How to Treat Writer's Block
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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
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
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
August 4, 2003