Cures for Writer’s Block

The first draft is often the hardest to write, so if you find yourself stuck, you are not alone. As a writer just getting started, you will likely have a host of uncertainties buzzing in your head so getting those first words on the page and sustaining the writing are common obstacles for many.

One sure-fire way to address what is commonly known as writer’s block – the inability to make forward progress with one’s writing – is to visit a tutor in the Writing Center for Live Tutoring. These real live people can talk you through your block by offering practical suggestions and tips for jump-starting your writing as well as directing you to other appropriate Writing Center resources.

Getting help early in one’s process is a great way to get on track from the start and position yourself to avoid more serious writing issues later in the process when it is often more difficult to resolve deep-seeded issues.

What follows are some tips for getting started on a draft and curing writer’s block:

1. Relax.

Writing is a process and a process takes time. Have you ever thought about what your writing process looks like? When you go about writing, what exactly do you do? Too often people sit down to work on a writing project – a paper for class, a memo to a boss, a letter to a teacher – only to discover the words do not come easily. People assume that because they know the language, the words should simply march directly from the brain to the paper in a coherent and effortless manner. Not so. Writing, like most acts of skill, requires time and patience. The uncertainties the writer has at the start that prevent one to get words down is, in fact, normal – it is part of the process! The more you can relax, the better you will be able to get focused and make progress with your writing. Practice relaxing by taking deep breaths and commit yourself to the writing process.

2. Just write!

The best way to get started is by writing, and to this end, recording those words and seeing actual progress on the page is a push in the right direction not to mention a huge boost to one’s confidence. If you are stuck, put your head down and let writing happen. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar or anything except putting words down on the page. In this regard, you are freewriting, following the writing wherever it wants to take you. Don’t worry about where you are starting or if the content is “good” or not – just write.

Freewriting is a situation in which the writer has some kind of focus and based on that focus the writer writes. Fast. Without regard for grammar or spelling or mechanics – indeed, without regard for anything other than putting words down on the page. Just put down whatever comes to your head without thinking about it at all – resist the temptation to censor your thoughts and words, for that stifles the possibility of stumbling onto something you didn’t expect.

What’s important is to keep the writing moving forward and getting as much potential information down; then, later, you can look back over the freewrite and root around for content that suggests a focus or gives you another idea to explore. And don’t worry about structure when you freewrite, for other than writing in sentence and paragraph fashion, you do not have to worry about the logical development of your ideas.

So, if you are talking about picking oranges at your Aunt Sally’s in Florida when you were ten in one sentence and then in the next you are talking about the awesome symbolism of watching the New Orleans Saints marching into the Superdome for the team’s first home game since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city, that’s fine. This kind of Grand Canyonesque digression is the essence of freewriting. The purpose is through fast-paced and largely structureless writing ideas – or seeds for ideas – will present themselves on the page for the writer to consider and explore further.

Here’s what freewriting looks like using the starting focus of writing about an event that seemed to be a negative experience at the time but later appeared to be more positive (a life lesson).

The summer i was sixteen i broke my wrist skateboarding in my celler, a crazy thing to be doing i know but i was sixteen and it seemed fun and it was fun until the skateboard shot out from under me and back i went, whoa! and i put my hand out to brace the fall and all i heard was “snap!” and then i felt the pain. i remember getting the cast and thinking how awful my summer was going to be—how could i swim? play baseball? work? WORK!!! i had a part-time job at a pizza joint in town and was saving money for a car that my folks said i could buy when i turned 17 if i had enough money and could afford to keep it on the road. “It’s one thing to buy a car,” my father was famous for saying, “but it’s another matter to keep it on the road.” i had two thousand dollars saved and figured i could save another two thousand over the summer and by the time my senior year of highschool came around i would own my very own car but then i realized that with a broken wrist i wouldn’t be able to work the job i had and didn’t know what kind of a job i could get with a big ugly cast on my arm, which really made me mad and made me wonder why i did such a crazy thing as skateboarding in my cellar to begin with. My dad tried to lift my spirits and even asked me if I wanted to tend the pine trees out back of the house and then sell them as christmas trees when the time came but that didn’t sound like too good of an idea until I started to do the math and realized I could make alot more money selling christmas trees than I could working all summer making pizzas.

As you can see from the freewrite above, I have made some mistakes in spelling and grammar, but I have some good ideas down on the page. At first, the writing just rambles but toward the end, the ideas get more focused.

3. Brainstorm.

One great way to get thoughts down is to brainstorm. The idea is to use writing itself as a way to make forward, writerly progress. With brainstorming, you record in grocery-list fashion random thoughts on a particular topic as quickly as possible. Some of what you record may be full sentences and other content may be fragmentary. The job of the writer is to record whatever comes to mind as quickly as possible and without censoring oneself. Write as rapidly as possible and as long as you can – the more content you get down, the more likely you will be able to get beyond the block.

Here is an example of brainstorming:

Obesity in kids See it everywhere Pretty big percentage of kids are obese Cause: lack of exercise not enough recess? playing outside has been lost to video games Cause: poor diet (fast food, Super Size) Health risk: diabetes Health risk: heart conditions How do we fix this? Educate kids and parents Make school cafeterias food healthier Encourage grocers to carry healthier and fresher produce and meats

4. Outline.

Sometimes what the writer needs is a little direction, and to this end, composing an informal outline may be just what one needs to make progress. Concentrate on recording the major ideas, the big points, and organizing them in a logical manner. Don’t worry about Roman numerals and proper spacing or anything like that. Instead, just focus on the ideas and the relationship of one to another.

