Writer’s Block: Getting the Monkey off Your Back

Katelyn Wilkinson, Consultant

In my consultations recently, there has been an influx of students stuck on what they perceive to be step 1 – getting words on the page. It’s true, sometimes the hardest part of writing a paper is that first sentence. Writer’s block is not limited to freshman or English majors, either; it’s one of those universal problems nearly everyone will experience when trying to complete a project or put words on a page. It’s vicious; the monkey that leans over your shoulder, poking you in the back and yelling “Think, think, THINK!” as your synapses continue firing blanks. While there is no foolproof way to avoid this phenomenon, I have, through my academic career, come across several strategies I have found to be helpful in countering both critical and creative writer’s block.

Writer’s block can occur at any stage of the writing process. The worst moment often happens when you’re given an assignment and can’t think where to begin. Rather than let writer’s block derail your project before it’s even begun, I have found that a great way to get past this is to brainstorm. Classmates, professors, and even coworkers can be great sounding boards to bounce ideas off of. In fact, one of my favorite functions of the Writing Center is that it offers the chance to brainstorm with consultants who have different interests, which can encourage you to approach your topic in a different way. Talking to those who have a different insight into your particular assignment or project could give you the jumpstart you need to start writing.

Most students, when asked to write a research-based paper, understand the importance of citing sources that can back up their claims. However, what some don’t realize is the power of research to break through writer’s block. Whether you’re writing a 10-page essay or a poem, research into your field can often reveal new strategies or pose questions you might never have thought of on your own. For instance, when I’m working on a creative piece and find myself unsure of where to go next, I will often head to the poetry section of a library or bookstore and begin reading. More often than not, this research into what other poets are doing makes me think about ways I can address certain topics or utilize different writing techniques in my own work. Critical research can serve a similar function. Online journal articles can not only provide you with information, but their citations can also lead you to new sources about your topic. The ideas that can be generated by research are endless.

Taking a Break
When all else fails, never underestimate the power of stepping away from the page. Take a walk, step outside, get a cup of coffee – whatever gets you up out of your chair. Taking a break from your writing is often the best thing you can do for it. In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, he finds that intense amounts of studying have the same effect on the body as prolonged periods of exercise – it causes glucose levels drop, which lead to exhaustion. Unless something is done to replenish these levels, your brain’s computing power will not remain at its optimum level. Even though studying is important, maintaining balance between work and play is even more so. So, when you feel you’ve exhausted every avenue trying to break through your writer’s block, walk away, take a deep breath, and eat a piece of chocolate. Chances are you’ll come back to your writing and be more than ready to tackle it.

For other tactics to keep the monkey at bay, check out some of the strategies students from all over the world have found successful: http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/university_of_venus/tips_for_fighting_writer_s_block

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