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Writer’s block (tips from the trenches)

By Maggie Veneman, Peer Writing Assistant

Writer’s block doesn’t just happen to professional fiction writers; it happens to anyone who picks up a pen. Maybe you’re trying to decide what to write on your best friend’s birthday card, or maybe you need to think of a polite way to email a professor about an extension. We’ve all encountered writer’s block, and chances are you know how debilitating it can be when you’re working on an assignment. That blank white page quickly becomes the most daunting thing you’ve ever experienced, especially if you’re battling a deadline, and I’d like to discuss how to deal with and ultimately overcome this issue.

George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones, makes a good point about the two major ways to begin writing something:

I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run … The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.

His words ring true for university assignments as well as fiction; whether you’re working on an essay, a lab, or a thesis, you’re likely going to use one of the approaches Martin describes. If you’re an architect who relies heavily on outlining, and you reach a stage in your outline from which you can’t really proceed, then unfortunately you could be at an impasse. If you’re a gardener, and you’ve planted your seed but find yourself short on ideas for branches, you’re also at a standstill. So my first piece of advice is to change your tactics: if you’re an architect, try being a gardener, and vice versa. You may find that using a technique with which you’re unfamiliar is a good way to open your mind to new ideas, and hopefully you can fend off your writer’s block.

Another idea, which may seem counterproductive but is actually one of the most productive things you can do, is to stop. Put down the pen and do something else. Surf the web for a few minutes, have a chat with your roommate, go for a walk, or work on something for a different course. Most students have perfected the art of procrastination, and now is the time to use this as a tool. If you’re really lacking inspiration, and Milton’s Muse isn’t coming to your rescue, the best thing to do is to accept that you are stuck and move on to something else. When you revisit your assignment later on, you’ll find it much easier to foster ideas with a clear head.

If this advice hasn’t worked for you yet, there is one more thing that is extremely helpful in terms of beating writer’s block and generating ideas: talk to someone. It takes a very, very good friend to listen to you ramble on about Russian realism in Anna Karenina, but if you have a friend, a parent, a classmate or a TA like this, take advantage! Speaking aloud about a topic and exchanging ideas is hands down the most effective way to galvanize your intellectual ability, and I guarantee that you will come away from that conversation with at least one new idea.

Next time you experience writer’s block, try one or more of these techniques and see if they work. There are certainly other strategies you could explore, as well, but I’ve found the ones I’ve listed to be the most effective. Try everything and anything. Once you find what works for you, you had better get some more paper.

Photo courtesy of  Jonno Witts under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.