Stormy with a Chance of Ideas

brainstormingNervously tapping my pencil against the edge of the desk, I anxiously glanced around the library. Everyone else seemed so focused, so confident, so productive. Sighing, I mustered up all the leftover brainpower provided from my morning cup of Joe, and decisively read through the essay prompt again. Unfortunately, the third attempt also ended in failure. Even after several efforts to brainstorm ideas, my mind seemed as empty as a swimming pool in the Sahara. Accusatory thoughts of comparison began to torment me, leading to feelings of fear and incapability. Believing the lies, I wallowed in self-pity and began to give up hope that a convincing point could ever be made about the overwhelming topic.

Have you ever felt this way?

If so, you are not alone! Even for the most experienced writers, beginning a paper and creating a thesis can be tricky and occasionally daunting. But don’t despair! There are several brainstorming techniques that writers can use to help expedite the thinking process.

Mapping is the first method that I would suggest when generating thoughts about a topic. To begin mapping, write the assigned topic at the top of a sheet of paper. Next, list any words or ideas that come to mind when thinking about the topic. Lastly, circle anything in the list that seems intriguing or could possibly serve as a point in the thesis statement.

Although mapping can be very helpful, I personally prefer to free write when brainstorming. As the name suggests, the free writing strategy consists of spontaneously writing anything that comes to mind about a specific topic. Writers are encouraged to let their thoughts wander and to explore any tangents that may result, even if the tangent seems unrelated to the topic. Although this strategy can be performed with a paper and pen, I personally prefer to type out my thoughts on Microsoft Word. When I finally begin writing my paper, the free writing strategy allows me to explore different perspectives about the topic, and I often discover creative ideas as a result of the spontaneity.

Though these brainstorming methods seem basic, they are, in fact, quite valuable! Often a little listing or spontaneous writing is just what one needs to jumpstart ideas.

Written by Leah

For more information on brainstorming and other writing topics, check out our Brainstorming Techniques handout and the Quick Reference Flyers page of our website!

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How to Overcome Writer’s Block

writers block comicYou’ve probably read countless blogs talking about writer’s block. Everybody gets writer’s block from time to time, even good students who never seem to be behind on their work and authors who get paid to write. What makes this blog different from this one, this one, or any other of the thousands available on the World Wide Web? Well, I’m not going to waste time telling you sappy things like, “You’re not alone” and “Just let it pass.” I’m going to give you some hard and fast definitions and advice to both prevent writer’s block and defeat it once and for all.

As I’ve always understood it, there are two kinds of writer’s block. I grew up battling creative writer’s block, where I had no idea what should happen next in the plotline, or I just couldn’t seem to describe a scene right. The task of the creative writer is to come up with something that no one else has ever thought of before or invoke a certain emotional response in the reader.

Academic writing isn’t quite the same. Usually, professors give their students the basics of what ideas should go where in an assignment, but students can’t think of an interesting enough topic, or they get stuck on what else to say about the topic that falls under the boundaries of the assignment.

The good thing about my encounters with writer’s block is that I tend to start working on projects far enough in advance that I can sit on them for a while without inviting disaster. That gives me time to be attentive to the world around me with my writing in mind. I’m pretty much always on the lookout for new things to discuss and new ways to apply concepts to my writing. Every odd, unusual, or funny thing that happens to me goes into a list on my phone (or on my Twitter, if it’s really good); then, when I get stuck on a piece of writing, I can go look at that list (or my own Twitter profile) to see if I can work a little creative magic.

Assuming you don’t have a running list of wacky stories—and your paper is due before you can experience a few—there are plenty of other ways to kick writer’s block. If you’re stuck on what to say next on a college paper, try looking at your material again, but from a different perspective. Are there any questions left to answer? Is there a part of a source you haven’t read yet that might be applicable to your topic? Pretend you are reading it all—the prompt and any research you’re using—for the first time, looking for any and all information you can find. You’ll learn more, and you might discover a new angle from which to approach the paper.

