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Archive for the tag “writers block”

You Are Not a Unique Snowflake

katie-kKatie Kohls, Consultant

If you are interested at all with musical theatre and haven’t been living under a rock for the past year, you have probably heard of a little show called Hamilton. Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote the music, lyrics, and book. This musical had taken the world by storm, and if it wasn’t about the Founding Fathers, many of the songs could be in the Top 40. Just go listen to “My Shot”, “Non-Stop”, or “Burn” and hear what I mean. The entire score is amazing. And Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, played Alexander Hamilton for the first year of its run on Broadway. And no role in the musical is limited by color or race; the Founding Fathers in Hamilton are as diverse as America today. Miranda is changing how we look at musicals, actors, and history.

Miranda also wrote the musical, In the Heights, and has composed the music for Disney’s new movie, Moana, to give a few of his other works. Basically, Miranda is a phenomenal person and writer, who has literally changed the world with his work. But on September 23, he reminded his Twitter followers that even writing geniuses have their rough patches.

Miranda’s Twitter is a place of beautiful positivity and updates on what he is doing with his time. His good morning and good night tweets are motivating and touching whether you know him or not. On September 23 though, he tweeted a ‘memory’ from three years’ prior (memories on social media remind you of popular posts that you posted on that day in previous years). This memory was a conversation Miranda had with his wife, Vanessa, about writing:

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Miranda’s tweet says, “This conversation happened 3 years ago. Keep Writing. Get back to your piano” with a picture of the 2013 tweet which said:

Me: Sometimes the writing doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like it to.

Vanessa: I know.

Me: I have a hard time finding the balance between not beating myself up when it doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like it to, and not wasting time while I wait for it to happen.

Vanessa: Everyone has that problem all of the time.

Me: You mean these aren’t unique snowflake problems that happen to me because I am a unique snowflake?

Vanessa: No.

Me: Oh, good.

[End of Play.]

This tweet shows Miranda’s humor, but it also reminds us as writers and creative beings that we must keep going. Like Miranda said, the balance of not beating ourselves up and not wasting time is difficult. And we can take some small comfort in arguably one of the creative geniuses of our time has trouble writing sometimes. Who knew?!

But in all seriousness, we all struggle, but we all try to mask it. We don’t want to admit our weakness, and admit we just can’t sometimes. But if one of the greatest creative geniuses of our time is admitting that he struggles, shouldn’t we, the lowly uninfluential peasants, be okay with our struggles? I’m kidding about the peasants, but I am serious about being okay when we can’t write, can’t create. Our struggles to write aren’t because we are some special unique snowflakes with unique snowflake problems. I’m sorry, but in writing, you are not a unique snowflake but neither is Miranda.

So “What Comes Next?” Just because your problems are not unique, does not mean that your writing is not unique. So next time you are stuck or “Helpless” or have no clue how to begin again, “Take A Break” and “Wait For It” because you will “Blow Us All Away”. Soon your writing will be “Non-Stop”, and you should have confidence because “History Has Its Eyes On You”. And maybe you will make it to a point where some poor grad student fixes her writer’s block by incorporating your songs into her conclusion.

 

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Actively Writing: Experimentation as a Way to Improve the Writing Process

As writers, we often struggle with what to do with a paper after we have finished saying all that we want to say. This stage can happen at any point in the writing process, from having 3 pages done and needing 5, to needing a conclusion, to just hitting a dead end with the paper. This moment, commonly referred to as writer’s block, is quite infuriating. However, one of the best ways to combat this moment is by redefining how you see writing.

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Most people see writing as a solitary act, one where the writer is stoically sitting for hours on end in front of a computer, unmoving except for one’s fingers across the keyboard. There has been a new emphasis on collaboration as part of the process today, which makes writing slightly more active, but not by much. However, what I wish to propose with this piece is that writing can be a very active process, and some techniques can help rejuvenate new work.

The main goal of writing is to capture that which is innately human. We wish to persuade others, to encourage them, to communicate with them in an intriguing and interesting way. Writers do this visually, by using the words on the page, but we also share ideas through our other senses. For example, many people compose while listening to music because the combination of the various notes will put us in a specific mood and encourage certain words to come to mind. Other people feel the need to write in busy areas, like coffee shops, so that the flow of conversation is in our ears. In this regard, writing is listening.

Writing can also draw on physical activity to some degree. Research is a major component of any writing project, but some articles can be really difficult to understand. Often, in order to understand what I am writing, I have to act out what I have read in some way. If I have to read a description of what someone is doing, I mimic what is described on the page until I understand it. Other times, I draw a map or a flow chart to connect major ideas. Techniques like these help with reading comprehension and provide ways for writers to organize their reactions to various works.

