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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Got Stress?

Stress is a major part of our college lives. As college students, we stress about school, work, finances, food, social gatherings, family events, and the process of balancing it all out. Stress can be really unhealthy when it persists for an extended amount of time. Chronic stress can harm our sleep patterns, immune systems, and digestive processes (National Institute of Mental Health). For this reason, it’s extremely important to find ways to relieve that stress. Even if we have something going on every hour of every day, we need to find time to give ourselves a break.

I myself came to the realization of my workload and stress level last semester when I became engrossed in homework every single day and rarely did anything but go to class, go to work, read numerous books, and write extensive essays. During this time, I explored several different ways to relieve my stress which could benefit anyone experiencing a similar situation.

One way to relieve stress is reading. It’s a great way to escape reality for a bit. We can get involved in another story rather than our own. Whether it be poetry, fantasy, history, or dramas, reading forces us to focus on that idea instead of the things that give us stress. However, maybe you’re tired of reading. Maybe you’ve simply read too many books to be able to enjoy reading right now.

Instead of reading, you could try writing. I know, I know. “But I’ve just finished writing three 2-5 page essays!” you may say. Well, writing about our passions is loads more fun than writing academic essays for school. Trust me. Writing can help us focus on something specific and get our minds off whatever has been bothering us or stressing us out. For example, composing poetry can hone our senses on certain details about objects, people, or ideas. If poetry is a little out of your comfort zone (as it is for me), fictional writing is a good alternative. Much like reading, writing fiction can immerse us in another world, but this world is our own. Through fictional writing, we can create an entire world full of interesting characters and stories and use it as a temporary escape from reality.

However, if your enjoyment does not reside in writing, maybe you’d prefer something a little more artsy. Sketching, drawing, or painting can be considered leisurely activities, which may sound fun and peaceful to you. But my personal favorite type of art is coloring. It may sound silly, but coloring is a great way to relieve stress. It’s such a calming and pleasant exercise. It reminds me of the simplest time of my life: kindergarten, when the most difficult decision was deciding which crayon or marker to use. I think we as stressed out college students need to revert back once in a while to those more manageable stages of our lives in order to stay sane. So don’t feel awkward about going to the store to buy a coloring book and some colored crayons or pencils. I myself have to buy a new coloring book and some newly sharpened pencils every now and then.

One of the easiest things that I have done in order to reduce the stress in my life is simply taking a walk. Last semester when I was drowning in school work, I took up to an hour to walk around the DBU campus once a week. It may not sound like much, but it helped me out a lot. It gave me time to clear my head and get my thoughts in order. It was hard at first, forcing myself to do nothing when I knew that I had so much to do. But eventually, I came to love it and couldn’t go a week without taking my evening stroll.

I know that you may feel as if you do not have any time during any day of any week to take a break. But I implore you to make time for it. It doesn’t have to be every day; your break could be only a couple times a week. It doesn’t matter. What matters is your state of mind. Don’t let the stress of life consume all of your thoughts. Sit in your bed and read a chapter of that book that’s been on your reading list forever. Chill out on the couch and color while you listen to your favorite tunes for half an hour. Take a leisurely walk around the block. If you have time to stress, then you should make time for relaxation.

“5 Things You Should Know About Stress.” National Institute of Mental Health, 2018. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml

Written by Taylor Hayes

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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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Letter to the Adult-student Writer

Dear Working-Adult Student,

Hi, my (likely) stressed out friend. If you’re anything like I was when I decided to attend college at the ripe old age of 39, you have a family, one or more jobs (I had three), bills to pay, a home to clean, laundry piling up around you, a vehicle that needs regular maintenance, perhaps parents who need attention or care, and a myriad of other concerns that distract you from the business of classwork and study. In addition to those responsibilities, most of us have concerns about how things within the classroom have changed. Many of us feel like a duck in a forest: we’re old enough to be parents to those sitting by us, and that creates discomfort. There were times I felt that I couldn’t participate effectively because my background and ideas seemed so out of step with my younger classmates. I was flabbergasted at the expectations of and formatting used for papers, and I was terrified of using a computer for my written work. In fact, I spent much of my time feeling pretty overwhelmed, underprepared, and inadequate. Maybe you are feeling some of those things, too.

Friends, let me assure you that you can successfully earn that degree. You may have to delegate some chores at home and let some things slide, but you can juggle the most important things, and you can be a successful essay and research-paper writer. How do I know that? Because I was, and I hadn’t written a thing since my last English class in high school 20 years earlier! The truth is that sentence structure and the meaning of words haven’t changed over the course of our lifetimes. The shifts in language are so gradual as to be almost invisible to all but professional linguists, and that makes writing easier than we think it will be.

