Ah, the dreaded writer’s block. Though midterms may be over (or ending, hopefully!), the issues of not knowing where to start, what to write, or how to even counter that nagging urge to binge on Netflix instead of open a document are eternal. Even the strongest, most confident writers are not immune to this issue.
While we learned on Monday’s blog some quick tips to start writing, it might also be helpful to review a few excellent strategies our blast-from-the-past tutor Roya Lillie drafted a few years ago.
There comes a point in every student’s life, usually in the midst of writing a super important essay, when their mind draws a blank. Regardless of how much they try, the only thing that comes to their minds is a big blank. Panic sets in–they might start to squirm, sweat, or even cry. They have encountered (what they fear is) the impossible: writer’s block.
As with any sort of evil, it is first necessary to understand it before it can be overcome. Writer’s block, like many problems, often has more than one cause–students are overwhelmed by their assignments, overly focused on details, and continuously exploring the same avenues; however, there can be much smaller, but equally troubling, sticking points. To help you fight writer’s block, here’s a list of the most common causes and best ways to combat them.
- I’m stuck on a word!
This is a common (and fairly minor) form of writer’s block. It happens to everyone at one point or another, and it’s not a big deal if you know how to handle it. There are two good strategies to utilize:
- Leave a blank space for the word, and move on.
- Write the first word that you think of (even if it’s not exactly right), and move on.
See the pattern here? Move on. You don’t want to sacrifice time by getting hung up on a word. Moving on allows your brain to take a break. When you go back to look at that sentence again with fresh eyes, your brain is more likely to insert that much-needed word.
If you’re taking a timed exam, this problem can be especially terrifying, but you can use the same strategy to combat it. Be sure to put a large circle or star next to the word, and leave enough time at the end to edit your sentence.
- I have no idea where to go with my prompt.
Addressing a prompt can be difficult, especially if you have no idea where to begin. To get out of a writing rut, you’ll need to examine the prompt from as many different perspectives as possible. One of the best ways to do this is by creating ways to compare and contrast your prompt. For argumentative essays, this can be as simple as writing a pro/con chart, but for research essays, this may require the development of a web for brainstorming. Try to approach your essay from as many perspectives as possible; examine the social, political, economic, environmental, or global applications. If you’re still stuck, do a little bit of research on one of the SJSU databases.
- I can’t write this introduction!
Introductions can be tough, but they’re much more manageable if you think of them in a formulaic way. You want the general format of your introduction to move from general to specific; this means that your first sentence should address your topic in the broadest way possible. If your essay is about the relationship between global warming and Bigfoot, this can be as easy as introducing one of your elements (global warming) by saying, “In recent years, global warming has become a prominent issue.” Sure, you haven’t created the most beautiful sentence in the world, but it works (and you can always edit it later). Then, taper the focus of your paragraph by discussing the impact or importance of your topic by saying something like, “The polar bear, who depends on melting icebergs, has become the most well-known animal to suffer from habitat loss due to global warming, but there are countless others, including one species that people often forget: the Sasquatch.” The following sentences should slowly draw the connection between your opening sentence and your thesis. Here’s an example of what that would look like:
In recent years, global warming has become a prominent issue. As the planet warms, global ecosystems change, and this wreaks havoc on species who depend on specific habitats. The polar bear, who depends on melting icebergs, has become the most well-known animal to suffer from habitat loss due to global warming, but there are countless others, including one species that people often forget: the Sasquatch. As their environments change, animals must seek new habitats that have the resources that they need, and the Sasquatch is no exception. Because the diet of the Sasquatch primarily consists of beef jerky, a food source that becomes inedible when exposed to extreme heat, the Sasquatch has been forced to find other sources of jerky outside of its natural habitat, and this endangers the lives of all hikers in Northern California.
If you’re still struggling, write out your thesis beforehand. Seeing where you are and where you need to go can help move this process along. Ask yourself these questions:
- What have I said so far?
- What do I want to say?
- What do I need to say to connect these two ideas?
- What am I going to do with these body paragraphs?
If you’re stumped on your body paragraphs, the best thing to do is to make a quick outline. This will help you organize your thoughts and enhance the clarity of your ideas. It doesn’t have to be a formal or complex outline (in fact, I almost never do a formal outline); little jots and notes will do. Your outline should act as a road-map for your essay, so you do want to be detailed enough so that you can write without getting stumped. If you’re having trouble outlining your ideas, you should go back to brainstorming. It seems like you’re taking a step backward, but you can’t write a powerful essay if you don’t know what you’re trying to say.
Once you’ve organized your thoughts, try using the PIE (point, information, explanation) formula to further structure your ideas. The first sentence of your paragraph should be a topic sentence (your point, the “P” in “PIE”), and this sentence connects the idea of the paragraph to the thesis. A sample topic sentence would be something like this:
The Sasquatch will use any means necessary to procure its diet of jerky, and this aggressive tendency endangers hikers who may be carrying a variety of smoked meats.
Here, I’ve linked the idea of my paragraph (the Sasquatch is aggressive) to demonstrate how hikers are endangered. Next, I need to provide information (the “I” in “PIE”) that supports my topic sentence. For instance, I can describe documented instances of extreme food-related aggression toward trees, and I can connect this information by explaining (the “E” in “PIE”) how these cases could apply to humans.
Though this example may seem ridiculous, the method is solid. Remember: point, information, and explanation. That’s it.
- I can’t write this conclusion. I just can’t.
Many students struggle with conclusions (even writing tutors). In elementary and high school, many of us were taught to summarize our main points, a tactic that often results in an unsatisfactory end. This is especially true for argumentative papers, a place where writers really want to end with a “bang.”
One of the best (and easiest) ways to write a conclusion is to explain the relevance or significance of your topic. This can mean describing its effect on individuals or society as well as the implications for the future. If I were going to write a concluding paragraph for our Sasquatch essay, I would explore the implication of Sasquatch attacks by discussing the economic effects that attacks would have; I could explain that with less people coming to the mountains to hike, there would be less money spent, and this could have serious economic repercussions in addition to the obvious human health effects.
If your essay addresses a problem, another way to approach a conclusion is to review your main points and then suggest a course of action to solve that problem. This is helpful because it allows you to close your paper while adding a new spin. If I were going to do this for our Sasquatch essay, I could suggest that we create jerky feeding sites so that the Sasquatch wouldn’t be hungry and feel the need to attack hikers.