Also, I have worked with many people who, when brainstorming, need a way to channel their stress. That is the moment where I bring out the Legos or Play-Doh! Doing something with your hands while talking about your writing can help the feeling of being fidgety, without adding the stress of needing to write something down. Although putting words on paper is a key component of the writing process, the most important step is finding something to say. For this, I highly recommend grabbing Legos, a slinky, or even a coloring book, and meeting up with a friend for a conversation about what you are working on. It allows writers to feel active and productive, without the paralyzing fear of not writing something down.

Another way to be active while writing is to grab a pen and paper and go for a walk. The fresh air helps foster creativity, while the exercise is just as industrious as writing. Walking also allows writers to observe their surroundings and generate new ways to add detail to a paper. It also helps me find new ways to add clarity to my paper. If I watch the different ways people run, I can determine which verb I want to use describe the same moment in my own paper—sometimes it’s a sprint, other times a jog, still others a quick dart.

Finally, my biggest recommendation for getting out of a writing rut is to experiment with the writing process. What are your strengths? How can you use them in your writing? If you can’t, can you use them to inspire your writing? And don’t give up hope. There have been many times that I have tried something new and it hasn’t worked. The great thing about experimentation is that you can always just try something else. In the words of the famous author E.M. Forster, “How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?”

Fighting Back Against “Writer’s Block”

Joanna Englert, Writing Consultant

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It’s February: it’s cold, the days are short, and there’s another holiday that gives cause for eating too much chocolate. Hard as you might wish, chances are your assignments don’t go on hold for the cold weather and short days. And with so much time indoors, it might be hard to find inspiration for that research essay on climate change or that memoir you keep meaning to get to, i.e., you might be struck by that fear-inducing nuisance known as writer’s block. Trust me, you’re not alone. We all know it: that blank page as empty as the branches outside, that trashcan filled with crumpled sheets of scribbles, and that forehead-to-the-desk sense of hopelessness. But don’t fear—you CAN get it done! I, too, have fought the battle against writer’s block, and with a few things in mind, I’ve learned it’s absolutely beatable. So, below are some of the most helpful tips I’ve discovered for breaking down the writer’s block wall and getting that paper done. Hope they help you as much as they’ve helped me!

1. Just Write!

The golden rule for overcoming writer’s block is simple: write. You might be thinking, easier said than done. I know, I know. But when I say write, I mean write anything. Anything! A stream-of-consciousness journal entry, a limerick about your cat, your favorite recipe for chocolate chip cookies. Again, anything. Then, move on to writing something for your paper. Whether it’s the beginning, the middle, the end, or an outline, just remember that getting words down on paper, regardless of how good or bad they are at first (revision exists for a reason!), is progress. A lot of the time, just writing will get your creativity flowing and can remove some of the pressure to get the perfect idea down for your paper. It’s easier to go back and revise than to aim for perfection the first time around!

2. Quiet Those Distractions

Back away from technology for a minute. Shut down those computers, put that phone out of reach somewhere in the basement, turn off the TV, Spotify, etc., and just give yourself a moment of quiet to sit, reflect, and think. It may help clear your head and get you focused!

3. Find a Comfortable Spot

Virginia Woolf was on to something when she wrote A Room of One’s Own. To write, it truly helps to place yourself in a comfortable environment. For me, my favorite space is on my bed with nothing short of ten pillows, tea or coffee appropriately by my side, my cat on my lap, and my favorite moleskin notebook at hand. Want to get out of the house? (Because sometimes I just NEED to get out.) Find your favorite coffee shop and settle into a cozy spot in the corner. Coffee, quiet music and mumbling, space to spread out your work—trust me, it helps. At the very least, you’ll be able to devote brain power to your paper rather than to how uncomfortable you are!

4. Pace Yourself

One of the most helpful tips someone shared with me is to schedule working time and break time. Adopting the idea of writing anything, work for twenty-five minutes, and then enjoy a five or ten minute break. This gives you a chance to relax (and if you’re like me, reward yourself with that omnipresent Valentine’s chocolate) and an incentive to work.

5. Sleep On It

Okay, so this obviously doesn’t work if you’re in crunch-time mode, but if you give yourself the leisure of starting early, you can conquer writer’s block by stepping away and forgetting about it for a bit. Believe it or not, your mind knows you’ve been thinking about your topic. Even if you’re not consciously focused, your mind is working on it. You’d be surprised how something may just come to you if you step away and let it. In fact, if you’re really committed, keep a notebook and pen by your bed. Some of my ideas for creative writing or paper topics have come to me just before falling asleep. If you don’t have to get out of bed, you’re more likely to jot things down then!

