This post was written by Kendell Bergeron, a senior Undergraduate Consultant with majors in Economics and Accounting and a minor in English.
We’ve all been there. You might be sitting at your desk or in a coffee shop with a paper due in a matter of hours, Word document open at the ready… and all you can do is stare at your blinking cursor. The diagnosis is in: you seem to have a nice case of writer’s block.
Maybe you feel like you’ve been working on your draft for hours and you’re stuck on revisions. Maybe you’ve taken lots of notes on your source texts and outlined your paper but you can’t figure out how to start. Maybe you haven’t even thought about this assignment yet and you found this blog post at 9pm with an 11.59pm deadline impending so you want me to stop beating around the bush and get to these lifesaving tips! I hear you. Take a deep breath. Let’s do this.
- Start where you’re confident.
Most of us write papers from the beginning. Often, that’s a good place to start. But sometimes the best way to get a draft rolling is not the introduction or even the first point of your argument. If those sections are feeling stale and uninspiring, try writing the part of your paper that interests you the most!
Just by getting those fingers typing and your brain juices flowing, you might finish your favorite section of the paper and realize that you’re more motivated to complete another section that you were stuck on before.
- Find the strategy that’s right for you.
Reality check: writing is a process! And even more importantly, figuring out the best writing process for you takes time and practice. If you’re feeling like a deer in the headlights when confronted by a blank Word document, try jotting down some thoughts that you want to write about in bullet points or in a more formal outline. Follow the process that works for you and be patient.
Some writers like to create a detailed outline to follow. Some writers like to start drafting right away and see where they end up. Personally, I like to write an overview outline and then employ a strategy that I call “the crap draft.” When I remind myself to expect imperfections and that I’ll have time to revise my writing before I submit it, I put so much less pressure on each word that I type! I can write a first draft without slowing myself down by obsessively editing along the way. It’s just one step in the writing process.
- Give your brain a breath of fresh air.
If perfectionism isn’t your problem but your brain still feels like a brick that can’t tell the difference between symbolism and a semicolon, this might be a good time to take a break.
You could go for a quick walk, literally letting fresh air wake up your brain and enjoying some soothing silence. You could take a power nap or make a cup of tea. If you want to stay in a productive zone, try using a different part of your brain than you use when you’re writing. If you have any classes that focus on quantitative reasoning like math, science, or business, do some homework from those subjects. Or answer emails! By taking time to step away from your paper, your mind will feel a lot fresher when it’s time to start again.
- Make some space.
With so many brilliant thoughts swimming around before we can get them down on paper, our heads can feel overwhelmingly jumbled when we’re trying to start writing. Take a moment to think about creating the workspace that helps you think through your ideas most clearly.
Do you focus best when you’re alone or with the accountability of a study partner? Does it help you to be comfortable on the couch or do you work better at a desk or table? Does your best thinking happen in the morning, before dinner, or late at night?
If you don’t have options apart from working in your dorm room right now, even taking a moment to calm the chaos by making your bed and clearing your desk can make a huge difference! Being in a physical space that’s tidy and focused can make our mental space feel more organized and approachable too.
- Talk it out.
It’s usually easier to explain all that you want to write in your essay out loud than it is to write everything down for the first time. The best tip we can give you: make an appointment with the Writing Center! Our tutors love to ask questions about your ideas and help you process any points you’re feeling stuck on. Whether you’re paralyzed by writer’s block just looking at the prompt or feeling like you can’t possibly stare at your draft for another minute, we can help you brainstorm or talk your way through it.
We’re even offering extended hours this semester, so you could make a 9pm appointment and talk to a tutor online from your dorm room! But if you don’t have a chance to visit the UWC before your deadline, try talking it out with a friend or even recording yourself on a voice memo and writing down what you hear yourself say.
And with all these tips, remember to have some grace for yourself. Writing isn’t easy for anyone and starting is the hardest part! You’re equipped now with some surefire strategies to vanquish the nefarious nemesis that is writer’s block forever. Good luck!
Author’s bio: Kendall is a senior from the Pacific Northwest with majors in Economics and Accounting and a minor in English. She loves a rainy day with a very large mug of tea and a book—her most recent favorite is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. You’re likely to find Kendall making another cup of coffee, doing yoga, creating content for her cat’s Instagram, or trying new recipes for her food blog.