What if you just can’t get wild about your topic? We’ve all been there. My best advice is to try to find an aspect of that topic that interests and motivates you. For example, when I was taking a Communication Theory course, I had to write two pages about a theory I didn’t understand or care for. When I realized I could apply the theory to something I loved—video games—I suddenly had a lot more to say about the theory. Looking at it that way helped me understand the theory better, too!

Another method that works for me is one I haven’t heard anywhere else: pretend you’re explaining your topic to a friend. In a separate Word doc (or whatever you want to use), write down what you would say to someone who is not taking the same class you are. Better yet, talk out loud to a friend or a Writing Center consultant (#shamelessplug) about your topic. Try to answer any questions they can think of. Doing this forces you to think about your topic in a different way and may even bring up some extra points to consider.

Finally, if all else fails, put down the books, close your laptop, and go take a shower. My experience tells me that the best ideas almost always come when you least expect it and when you’re least able to write things down. You’ll have to work to remember it, but it’ll be worth it.

The most important thing about defeating writer’s block is to just write something, anything down. Your professors likely won’t accept “I just couldn’t think of anything” as an excuse; they’ll want to see your mastery of the concepts they’ve taught you. Show them what you know and write something. You can always come back to it later, and it might turn out better than you thought.

You are a human, created in God’s image. You are smarter than writer’s block. Don’t let it defeat you!

Written by Catherine

For more information on writer’s block and other writing topics, check out our Overcoming Writer’s Block handout and the Quick Reference Flyers page of our website!

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The Death of Writing

On average, I spend 4 hours a day working on some sort of writing-related project, most of which are class assignments. That’s 448 hours of writing—or 18.6 full days per semester. So believe me when I tell you that I know about writing burnout. Discussion boards get old. Reflection responses are a monotonous nightmare. Research papers should be banned under the Eighth Amendment. And book reviews? Don’t even get me started.

I’m not trying to convince you that writing is a cleverly disguised form of witchcraft. If you clicked on a blog titled “The Death of Writing” you already have negative feelings about the subject. Writing, to most students, has long been dead: a misunderstood art at its best and a useless waste of time at its worst. I’m not here to annihilate your perception of writing, but to resurrect it.

You probably haven’t gathered this yet, but I love to write. It’s one of the few talents I claim, and I’ve actively pursued the craft since childhood. But, though college has improved my technical writing abilities, it’s been more of a damper than a fan to the flames of my writing passion. Whether you feel the same way or have never appreciated writing, here are some areas where writing can be resurrected and repurposed for something beyond the academic realm.

  1.    Journals—the kind without paragraphs.

Keeping a diary is a classic suggestion for finding a renewed sense of joy in writing, but—newsflash—it’s a lot of work for someone who is already burdened with college. Still, there are ways to journal without feeling like you’ve given yourself another homework assignment. Bullet journals are popular because they combine writing, reflection, and art into one relaxing hobby. Other examples of simple journal activities include recording moments of gratitude, blessings, interesting quotes, or sweet moments with a loved one. Journaling is a tangible way to etch mundane moments into the narrative of your life and remind yourself that written language is one of the best ways to memorialize the content of our lives.

  1.    Sticky notes—the kind without to-do lists.

I firmly believe in the power of a sticky note. Whether it’s a Bible verse hidden in my roommate’s favorite coffee mug or a cheesy pick-up line on my fiancé’s car window, a sticky note laced with a breath of encouragement can radically change someone’s day. Due to an endless amount of formal writing, we are acclimatized to exploit our language as a means to please professors, and we cease to recognize the impact of a single, meaningful word or phrase. Taking a few moments to compose encouraging, funny, or positive notes for friends and strangers alike helps the brain become more aware of the power of language and reconditions writers to believe that words are meant for something greater and more enduring than just required assignments.

  1.    Creative writing—the kind that goes on social media.

You probably don’t want to write a novel, start a blog, or delve into the dark corners of fan fiction, but that doesn’t mean you can’t engage in creative writing. Social media at its foundation is about inspiring, entertaining, and connecting with others; for thousands of years, before people could record cats getting scared by cucumbers, writing was the way this was accomplished. Viewing social media as an outlet for creative writing will revolutionize the way you process information and the way you share it via written language. Pictures of brunch transform into narratives about how shared meals can rebuild lost friendships, and tweets about attending a concert become a platform for your own creative prose. Social media doesn’t have to be a place solely for drama and political debates; it can be a medium to revive the human instinct for creating community and cultivate a love for ideas through simple, creative writing.