The ideas can be presented as full sentences, phrases, or any combination that works. Be sure to take some time to experiment and juggle ideas around so that you can see the possibilities of different arrangements, and if more specific ideas come to mind, add those to the outline where appropriate. The point of outlining in this application is not so much to get the structural framework of the piece of writing down pat, though this may happen, but, rather, to think about the topic in a way that enables you to record ideas so that you can then move forward with your writing.

Another approach is to complete a rough draft of the paper and then compose an outline based on that writing. Although the writing is a first-draft effort, you can often discover patterns and gain insight for new points by outlining even an early draft. Since writers do not work and think the same, experimenting with different strategies is a common-sense approach. Also consider using graphic organizers, like this one, to help you organize initial thoughts and ideas about a writing topic.

Here is an example of an informal outline:

  • Who watches horror movies?
    • Adult males?
    • Adult females?
    • Couples?
    • Certain age demographics?
  • Why do we watch horror movies?
    • to be scared, thrilled
    • to relax
    • to be first to see and tell friends
    • to enjoy special effects
  • What types are popular?
    • series
      • Nightmare on Elm Street (Freddy)
      • Halloween (Michael Meyers)
      • Friday the 13th (Jason)
    • supernatural
    • creepy creatures
    • psychotic criminal

5. Know Your Purpose and Audience.

Sometimes one gets stuck or can’t get started because of a lack of focus in terms of the writing at hand. As the writer, you need to know why you are writing and whom you are writing to, your audience. Perhaps your purpose is to explain a process, or to argue your opinion on a debatable topic; perhaps your purpose it to summarize an article, to tell a story, or to complain about bad service at a local eatery.

Whenever you write, you want to accomplish something in particular, a purpose, and to accomplish that purpose, you have to write to a target group. If you aren’t sure what you hope to accomplish or who you are writing to, you are almost asking for trouble. Give some thought to the writing assignment and then make sure your purpose and audience are clear in your mind before getting started.

6. Conduct Research.

The more you know about a topic, the easier it is to write about it. You should have the bulk of your research done prior to writing and have a loose plan of how you are going to incorporate it into your paper before you begin drafting. While writing, you may realize that you need to hunt down some more evidence to support certain points, which is to be expected, but you should not start drafting until most of the research is completed.

7. Jump-Write.

A big writing project can be overwhelming, so try to put the writing into perspective by thinking about it in small chunks, say point by point or part by part, and jump-write. How does this work? What is one point you want to make in the paper? Start there and see if you can make some headway. If you can, great! If you can’t, go on to the next point and see what happens. If another idea or supporting point comes to mind, jump over there and start writing. No rule exists that says a paper has to be written start to end. Jump around! The idea here is to make progress; you can stitch the parts together later when it matters.

8. Forget About the Introduction and Conclusion.

Writing works in mysterious ways and while many are taught to write the introduction and conclusion first, this approach does not work for everyone. For some, writing the introduction and conclusion are much easier once the body of the paper is written, so write those parts later. If you have a great idea for one or both, jot it down, but don’t let this bog you down. A good introduction gives a preview of the paper. If you haven’t written the paper yet, you don’t know exactly what you are previewing. Likewise, a conclusion reinforces the major points of the paper and makes, well, conclusions. If you haven’t written the paper yet, you can’t be certain what these will be, so don’t waste your energy.

9. State Your Thesis Aloud.

If you are trying to write, but can’t, take this test: State your thesis aloud. You should be able to articulate clearly and directly your thesis without having to look at your paper or notes at all. If you fumble through this or can’t do it at all, you need to take some time to think about what you are trying to accomplish in a piece of writing. If you are the writer but can’t clearly state your intentions, how do you expect to be able to write?

10. Talk to Someone.

Even though writing is a solitary act, this fact does not mean that writers don’t need other people. If you are stuck, grab a friend, a relative, a tutor, your instructor, or anyone willing to listen and use that person as a sounding board. Often expressing your ideas out loud enables one to sort things out and see new inroads for writing. Explain what you are trying to accomplish in the piece of writing, what your points are, and what has been causing you problems. If you are lucky, you may be able to talk yourself out of the problem. We definitely recommend dropping by the Writing Center’s live tutoring services to brainstorm ideas and have an ally in the writing process.

11. Create the Appropriate Atmosphere.

All writers work differently. Some like to write late at night and others can only function early in the morning. Some prefer music while others need silence. Some writers need the activity and ambiance of a café to feel comfortable, and others hide away in the corners of libraries. Whatever predilections you need to work, create them. Writing can be difficult enough under the best conditions, so you might as well make yourself comfortable while you work.

The truth about the writing process.
Frequently the writing process is presented as a series of steps that the writer simply needs to follow in order to compose a draft, which is rather misleading. It is true that the writing process involves disparate parts (exploring, drafting, revising, editing, proofreading), but this does not suggest the process is a series of sequential steps. In fact, writing is not linear at all; writing is recursive in that the writer moves back and forth in the process depending on the need. Put another way, no step-by-step formula exists for putting words on the page and shaping them into meaning. While there are distinct parts to the process, these parts are typically overlapping and the writer should feel free to move back and forth in the process depending on need.
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