Writing Through Blocks

Students have many feelings about writing, from the whole range available to them. Many students have several feelings, ranging from intrigue to enjoyment to anxiety to fear. Sometimes it’s not even clear what feelings they’re having. In every class I teach, I make sure to mention that it’s possible to have any number of feelings about writing, sometimes many at once, and that they can change on a dime. I make sure to mention that advanced graduate students and faculty share their feelings, both good and bad. I make sure to say that as much as I love writing, sometimes I also hate it. Hating it doesn’t negate that love; it just goes alongside it for a while.

Even writer’s block, as a concept and as a phrase, is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy that can bring out a whole host of feelings about writing. It can inspire frustration in beginning writers even when they didn’t initially sense it. (The word “deadline” works similarly.) It can also help name a very real experience, though; sometimes naming things makes them easier to handle. I talk to my classes very openly about that feeling of not knowing what to write, or not knowing which word to use, or judging one’s own ideas before they even get down on paper. I remind them that part of the challenge of college writing is being able to come up with an effective, supported argument that responds to the assignment’s parameters. It doesn’t also have to be the be-all, end-all of their scholarly output. If it were, I’d worry I didn’t have anything more to teach them.

So how can you help students in your classroom who might be handling a variety of feelings about writing and struggling with different versions of writer’s block?

Scaffold the assignment. Scaffolding is a central principle of WAC pedagogy because, just like with a building under construction, it supports an in-progress piece of writing by instituting steps to the finish line. It gives you as an instructor the chance to make sure that students understand those steps, from pre-writing to constructing a thesis statement to outlining an argument to producing a rough draft. It also helps avoid procrastination and last-minute scrambling on the part of students.

Visualize. Another great way to get students to set aside their anxiety, or to lean into it, is to use Sondra Perl’s “Guidelines for Composing” are a time-honored meditation exercise in acknowledging the complex mix of feelings writing can inspire. The full Guidelines are a series of twelve instructions, prompts, and questions. The gloss that Perl wrote is:

  • Relax, stretch, clear your mind, try to attend quietly to what’s inside–and note any distractions or feelings that may be preventing you from writing.
  • Start with a list of things you could write about. Often we can’t find what we really want to write about till the third or fourth item–or not till that subtle after–question, “Is there something else I might have forgotten?”
  • As you are writing, periodically pause and look to that felt sense somewhere inside you—that feeling, image, or word that somehow represents what you are trying to get at—and ask whether your writing is really getting at it. This comparing or checking back (“Is this it?”) will often lead to a productive “shift” in your mind (“Oh, now I see what it is I want to say”).
  • Finally, toward the end, ask, “What’s this all about? Where does this writing seem to be trying to go?” And especially ask, “What’s missing? What haven’t I written about?”

The full Guidelines are available here.

Freewrite in class. As part of your scaffolding, set aside some time at the beginning or end of a class session and have them jot down ideas. As with any freewrite, instruct them to keep their pen moving on the page, even if their sentences verge away from the paper topic. The next week, adapting Perl’s “Guidelines,” have them freewrite about one of those ideas. (You shouldn’t need more than ten minutes for either phase of this exercise in a given class session.)

Draw. Sometimes the best way to figure out ideas and words is to take the words out altogether. When students are in their head about whether their ideas are good enough and whether their sentences are strong enough, just letting them mind map or draw or even doodle can help pull them out of their anxiety and into their creativity.

Blog. Sharing ideas in writing can be less anxiety-producing in community. If students think about their audience as broader than just their professor, sometimes they are less inclined to try to please, or to write what you what they think you think they should write. Pre-writing or brainstorming in blog form has the added benefit of allowing students to give feedback to each other. Although peer review has the same effect, the added benefit of blog commenting is that it puts students’ work into a different kind of audience framework.