Kyle Harley, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor
I used to hate ‘starting’ papers; in fact, I still do to this day. Planning weeks in advance for projects, I spent countless hours in front of a blank screen simply wondering when something prolific would jump from my fingertips, only to find that hours had passed and not a word found its way to the page—not even my name. I shrugged this off for the first few years of college, more than likely attributing the block to some exterior circumstance that caused a minor inconvenience. In this particular scenario, I am sure the cafeteria probably ran out of Mt. Dew, and how does a university expect its students to work under such harsh rations? All levity aside, it took this silly scenario to remind me, just a few days ago, why I love to write the way that I do. Instead of sulking and figuring out why these writing projects were out to get me, I took the liberty of compiling a very short list of untapped resources that will certainly get those ideas bouncing around in your head—especially if you are stressed out, anxious, and terrified about some of your upcoming writing projects for school.
When in doubt, talk it out.
I try to use this cheesy phrase as much as possible, but no words can describe the real benefit of sitting down and discussing possible paper topics with others. I always go to my friends and family first with fresh, new ideas—or simply no ideas at all—knowing that I can voice my opinions openly in such a way that they then become the topic of discussion. From this point, the note taking begins. Any snippet of conversation that catches my interest immediately finds its way onto the page, even if I know that this will not be the central focus of the paper. The act of vocalizing our ideas—especially with others—tends to spawn creativity due to one person’s ideas building off of another’s—and this process will certainly seem never-ending. In the event that family and/or friends do not sound like the best option, why not try attending the writing center for additional help? I visited my first writing center when I was a senior in college just to vocalize my ideas with a different set of folks, and to date I have yet to write a more developed, organized, and thoughtful paper. I was extremely skeptical about this place where the English-folk roamed, but the staff of the writing center lives for days like these, so take advantage of it. Trust me: they will help.
Be ready to play Writer’s Pong.
Classmate “writer’s pong” is another fantastic way to gain some insight on your potential ideas. With the presence of online education making more and more headway, many universities turn to online tools to help stimulate and connect their students. Discussion boards act as a fantastic tool for students to use in order to gain some ideas for potential paper topics. If you happen to see that a classmate shares similar interests about a topic, why not try and initiate an e-mail conversation to discuss these possible ideas? Though it is a bit disconnected from face-to-face interaction, utilizing electronic services for these sorts of tasks can work wonders and be extremely efficient at the same time. If time is of the essence, nothing can surpass the immediacy of sending a quick e-mail or post regarding your upcoming assignment. What this will also allow you to do is actually far more important than an 8-bit game reference, and that is to let that information simmer. In between your day, whenever you have a bit of down time, take out a piece of paper and begin jotting down some thoughts that rush to your brain regarding the topic. From this point, hash out some of the better ideas that you came up with and see what your fellow classmate thinks. The benefit here is that the student will also be the worthwhile set of eyes for another student’s work, which I am certain they will be grateful for. The repeated act of thinking about your upcoming assignment, with very healthy breaks in between, of course, will only help to generate new ideas that may well trump your original topic. From my personal experience, this is usually the case.
There can be complications to this practice, though, and that more often than not takes the form of a failed assignment and an incredibly angry student. Writing tutors are especially equipped to help students understand the issues that occurred in their previous draft more than a fellow classmate, so if this happens to align with your current situation, I would advise that you seek out a session at your writing center as soon as possible. Here the tutor will be able to dissect the issues present within the draft that caused the headache in the first place. While this is very possible with a fellow classmate, some prefer the professionalism that educators bring to the equation—and that is fine just the same. Either method will bring about improvement, but none of this can begin unless you ask ‘them’ about your paper.