Oh sure, we may not be as up-to-date on slang or texting styles as our younger classmates, but they may not understand how to be formal in the same ways we do. We’ve worked in various settings. We know that talking with a prospective employer or current boss requires a formality that is foreign to most young people. We know how to persuade others: we persuade spouses and children, we persuade colleagues, and we persuade aging parents. So, we got this.

It’s likely that you don’t recall all the writing, grammar, or other academic terminology you learned in school. I sure didn’t. Nevertheless, we do know important things. Things like complete sentences. Things like how to successfully navigate the unknown or new. Things like negotiation. Things like how to meet deadlines. Things like how to organize time. Things like how to put the important stuff first. Things like not procrastinating until the last minute. All those things we know serve us well when writing essays and papers. We already know how to order activities; ordering thoughts comes easily when considering how well we already order work and family life.

What we may not know is that most universities have Writing Centers. (Yes, this may be a bit of a commercial, but bear with me because it will matter to you, too.) In these facilities, there are well-trained people who know the mechanics of writing, grammar, and formatting. They are there to help all students, faculty, and staff organize written class work. Most centers have extended hours and special tools to assist working-adult writers who find it difficult if not impossible to get to campus after working all day. Additionally, most writing-center people are willing to allow all students to decompress before diving into papers. Those writing helpers understand the pressures of writing papers, and they are all good listeners who are ready, willing, and able to give us time to talk and before helping make papers the best they can be. I used my own Writing Center staff for all my graduate papers, and you, too, should use your university writing center, my friend. You’ll be glad you did.

Sincerely shared from my personal experience,

DBU Students: For more information about the services offered by the Dallas Baptist University Writing Center, check out this link to our website. You’ll also find links to our various handouts and pamphlets on all things writing, as well as encouragement in your academic journey.

Letter to the Patchwork Writer

Dear Patchwork Writer,

You might not have any idea why I just called you a “patchwork.” That’s because I made that name up. All it means is that you like quotes and paraphrases—a lot. If you have a habit of stuffing your papers with words and ideas from other sources and not including many of your own thoughts, pull up a chair—let’s discuss.

Now, for those history majors out there whose papers consist of biographies and other collections of information, you don’t really have a lot of choice. Those kinds of assignments leave little to no room for original thought, so don’t bother trying to shoehorn it in there.

For the rest of us, though, quoting too much can rob us of the most important part of writing papers in the first place—critical, applied thought. If you’re using block quote after block quote, all you’re doing is regurgitating what you’ve read; you’re not learning anything (and neither is your reader!). Adding your own thoughts is a way to connect what you’re reading with what you’re saying and thinking. It also raises your credibility by showing your ability to use research to back up your thoughts.

Imagine trying to sew a quilt without thread or assembling a car without bolts. Nothing holds together, and it falls apart into an unrecognizable heap of useless parts. That’s what an all-quote paper feels like to a reader.

On the other hand, you obviously don’t want to go on a rant and disregard quotes entirely. Your opinions matter, but they are far more convincing when they’re backed by credible sources.

Imagine you’re forced to listen to someone talking about how great (or how awful) their vacation was for half an hour. You can’t leave without offending them, but you’re dying of boredom and want to disagree just so it gets you out of the conversation faster. That’s how your reader (e.g. your professor) feels when you try to write an academic opinion without gathering facts from outside your own head.

So where’s the balance? In reality, it varies from assignment to assignment. I like to structure my papers in a specific way, in what I colloquially call the “quote sandwich.” (Hungry yet?)

Each paragraph starts with a topic sentence. Think of it like the first slice of bread. After that, I add some metaphorical mayonnaise or a slice of cheese by introducing my quote with the author’s name, the title of the work I’m citing, or some other important information to justify the quote’s existence. Then come the lettuce and tomato: the quote itself.

The key with this sandwich, however, is the lunchmeat—explanation. I spend at least a sentence (maybe two) explaining and applying the quote to my topic sentence or thesis. That way, I’m not just pulling a random thought to meet a source requirement; I’m actually using it to back up what I’m trying to say. After that, I might introduce another quote to further my point, but there are layers of mayo or cheese (introduction), veggies (quotes), and meat (original thought). I always end my paragraph with the other piece of bread—a restatement of my topic sentence or a transition to the next paragraph.

Now that you’re good and hungry, let me clarify that there’s no magic ratio of quotes to thoughts. It’s just important that you, as the writer, demonstrate a clear understanding of how these different ideas from different places support your claim—and not just to please your professor. When you are forced to include your reasoning, you often come to better understand it yourself, which is the whole reason you’re writing a paper to begin with. Seize this chance to explore new things about yourself and experiment—the end result will be much more delicious when you do.

Written by Catherine

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