As the semester draws to an end and deadlines for your writing assignments are lurking around the corner, are you feeling the pressure and still staring at a blank page, waiting for inspiration to strike at any moment now (at any moment now!) You might have been struck by a condition called writer’s block.
Writer’s block is most commonly believed to affect professional writers only. The truth is, however, that all writers are prone to writer’s block. Consequently, as studying at university involves a lot of writing, mainly used as a form of knowledge assessment, a lot of students suffer from writer’s block. Surely you can recognize those moments when you are sitting down behind your computer, a blank page facing you, words do not come, your mind is blank, the assignment keeps running through your mind, and the deadline is approaching fast. You have no idea where to start, what to write, and most of all, whether, if you manage to put something on paper or not, it is going to be correct or not.
In order to cure writer’s block, it is important to understand what causes it. The most common reason why students are struck by writer’s block are: anxiety, which is a result of a lack of writing practice, inability to self-assess the requirements and quality of their writing, poor writing assignment descriptions, and the simple question “Where and how do I start?”. The following guide offers both insights into the writing process as well as useful tips how to cure and avoid writer’s block.
1. Start early
To understand how the cure works, it is important to understand the writing process itself.
As any writer knows, whether they be expert, experienced or novice writers, writing takes time. Yet, too often do I see and hear about student writers who, just before the submission deadline of the paper, pull an all-nighter. The reason for this all-nighter might have been the block, but more likely, the all-nighter resulted from a mixture of procrastination and incorrect writing strategies (perfect ingredients for writer’s block). Another reason is that student writers (and teachers) often view a writing assignment as a product, and not as a process.
According to research in the field of writing studies, the writing process refers to different ways different writers apply different strategies to different writing tasks. In other words, writers (even the greatest of them) apply strategies that guide them to complete their final written product. Writing is, as a result, the same as any skill, it needs to be learned and it needs to be practiced, over and over again, time and time again. Ask any professional writer, or any academic writer for that matter, how many drafts their text have undergone and you’ll discover that the product is a result of endless revisions.
Thus – start early, you’ll have time to write and plenty of time to re-write as many times as necessary. You are going to be less anxious about your work when you are literally not counting the last hours and minutes to the deadline.
As writing is a skill that needs to be learned, it is important to find time to practice and start feeling comfortable with putting words on paper. Freewriting is a great way to beat the block. Take a timer, set it to 5 minutes and write down anything that comes to your mind during those 5 minutes. Write about the assignment, write about the things you know, write about the things you don’t know but would like to know. Write about your frustrations with the assignment and the things you like about the assignment. Don’t pay attention to style, spelling, or structure. The purpose of freewriting is to spew. Once the timer ends, you could go back and read through the things you wrote down and you start thinking about tidying up, drafting, organizing and planning your writing.
3. Draft and outline
Drafting your text basically refers to the multiple stages you will go through while developing your writing. This means that you have to start early (see above). Writing does not have to be linear, in other words, you do not need to start at the beginning. Let the text unfold itself and when you draft you can take any part of your text and revise it, check it, delete it, and develop it. Expert writers never write their text linearly, they always go back to different parts of their text to make changes. Another important aspect of drafting is to develop a strategy: outline your text thoughtfully. You should have gathered enough ideas about what to write, you have enough research and evidence to include in your text. The next step is to organize your thoughts and materials and you’ll see that the writing process itself will go much faster and a lot easier.
4. Talk about your writing
As with most problems, one of the best cures is talking about the problem. If you are studying at a college or university, check whether there is a writing centre or writing consultants who can assist you with the writing process. Who better to talk to than people who understand the problem and can provide solutions. Brainstorming with others usually generate great ideas (or bad ones which you can rework to become good ideas).
Writing is, contrary to common belief, a social activity. You have to remember that you are never writing for yourself, but always to an audience (unless you are keeping a diary). This means that your audience has to be able to understand your rhetorical elements. So what should you do? Ask your roommate, your classmate, your relatives to read your text. More often than not can other readers give valuable suggestions how to improve your writing and provide useful insight into the quality of your text.
Remember that those people you are sharing your writing with are commenting on your text not as a form of assessment of your writing, but to assist you in the process of revising your writing. This, again, highlights the importance of making writing and the writing tasks a social process.
5. Clarify your writing task
At the beginning, I mentioned that poor writing assignment descriptions can cause writer’s block. The problem with a lot of the writing assignments you receive at university is that they do not always provide you with enough information about writing requirements. Teachers often assume that students at university know how to write, or they believe that students should know how to write. In addition, teachers will assume that you understand the writing assignment. Despite the fact that teachers recognize that some students have problems with writing, they also do not see it their task to teach you how to write.
When you receive an assignment and you are uncertain about the requirements, contact your teacher, and ask your teacher to clarify the assignment: what type of text are you being asked to write, how is the text evaluated, will you receive feedback during the process. Quite often, a discussion with your teacher can lead your writing in the right direction.
Alternatively, if you think contacting your teacher is not an option, start writing a letter to your teacher and start ranting about the topic and express your feelings (see freewriting). What you’re doing is starting a debate about the topic with your teacher and like the freewriting cure indicated earlier, you’ll end up with some ideas how to proceed. Remember to not send this letter to your teacher!
6. Choose your location
Another simple cure for writer’s block is location. The best location for writing is the one that offers the least distraction. Some writers need to have a specific spot, mood, or atmosphere. Writing definitely does not depend on these, but if they create a mood for writing, by all means, find it and maintain it. Location might be important for a person’s mindset but if you are still surrounded by distractions, location will cause the block. Thus, perhaps, more important than location is to shut yourself off. Turn off the Internet and turn off your phone; focus on your writing, and when you are ready to share, turn it all back on.
7. Write, write, write
As writing is not a skill one is born with (some people just like writing more than others and therefore practice writing much more than others), you have to seek out learning opportunities. The tips provided above should help you to solve writer’s block, but as you’ll have new courses next semester, and the following years during your academic pursuit (and beyond), you won’t be able to escape writing tasks. Therefore, use every writing task as an opportunity to learn more about your writing skills. Use the writing process and seek out feedback from others (including your teachers). Most importantly, come and drop by the Centre for Academic Writing and Communication (AVOK). Our peer writing consultants are there for you.
Centre for Academic Writing and Communication
Finally, you may not be aware of it, but the University of Tartu recognizes the importance of academic writing and as a result, has developed a Centre for Academic Writing and Communication (AVOK) which aims to support both students and teachers in the writing process. This type of centre is not unique; most universities in North America and the UK, and a growing number of universities in Europe support a writing centre. You’ll find trained peer writing consultants who are there to support you by offering you the best insight how to proceed with your writing task and how to get past your writer’s block.
In most cases writing consultants will talk to you about your writing assignment, the problems you’re facing with writing, and the types of strategies you can use to organize your writing. In addition, our writing consultants will read through your text and offer advice how to improve your writing. Of all the cures that are offered here, this is the most effective one and is based on our understanding of the writing process. Check our website for more information, drop-in hours, and make an appointment with one of our writing consultants. You can find us at the following address, Jakobi 2-131, or contact us by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.