I want to start with a confession: I’m a scaredy cat. I can’t handle scary movies or scary television shows… even scary music gets me (anyone else afraid of the Jaws theme music?). For the most part, I can escape these horrors. I can turn off the TV or walk out of the theater, but the scariest thing in the world to me is the one I can’t avoid.
A blank word document.
I’m sure some of you can relate to this. Have you ever opened a word document to start writing a paper, only to find your cursor blinking along as the clock ticks your night away while your brain goes totally blank? Even when you finally manage to get a few words down, they just don’t sound right. So you struggle on, typing sentence after sentence, hoping that maybe a few will say what you actually mean. It’s one of the most discouraging experiences a college student can have. I know this from personal experience.
If you’ve ever been there, I have good news for you.
Good news part one is that you’re not alone.
As a writing consultant, I get paid to give other students advice for writing papers, but that doesn’t mean I’m exempt from the blank document dilemma… and I’m sure my fellow consultants would say the same. Even the rare ones of us who enjoy writing, the mystical unicorns of academia, still struggle on occasion to put words on paper.
Good news part two is that there are ways to overcome this nightmare.
First, if you struggle with figuring out what to say, try recording yourself talking. In most cases, you’ve probably already got some good thoughts swirling around in your head, but it feels like there’s an invisible roadblock between your brain and your hands. Or maybe it’s that you’re afraid what you have to say won’t sound academic enough. Either way, recording yourself talking through your thoughts can be a huge help. You can play back the recording, type what you said, and then edit the draft to make it sound more organized, formal, and paper-y.
Second, if you struggle with making your papers say what you mean for them to say (or clarity in general), try reading your rough drafts backwards one sentence at a time. The trick to writing clear papers is writing clear paragraphs, and the trick to writing clear paragraphs is writing clear sentences. The problem with reading forwards is that sentences blend together so much that our brains tend to overlook gaps in logic or missing words or whatever may be disrupting our thoughts on paper. Reading papers backwards one sentence at a time helps us isolate individual thoughts to make sure they sound right and say what we mean. It also helps with catching spelling or grammatical errors, so that’s a plus!
As a final note, when you sit down in front of that menacing blank document, remember that rough drafts are supposed to be rough. Don’t let the fear of getting it wrong paralyze you when you start writing a paper. Getting it wrong is just a stepping stone on the way to getting it right. Don’t be afraid to take the first step.
Written by Caitlin