Resurrecting writing in these areas won’t lessen the challenge of academic writing or eliminate the mental exhaustion it forces upon its victims. But, for those who chose to believe that writing is only mostly dead, they can be methods for awakening the lost power and passion of written language.

Written by Savanna

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An Open Letter to the Unorganized Writer

If I am known for anything, it is my organization. I am your average Type A perfectionist who loves to nit-pick and fine-tune. I love to be steady-minded and ahead of the game, if you will. I’m also a writer. I write out my prayers, letters to my future husband, and keep a daily journal. Most of my writing is recreational, but I also do quite a bit of writing for my classes (as I believe any other college honors student would). I’ve come to notice that my love for organization and writing go hand-in-hand. My organizational skills have greatly improved my writing, and my writing has greatly improved my organization.

I think organization is a wonderful tool that can improve the products of any writer. Now, in a world where organization exists, disorganization must also. Disorganization is often caused by stress or a lack of interest in writing itself. The stress that makes many writers become disorganized is often a result of procrastination. Picture this: you have a five-page essay due at midnight, and it’s 8 p.m. The last thing you would want to do is sit down and create an outline for this essay. With a deadline quickly approaching, many writers simply want to get words on the page and hit that word count. A lack of interest in the subject at hand can also affect a writer’s organization. Let’s say you have to write a research paper on the history of the United States Postal Service. Boy, does that sound fun. You’re right, it doesn’t. Nevertheless, the paper still has to be written. Lack of interest will often cause writers to treat the paper like a nuisance or inconvenience, which has the same effect as the stress mentioned earlier.

Disorganization is one of the worst problems a writer can face. When writers quickly throw together a paper under stress or because they “don’t want to”, it is quite evident in the quality of their work. There are no connecting themes, the thesis is weak, and the ideas in the paper itself are simply not strong enough to convey valid points. Moreover, it limits the mind of the writer. When writers dread writing about a certain subject or under certain circumstances, they begin to believe that they simply are not capable of that type of writing. This is not true! Anyone can write about any subject and actually enjoy it; it only takes a little organization.

There are so many ways to use organization to improve your writing. The first step in starting an organized piece of writing is to evaluate what kind of outcome you want. How many pages do you want to write? What are the main ideas that you want to convey? How do you want to structure your thesis? These are all very important questions to ask yourself before you even start writing. If you have these questions answered before you begin writing, it will be much easier to structure your paper and reach that glorious word count. Creating an outline is so underrated. Before I start writing anything, I always make an outline. For me, this means writing a sentence or two of ideas that I want to convey for each paragraph (I did that for this blog post). This really helps me stay on topic and focused while writing. Let’s say I’m in the middle of an essay and I completely lose my train of thought. I can easily look down at my outline, see my main ideas for this paragraph, and keep writing! Lastly, when you get organized and give your paper the time, thought, and attention it deserves, your content is going to be far more advanced and presentable than if you were to just throw words on a page.

1 Corinthians 14:33 tells us that God is not a God of confusion but of peace. When God created you, He sat down and took the time to shape every hair on your head until He saw you as perfect. Knowing that God has given us His utmost thought and attention, we should, in return, glorify Him by giving that same thought and attention to the work we do. Take delight in knowing that you can glorify God by working well, and use God’s gift of organization to do the highest quality of work you can do.

Written by Lindsey

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Why You Should Never Be a Writer

Writing is hard. Really hard. To an outsider, it might appear easy enough, but writers know that isn’t true. It takes years of careful practice and a million and one drafts to produce one complete novel, and don’t even get me started on trying to publish it. We all know that’s almost impossible. Writers spend hours and hours carefully crafting a single poem or story, only for it to never see the light of day. All of that goes to say, don’t become a writer; it’s not worth it.

