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Beating Writer’s Block

In high school, I was considered a strong writer, but I suffered from terrible writer’s block. Every word of every sentence was like pulling teeth. I would force myself to start the process early, but I never managed to make any significant progress until the last second. Sometimes, the stress of it all would actually make me vomit. There were no two ways around it: my writing process was miserable and utterly unsustainable. 

Desperate for some relief, I read every book on writing that I could get my hands on. Slowly but surely, I began to find strategies that worked for me. By the time I earned my BA in philosophy and my MA in literature, I had developed a writing process that was highly reliable and genuinely pleasant. Now, one of my favorite things as a tutor is helping students transform their own writing processes. Here’s what I teach them: 

The Anatomy of Writer’s Block

Writer’s block—which I’ll use as an umbrella term to encompass the anxiety, the frustration, and the general not-knowing-what-to-say feeling that so many students experience when they sit down to write—is a common problem. 

Writer’s block is almost always rooted in one of two issues: 

  1. trouble generating ideas (we need something to say before we can begin)
  2. trouble getting ideas down on the page (often a result of perfectionism)

Let’s take these issues one at a time. 

Idea-Generation Trouble

If I had to pick just one issue to address with my writing students, it would be this one. High school classes tend to gloss over idea-generation work because it is difficult to teach. Indeed, students are often expected to jump right from reading a novel, for example, to writing a rough draft, and the result tends to be empty, formulaic essays filled with tortured repetitions. These essays are not fun to read, and they are certainly not fun to write. 

The reality is that even professional literary critics don’t have many ideas worth sharing after reading a text just one time. Luckily, we don’t have to sit around twiddling our thumbs while we wait for the muse to descend: creative inspiration tends to strike those who have a method on their side, and there are several great methods for generating textual insights. (I’ve had particular success teaching the methods outlined in Writing Analytically by Rosenwasser and Stephen.) Students who master these methods are shocked by the results. The blank page isn’t so intimidating when you have a great idea to run with. In fact, taking time to complete idea-generation work before sitting down to write can make the drafting process a breeze.  

Perfectionism

Of course, even the most illuminating insights need to be put into sentences and paragraphs before they constitute an essay, and this is where perfectionism can rear its ugly head. Writer’s block at this stage isn’t a matter of not being able to put our ideas into words—it’s a matter of not being able to put our ideas into words that meet our own high standards.  As Anne Lamott puts it in Bird by Bird, we need to give ourselves permission to write “shitty first drafts.” There is always a version of our ideas that is available to us in the moment. If that version is simplistic or jumbled or inelegant, so be it—that’s what editing is for!

I like to tell students about my experience reading Stephen King’s excellent book, On Writing. In it, King bravely includes a few pages from a real first draft of one of his novels. Reading the pages, I remember thinking, “These are terrible! I could do better than this!” But King includes a second draft as well, and as I read over his notes and rewrites, I was totally blown away: I went from dismissing Stephen King as a hack to being convinced that he was a genius. Of course, that was King’s whole point! Editing is where the magic happens. If we expect to be magical right out of the gate, we’ll never get a single word down. 

Sometimes, just explaining this to students is enough to loosen the grip of their perfectionism. I teach a handful of timed freewriting exercises that are also quite helpful in this regard, along with some exposure therapy exercises that help students face the fears that come up around making mistakes. This type of work isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort. 

The Main Idea

If your student is suffering from writer’s block, don’t despair—there is help out there. Writing should involve three distinct stages (idea-generation, drafting, and editing), and writer’s block is often a matter of letting these stages collapse into one. For example, when we sit down to a blank page with no real sense of what we want to say and expect to dash off a series of eloquent points, we collapse both the idea-generation stage and the editing stage into the drafting stage. Mastering reliable strategies for generating ideas and allowing ourselves to write truly “shitty first drafts” are the best two ways to beat writer’s block and make our writing process more pleasant and effective.

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If you have any questions about what I’ve written here, would like to share your own thoughts, or are seeking help for your student or yourself, click the “Contact Me” button. I would love to hear from you!

As always, I want to end by reminding you that the school years are tough even when you have the right information at your fingertips, and that’s okay. Challenge is how we learn and grow, and the smoothest path is not always the richest path. Once we’ve controlled the things we can control, sometimes we just have to trust that our students will be okay and so will we.