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How to Treat Writer's Block - Writing Center at TCC

Writing Center at TCC : Self-help Handouts : Writing Guidelines

How to Treat Writer's Block
Every writer, sooner or later, suffers from some form of Writer's Block, the inability to think of or organize ideas. Symptoms may include sweaty palms, pencil chewing, and a pronounced tendency to sit in corners and weep. Although not every "cure" works for everyone, here are a few suggestions to help minimize your misery:

Try to give yourself as much time as possible to write your essay. Don't try to write the entire paper in one sitting. By doing so, you may place yourself under too much pressure. Writer's Block often accompanies the "up against the wall" feeling that strikes at 2:00 a.m. the morning your essay is due at 9:00. Rome wasn't constructed in a day, and neither are most good essays.

Since most of you have had more experience talking than writing, try verbalizing your ideas. Sometimes it's helpful to discuss your ideas with a friend or classmate. Their questions and comments (not mention their sympathy for your temporary block) will often trigger the thoughts you need to begin writing again. Or you might want to talk into a tape recorder so you can hear what you want to say.

When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, something's going to give. Conquer the task: break the paper into manageable bits. Instead of drooping with despair over the thought of a ten-page research paper, think of it as a series of small parts (explanation of the problem, review of current research, possible solutions or whatever). Then tackle one part at a time and reward yourself when that section's done.

Get the juices flowing and the pen or the computer moving. Try writing the easiest or shortest part of your essay first. A feeling of accomplishment may give you the boost of confidence you need to undertake the other, more difficult sections. If no part looks easy or inviting, try more prewriting exercises, like the ones described in Chapter 1, until you feel prepared to begin the essay itself. The beauty of using a computer to compose is that you can start anywhere you want and move text as your ideas change.

Play "Let's Make A Deal" with yourself. Sometimes we just can't face the failure that we are predicting for ourselves. Strike a bargain with yourself: promise yourself that you are only going to work on your paper for fifteen minutes--absolutely, positively, fifteen minutes, not a second more, no sir, no way. If in fifteen minutes, you're on to something good, ignore your promise to yourself and keep going. If you're not, then leave and come back for another fifteen minute session later (if you started early enough, you can do this without increasing your anxiety).

Give yourself permission to write garbage. Take the pressure off yourself by agreeing in advance to tear up the first page or two of whatever you write. You can always change your mind if the trash turns out to be treasure; if it isn't, so what? You said you were going to tear it up anyway.

Imagine that your brain is a water faucet. If you're like most people, you've probably lived in a house or apartment that contained a faucet that needed to run a few minutes before the hot water started to come out. Think of your brain in the same way, and do some other, easier writing task to warm up. Write a letter, make a grocery list, copy notes, whatever, to get your brain running. I always clean house first; in addition to taking away excuses to not write later, ideas seem to appear when I sit down to write. When you return to your paper, your thoughts may be hotter than you thought.

Remove the threat by addressing a friendly face. Sometimes we can't write because we are too worried about what someone else will think about us or maybe we can't write because we can't figure out who would want to read this stuff anyway? Instead of writing into a void or to an audience that seems threatening, try writing to a friend. Imagine what that friend's responses might be and try to elaborate or clarify wherever necessary. If it helps, write the first draft as a letter ("Dear Clyde, I want to tell you what happened to me last week. . ."), and then redraft your ideas as an essay when you've found your purpose and focus, making whatever changes in tone or development are necessary to fit your real audience.

If Writer's Block does hit, remember that it is a temporary bogdown, not a permanent one. Other writers have had it--and survived to write again. Try leaving your papers and taking a walk outdoors or at least into another room. Think about your readers--what should they know or feel at this point in your essay? As you walk, try to complete the sentence "What I am trying to say is. . . ." Keep repeating this phrase and your responses aloud until you find the answer you want.

Sometimes while you're blocked at one point, a bright idea for another part of your essay will pop into your head. If possible, skip the section that's got you stuck and start working on the new part. (At least jot down the new idea somewhere so it won't be lost when you need it later.)

Change partners and dance. If you're thoroughly overcome by the vast white wasteland on the desk before you, get up and do something else for a while. Exercise, balance your checkbook, or put on music and dance. (Mystery writer Agatha Christie claimed she did her best planning while washing the dishes.) Give your mind a break and refresh your spirit. When you come back to the paper, you may be surprised to discover that your subconscious writer has been working while the rest of you played.

Here's the single most important piece of advice to remember: relax. No one--not even the very best professional writer--produces perfect prose every time pen hits paper. If you're blocked, you may be trying too hard; if your expectations of your first draft are too high, you may not be able to write at all for fear of failure. You might be holding yourself back by being a perfectionist at this point. You can always revise and polish your prose in another draft--the first important step is jotting down your ideas. Remember that once the first word or phrase appears on your blank page, a major battle has been won.

Adapted from Jean Wyrick's Steps to Writing Well

Last revision: August 4, 2003