It’s not worth the hours you’ll spend with your head in the clouds, dreaming about worlds and characters that don’t exist. You’ll go on imaginary adventures and live a thousand lives in the span of a single lifetime. The world around you will begin to change because of your new perspective. The more you write, the more you will see the beauty and intricacy of the world. Your mind will be opened to new ideas and perspectives, and you will begin to realize that God is using our lives to weave together billions of detailed and unique narratives that all interconnect into one long story that points to Him. So, don’t become a writer.

It’s not worth the rewarding feeling of writing something that you’re truly proud of, that unmatchable feeling of finally fulfilling the dream you’ve had for so long. When you finally get the perfect draft after dozens of discarded ones, you’ll feel more pride than you ever have before. Not to mention the feeling you get when something you wrote makes someone else smile, or laugh, or cry. A writer has the power to make people feel. To make them experience the world in a new way. That’s why you shouldn’t become a writer.

Most of all, it’s not worth the time you’ll spend pouring your soul out onto a page. When nothing in the world makes sense, sometimes all you’ll have is words. A pen and paper might be your only friends, the only way you can make the world make sense. You’ll amass dozens of journals and books filled with the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of times past, and you’ll get a nostalgic thrill from reading them. They can track your growth as a writer and as a person. Nothing compares to the realization that you aren’t the same person you were before. You wrote; you grew; you changed, and you overcame. All of the old giants have been conquered. Writing will purge all of your emotions until you have none left to give. So, don’t become a writer.

Writing will make you work harder than you have before. It will push you to the very edge of your creative limits. You will be challenged in new ways every day. There will be good moments and bad, but it will never stop being rewarding. Through writing, you will learn to think and to feel differently – more deeply. It will help you develop a writing community and hone your craft. Writing is hard, but it can be wonderful. So, obviously, don’t ever, ever become a writer.

Written by Taylor Hayden

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Take Care of Your Characters

Have you ever been writing a story and get the worst writer’s block? Maybe you simply can’t figure out where the plot should go or why your characters are even in the situation in the first place. If you’ve had this experience, don’t worry. You are not alone. (If you haven’t, then I am jealous of your talent.) A good method to use when you get writer’s block is to focus on your characters. The plot is definitely the main element of a story, but the characters have a huge impact on where the plot is going.

If you’re like me, then you can get caught up in all the plot details like how Person A and Person B will finally fall in love and be together or how the hero will climb out of the hopeless situation he’s been thrown into. These, along with many other types of plot details, rely on characters. If you can figure out what you want your character’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations to be, then you can figure out where your story is going.

One thing I like to do in order to keep everything organized in my brain and give me a visual aid is make character sheets. I compile a list of all the things I would want to know about my character. And this isn’t limited to a simple description like eye color, hair style, body type, and clothing. Although appearances can give certain clues to the identities of people, they do not tell the entire story. You can also list personality traits. What mood are they in most of the time? Give both the good and bad side of their character. Also, list some other random facts about them. What annoys your character to the nth degree? What can they simply not resist? What is their sense of humor like? What are their greatest fears? Do they have any deep, dark secrets? All of these attributes can affect your characters’ actions and therefore guide the plot of your story in a specific direction.

If you’ve got all this stuff down already, then maybe it’s time for a plot twist of some sort; you may need something unexpected to happen. Well, this may sound harsh, but to do this, you’ll probably need to put your character through a little (or a lot) of turmoil. But don’t be afraid to be mean to your characters. A lot of the time, the most influential moment in a novel or short story is when something negatively impacts the characters, especially the main protagonist. If they take something for granted, take it away, whether it be an object or a person. It will cause them to either change routes or test their commitment to a certain path. Maybe they have a belief or a certain someone or something they believe in. Make them doubt it. Make them confused. They may choose to seek out another truth or maybe they will overcome it and have a new, stronger faith. Remember their worst fears? Use them. They could fall in defeat or overcome it.

