Do you have “Writer’s Block”? Does a blank page scare you? Do you hate writing so much that you always put it off to the last minute? Do you spend hours trying to think of something to say? Some writers always have trouble getting started, and some are blocked only on certain tasks or in certain situations. It helps to explore some of the reasons you might be blocked from writing, and to try out some strategies for dealing with writer’s block.
Writing Anxiety—If writing makes you very nervous or anxious, or if you have a lifelong dislike for writing, it may be helpful to explore the reasons for this attitude. Many individuals have had an experience in the past that has convinced them that they are incapable of writing. Often this involves a very strict, grammar-oriented teacher who covered your papers with red marks and said “You can’t write.” Usually, such teachers don’t offer any good strategies for improvement. Don’t let a few bad experiences ruin your writing ability. A new attitude and some new strategies can make a big difference. Think about bad experiences you have had with writing and discuss them with your teacher, a tutor, or another student.
Getting it Right—Do you worry about correct grammar and spelling as you write each sentence? Writers are often blocked by focusing on form and correctness too early. A writer who writes and rewrites the first sentence numerous times attempting to get the grammar right before going on to the second sentence is probably overly concerned about correctness in a first draft. It is usually best to get the ideas down on paper, then go back and proofread for correctness. Fear of the New—A good writer may be blocked on a particular assignment because he or she has never written anything in that format or for that audience before. In this case looking at samples or models of successful efforts might be helpful.
Distractions—Sometimes a writer is blocked or writes ineffectively because of the writing environment. Perhaps there are too many kids at home and no quiet. Or perhaps the writer is in the habit of writing while watching television or listening to music, and the distractions keep the writer from focusing on the task. If you always watch television while you write, but you always have trouble writing good papers, it may be time to change your habits. Television and music can become strategies for avoiding the task rather than doing it.
Some Pre-writing Activities and “Invention” Strategies: The following are simple but effective techniques that adapt to most topics.
Brainstorming—This technique is actually a temporary suspension of your power of judgement. Many writers reject their best ideas before they even write them down. Write down everything you can think of that relates to the topic, without rejecting any idea. Open your mind and let the ideas and associations flow. Then go back over the list and select the ideas that have a potential for development. You may want to discuss the list of ideas with a tutor, or with another student. Sometimes we need feedback from others to know whether our ideas are interesting or not.
Freewriting—This is another technique that is especially useful for blocked writers. It is very similar to brainstorming, except that you are writing a piece of text rather than a list. Set a time limit like five or ten minutes, think about the topic and write whatever comes to mind, without stopping for any reason. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar, and don’t correct or cross-out anything. Don’t stop to think at all. If you can’t think of anything to say, write “I can’t think of anything to say,” until you think of something. Just keep the writing flowing. Afterwards, read through what has been written for ideas that could be developed. You may want to share some of the ideas with a tutor or a friend.
Clustering —This technique has the advantage of organizing the material as it is generated. Take a blank sheet of paper and put a term that represents the main topic in the center, with a circle around it. Then think of a subtopic or a related term and put that on the page near the main topic, circle it, and draw a line to connect the two items. At this point you can work on further division of this subtopic, or on generating new terms to connect to the main topic. Continue this process until you have covered the page with a web of terms and lines showing relationships and inter-relationships. You may want to share your cluster with a tutor or another student, who may have some other ideas for terms and connections. When you start writing, you will probably end up using each branch of the cluster as a paragraph division.
Listmaking —Some writers use formal outlines with Roman numerals and capital letters to generate and organize ideas, but there is usually no reason to be so rigorous, and informal lists and scratch outlines can be very useful. For issues with two sides, you may want to create a “pro” and “con” list, or a “before” and “after” list, with a line down the center. Sometimes it is useful with a research project to make a list of everything you know about a topic, and then a list of everything you need to find out. Lists are not fancy, but some of the best writing starts out looking like a laundry list.
Whatever you have to write, don’t waste time sitting and staring at a blank page. Try different strategies until you find one that works for you. Brainstorming, freewriting, clustering, outlining— even just making a list—none of these strategies work for everyone, but everyone can find a strategy that works.