A Cure for Writer’s Block: A Letter to My Students

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

Papers play a huge part in my online writing and literature courses. As part of our writing process, I require preliminary and final drafts. Of the two, preliminary drafts are the most important from the standpoint of pedagogy and learning. They must be submitted on time for writers to fully engage in the peer review activity, which is the heart of the writing process.

Thus, meeting the deadline is critical. Early this morning, I received an email from one of my better students, warning me that she may be late in submitting her preliminary draft because she’s hit the wall — writer’s block. The deadline is midnight today. I ended up writing a message to her about overcoming this affliction that most writers experience. After sending it, I decided to refine and distribute it to all my classes. After further thought, I decided that this may be useful to some of my colleagues who assign papers and struggle with students who can’t seem to meet deadlines.

If you find this useful, please feel free to use it, in part or in whole. No permission necessary. Some of the details may not work for you, so be sure to revise or delete them. -Jim

******

Our first review draft is due at midnight today. I know, you’re aware of that and don’t need to be reminded. If you’re like many writers, your draft is not done. In fact, for some of you, it’s barely off the ground. You’ve been grappling against that age-old nemesis, writer’s block.

As a writer, I understand exactly where you’re coming from. Believe me, you’re not alone. Writer’s block is a problem for 99% of all writers. Thus, I know that procrastination is not the cause for a late paper. In fact, it is a symptom of writer’s block. 

Writer’s block is deadly. Even when we start the composing process days before the deadline, we can’t seem to get off the starting block. We find ourselves writing endless false starts, desperately looking for an opening that will allow us to push through to the deadline. Before we know it, the morning of the due date is upon us, and we’re still searching for that elusive door that will lead us to our completed paper.

In most cases, the only thing that seems to get us off the block is the clock’s hour hand creeping closer to midnight, the bedeviling hour when the paper is due. This is when panic sets in and our adrenaline kicks in. Driven by pure terror, we somehow punch a hole through the wall in front of us and fumble our way to the finish line.

Most of us make it. Some don’t.

For nearly all of us, this is the writing process — this recurring, terrible, sickening race to submit a paper on time. This is why many of us hate to write. The stress and anxiety is simply too great. Just thinking about it makes us nauseous. Why, we wonder, would anyone want to become a writer.

Who’s to blame for this? Before you point a finger at yourself, consider aiming it at your writing teachers, that long line of smiling and helpful adults who drummed the writing process into your head. They’ve told you to begin with a main idea, a thesis, and to gradually develop it, from introduction to body paragraphs and, finally, to conclusion. In other words, they’ve told you, with the best of intentions, that the writing process is like a race, with a starting point, midpoint, and a finish line.

But this analogy is all wrong for the simple reason that the writing process is not linear. True, it begins with a thesis, a rough idea of the point you’re trying to make, but this does not mean that you should begin with a title, an opening sentence, and the introductory paragraph. Wrap your head around this one fact, and you’ve found the knob for the door through writer’s block.

To turn the knob and open the door, the rule of thumb is don’t begin at the beginning. Instead, begin in the middle somewhere. Choose the one place in your yet-unwritten-paper where you finally get to your main idea, the point you’re trying to make. Skip the title, opening sentence, intro paragraph, thesis statement. If it helps, begin with this prompt: “The point I’m trying to make is ….” You can always delete this phrase after the paper is completed. Or you can leave it in as an alert to your readers or a reminder to yourself.

Write a paragraph explaining, as clearly as possible, this one point. Compose in paragraph units — not in sentences. Next, write a second paragraph that introduces or further explains, illustrates, or supports this first paragraph. By the time you’ve accumulated two or more paragraphs, you’ll have a sense of not only where you want to go with your paper but how to get there. This might mean dumping your original thesis and going with another that popped up while writing the paragraphs.

For many of the papers that I assign, I require or recommend a personal narrative — a paragraph or more. When I say begin in the middle somewhere, the narrative is probably the best place to start. In this case, you can even bypass the forming of a working or tentative thesis and go directly to a narrative that seems to address the assignment prompt.

A narrative is a story, a vivid description of an event that you personally experienced or observed. The event is almost always a single moment in time, limited to a single location on a specific day and at a specific time, usually a duration of minutes or even seconds. For the greatest impact, you need to turn the vignette into a realistic experience for the reader. Make her/him see what you see, hear what you hear, smell and taste what you smell and taste, and feel, on her skin, what you feel. In other words, for a brief moment, allow the reader to become you, to know what it’s like to physically and emotionally be you.

The rest is easy. Once the narrative — a paragraph or a bunch of paragraphs — is written, write an introductory paragraph (and background paragraphs if necessary) that leads up to the narrative and, if required, add paragraphs to explain or discuss the narrative, for example, how it supports the point you’re trying to make.

The reason this begin-in-the-middle strategy works is that it puts you in control of the writing process, it allows you to run from the midpoint of the race instead of at the starting block. Because the race course is not linear, you can return to the beginning later to complete that segment.

This personal control is everything. Most importantly, it turns bad stress into good stress, the kind that’s based on confidence rather than fear. The confidence is in knowing that you’re finally on track to finishing.

Don’t take my word for this. Instead, try it. I’m betting that the paper will seem to write itself once you take this middle-outward approach.

Best wishes in submitting your review draft 1 (RD1) before midnight tonight. Don’t hesitate to email me if you have any questions or need help.

-Jim

2 Responses

  1. This is excellent advice.

    I tend to “write” the middle in my mind before beginning. However, you do it, you should have that middle part clear in your head before you start. Usually, the beginning and end tend to sort of write themselves when I do this.

    What I cannot seem to do well is to write on command. Unless I have a topic in mind, I cannot seem to generate one out of thin space. Something always triggers thought. Occasionally, it’s so compelling, that I drop everything and start writing. Am I nuts? If so, I enjoy being weird this way. It’s fun.

    • Harry, you’re a natural writer, and you’ve probably been one since childhood. This makes you “different.” I’ve known you for years, and I know that ideas for articles and stories come to you as naturally as you breathe. This active predisposition to write is what we, writing teachers, are trying to transfer to students.

      In all of your works, we see a scientist who also happens to be a writer exploring topics and issues that intrigue you and ought to intrigue everyone else. Your words not only express ideas but they also tell us who you are, personally. In short, your words are you, and you are your words. You don’t experience writer’s block because you know yourself so well that you’re already subconsciously aware of the entire paper even before you start.

      When you do experience writer’s block, it’s probably for topics that, as you say, are handed to you. But I’m guessing that you quickly “locate” your self in the topic and begin there, somewhere in the middle, and the article gradually comes together.

      I hope you’re continuing with your Mars series novels. Interest in the red planet seems to be growing steadily. Hopefully Trump’s high on Mars exploration. -Jim

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