I used a couple of these methods when I was in one of my creative slumps as I was writing one of my fantasy stories. I specifically turned to my protagonist’s loved ones. My young, orphaned heroine had recently begun to form a positive and growing relationship with her newfound father figure and mentor, and she couldn’t have felt happier or safer with him. The plot grew to a standstill because the protagonist felt too safe and had no reason to move forward in her quest, so I decided that this was the time the villain should strike and take away this new safety from my heroine. I didn’t exactly kill the beloved mentor off, but I left barely enough hope for the heroine to hold onto so that she would have the motivation to continue her quest and fulfill her destiny in my story. Saving him and the goal of her quest became the same, so if she believed that she could save her mentor, then she would have the motivation to fulfill her destiny in completing her quest.

You can use these concepts and techniques to both develop your characters’ identities and push the story forward. Thinking about your characters, their actions, their beliefs, their fears will help aim the plot of your story in a certain direction. Without your characters, there would be no story.

Written by Taylor Hayes

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I Thought I Was a Good Writer

Do you have one of those things, perhaps a skill, fun physical quirk, or personality trait that you can always fall back on to say, “well, at least I have that?” If you don’t know what I’m talking about, think of one thing that allows you to confidently say, “yes, I can do that” or, “yes, I am that.” For me, my “thing” has pretty much always been that I am a good writer. “Writer” is a title I can claim with confidence because, well, I wouldn’t be working in a writing center if I couldn’t write well. When friends or family ask me to give them writing advice or simply say, “Hey, can I read this to you?” it makes me feel good. While it is not at all a bad thing to take pride in our abilities, as with any label, it can become a treacherous thing to uphold too highly. This occurred to me on the first school day of my senior year when I realized I am not a good writer.

Okay, let me be clear: I am a good academic writer and a decent creative writer, but those two forms just scratch the surface of all the different writing mediums that consumers enjoy. There’s technical writing, newswriting, screenwriting, business writing, social media writing, and more, I’m sure, that I simply haven’t learned about yet. For my whole college career, knowing how to write academically was all I needed to know how to do. As it happens, every writing-related class I’m enrolled in this semester, (there are three,) requires the opposite of academic writing. Academic writing generally spans many pages, and the greater number of three syllable-plus-words you can throw in, the better. English and history professors drool over an artistic and catchy introduction with ten luscious body paragraphs following. That kind of writing I can do. But what do my professors want this semester? Every creative writer’s worst nightmare: short written responses. The shorter the better. Simple words like “lively” in place of long, pretty ones such as “effervescent” are not only unnecessary in these types of messages, but frowned upon. Some students groan about ten page papers, but I can promise them that communicating a big idea in one page or less is far more arduous. If this blog were for one of my classes, I wouldn’t be allowed to say arduous; I would replace that word with “hard.” Ugh, how boring!

The realization that I am only skilled in one type of writing was a bit alarming. However, as I continued to go to class and face assignments where I was challenged to say so much in so few words, it became readily apparent how married I am to my title of “writer.” When folks hear that you are a writer, many of them think you’re smart. And if you’re like me, you just smile, take the compliment, and not let them know how ordinary you really are. Because too many people consider writing to be a great, mysterious art form, those who do know how to do it become a necessary commodity to society. Rather than feeling discouraged that I’m not as great or prolific a writer as I once thought I was, I discovered excitement waiting for me in the unknown.

If I am to be a writer for life as I desire to be, I want to always be learning and mastering new writing skills. If academic writing were my whole future and career, I’d have a pretty limited skill set to offer the world, and a repetitive job at that. Now, I feel as though my writing journey is being reborn, in a way. I’m a baby in newswriting and business writing, and it can be pretty uncomfortable to go back to wearing diapers in the play pen when you’ve been riding a unicycle in your trousers for so long. If anything, I know that for the rest of my life, my passion will not only enrich me but surprise me with its ever-changing nature. All writers know that you learn to write by writing, and with the myriad of mediums that await my eager fingers, I’ll be learning to write for the rest of my life. Whatever your thing may be, when the day comes and you realize you aren’t the best at it, or even as skilled as you thought you were, ask yourself: “How fulfilling is a skill if I can never get better at it?” Find your avenue, memorize its path, and walk boldly onto the next fork that comes your way.

Written by Karoline

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