writing journey rather than against it. Think about your own experiences with the messy middle of other projects, hobbies, or work. How did you work with and through those middle points of your process? How can your experiences there help you with the messy middle stage of your writing?

Let us know in the comments your tips for the messy middle and how you’ll use what I’ve learned to help you with your writing!

Beth Nastachowski has been with the Writing Center since 2010, and she currently manages the center’s webinars, modules, and videos. She spends her time running after her son, husband, two cats, and dog in St. Paul, MN. 

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Bargain-Priced Candy Hearts and the Importance of Audience

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 We've reached my favorite part of February: when all of the Valentine's Day candy goes on sale.

One particular type of candy that has grown on me over the years is the conversation, candy heart. When I was little I thought they tasted like chalk, but maybe they've improved the recipe over the years? Regardless of flavor changes, the messages on the hearts have definitely been updated. 

Digging through a little box of colorful hearts, I can't help reading each little message as it comes up: "love", "laugh", "be mine", "smile", "you & me", "cute", "rock star", "hug me", and others are fairly obvious. But then there are hearts with messages like: "TTYL", "DM me", "lol" and "LYMY". I actually do understand the first three (talk to you later, direct-message me, and laugh out loud) but the fourth is a complete mystery to me. (EDIT: I've looked it up and apparently it stands for "love you, miss you".)

This variety of mini-comments makes me think of what we mean when we advise writers to consider their audience. Maybe some of you already knew what LYMY meant. Maybe others would be confused by hearts reading "XOXO" or "BFF". Fortunately, the candy will taste the same whether you know that x's and o's are sometimes used to represent kisses and hugs in correspondence, or that BFF stands for "best friends forever," but scholarly writing does not benefit from the same sugary advantage. 

Anything we write has an intended audience--even if that intended audience is ourselves or an intended audience of no one. When you write for coursework there is the obvious audience of the faculty who will grade the work, but there is also often an implied audience. Perhaps you've been instructed to write a lesson plan to share with another educator; a business memo to be shared with a large corporation; an interpretation of and diagnosis for a certain case study. You'll of course want to make sure you respond to each component of the assignment prompt, but you should also consider who you're conceptually writing for. 

-        What kind of information can you assume your audience will already have about the topic?

o   Would you need to explain what TTYL stands for?

-        What context does your audience need?

o   The fact that they are Valentine’s candy would suggest that messages like “smile” or “call me” have a different sentiment than they would coming from a photographer or a business card.

-        What are you ultimately hoping to achieve with regards to your audience?

o   When you send a Valentine to a friend, the message will likely be different than the one you send to your romantic interest.

To help you remember how to acknowledge the importance of your intended audience, here’s a somewhat forced acronym relating back to candy hearts:

How: how are you expected to present your information? The mode of communication will provide some clues into who your intended audience might be.

Expectation: what can you expect your intended reader to already know?

Additional: what extra background information will your reader need you to provide in order to fully understand what you’re trying to say?

Response: is there something you hope your reader will do with the information after reading? Are there potential questions or arguments you could circumvent by addressing them in your writing?

Task: what is the ultimate task you’ve been given with regards to the assignment? Would your reader be able to easily determine it based on what you’ve written?

To my intended audience: I hope you had a fun Valentine’s Day—or are at least similarly benefiting from reduced-price treats. And I hope this acronym and post in general are memorable enough to help you in your next writing assignment!

Kacy Walz is a writing instructor from St. Louis, MO. She is currently working on a PhD in Literature from the University of Missouri. Along with her work on the blog, Kacy also cohosts the Walden Writing Center podcast. She enjoys piña coladas and getting caught in the rain.Send me new posts by e-mail! button 

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2022: Just Keep Swimming

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 In his 2017 bestselling book Finish, author Jon Acuff writes, "I thought the biggest problem for people was the phantom of fear that prevented them from beginning...Fear was the ghost holding them back and starting was the only way to beat it. I was half right. The start does matter. The beginning is significant. The first few steps are critical. But they aren't the most important. Do you know what matters more? Do you know what makes the start look silly and easy and almost insignificant? The finish."

Last March I introduced the blog's 2021 theme of Motivation. This year--a year actually beginning in January!--I'd like to continue that concept into a new theme: the theme of Momentum.

As Acuff points out, starting is important. And motivation can help us get to the starting line. But momentum is what gets us through the slog of the "messy middle." According to Acuff, the most important point of any major goal or project is what happens "the day after perfect." 

The day after perfect is what Acuff calls the period of time that follows the first instance someone doesn't live up to their own idea of what the completion of their goal should look like. It's the day after the first time you hit snooze instead of waking up early for a run, the night after the night you fell asleep without writing in your journal, the meal after you passed on the salad bar and went straight for dessert. It's the moment you might be tempted to say, "Well, I've already messed up, might as well just give up entirely!" 

There's an old cliche that says something to the effect of, 'just because you break one plate doesn't mean you should throw every other plate on the ground.' And this seems totally obvious, but it's amazing how often I find myself tempted to do just that. Metaphorically, I mean...

So this year we're going to try to build on our motivation and find the momentum to keep moving forward even after our plans go slightly askew. The topic will be applied to writing-related issues, but hopefully these ideas will be useful in all areas of life. Here's to 2022!


Acuff, J. (2017). Finish: Give yourself the gift of done. Portfolio/Penguin.

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