6. Talk It Out

For some people, talking through a project is the best way to organize ideas and get creative juices flowing. As it happens, we at the Writing Center are happy to talk through your papers with you, so be sure to come and see us at any stage in your writing process!

Now that you’ve made it through this article, I hope these tips help you as much as they’ve helped me. So, dodge the weather, curl up with a notebook and some chocolate, and get going. Happy writing, everyone! (And be sure to stop by and see us at the Writing Center!)

Don’t Let Perfectionism Get You Stuck

Ashley Ludewig, Consultant

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If you’re anything like me, perfectionism might be causing you a lot of grief at this point in the semester. Sure, perfectionism might have led you to some great final projects or papers and maybe even good grades and praise. It has for me, too. But my tendency toward perfectionism also has a dark side: it can sometimes be completely and utterly paralyzing…Especially when I sit down to write.

I’ve spent the last several years studying writing and how it happens, and everything I’ve learned tells me that there’s no such thing as a perfect draft and it certainly doesn’t happen on the first try (Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” is a great take on this reality, by the way). But a lot of times I still feel like I just have to get it right immediately. Maybe I write a sentence or two and delete them (a few times, probably), or I re-read assignment instructions and start to over-think them and psych myself out. Either way, expecting perfection from myself sometimes makes it impossible for me to move forward.

Here are some strategies I use to break through the perfectionism barrier when I’m writing:

Getting Started: When I feel like I just can’t possibly start putting words on the page, my first move is to revert back to some “basic” pre-writing strategies. I try to make an outline or concept map of the information I think I’m going to include in the paper and sometimes having a plan helps me break the ice. When I’m working on an essay that requires research of any kind, another way that I’ve gotten past the “Where do I even begin?” hurdle is to gather any quotes or paraphrased material I want to use and start typing it into a Word document in the order I imagine myself using it in the essay. Sometimes even typing words that aren’t my own into the document eases my fear of that blinking cursor (after all, the page is no longer totally blank!). Then before I know it, I find myself typing out my interpretations of or responses to that source material and voila!  A draft starts to take shape. If none of these things work, I try to get away from the ominous combination of the white page and blinking cursor and start writing somewhere else. A lot of times that means starting a draft by hand in a notebook, but I’ve also had success typing the first few paragraphs of an essay on my blog. The stakes feel lower there and sometimes that makes all the difference.

Keeping the Words Flowing: Another time that perfectionism rears its ugly head for me is when I’m searching for that perfect word or phrase in a sentence. I hum and haw over it for a minute, type and delete a few options, consult Word’s thesaurus, and if I’m still not satisfied, I go to thesaurus.com or Tip of My Tongue and explore more options there. This is all well and good, except that by the time I’ve gone through all these steps a few minutes have probably been lost and so has the “flow” I had going before I decided I had to find that perfect word. Worse yet, looking away from Word and opening up a web browser often means taking a minute or two to check my favorite social media sites and before long, I’m back in full avoidance mode.

There are two tricks I have for ending this cycle and giving myself permission to move on. The first is to highlight the word I know I want to replace in bright yellow so that it’s easy to find and change when I go back to revise my draft. If I can’t even think of the word in the first place, I write something silly like “elephant” in its place, highlight that, and go from there. If the problem is more than just finding the right word, I use the comment feature in Word to make a note to myself about what I think isn’t quite right about a sentence or passage so that when I go back to revise, I can remember the concerns I had when I first wrote it. Sometimes it’s not so simple; I occasionally feel like I really need to slow down and get a sentence at least close to “right” before I can move on because the ideas I want to get down next are dependent on the first one. If you find yourself there, too, that’s okay. The trick is not letting yourself get stuck on every sentence every time.

I hope these tips help you get started on your drafts and keep them going. As always, you can (and should!) visit us at the University Writing Center to help you at any point in that process. Happy writing, folks!

In Conclusion: Framing Your Paper

Arielle Ulrich, Consultant

Working at the writing center, I constantly hear students say that they hate writing conclusions. These students will bring in papers that seem finished, but end abruptly—or they may have written a conclusion, but it’s only a sentence or two re-stating the last paragraph.

I’m no stranger to this struggle. Even the conclusion to the simplest paper can leave me stumped, and I often have to leave the paper alone for a few hours while I try to think of the “perfect” conclusion. Of course, as the last thing the reader sees in the paper, conclusions are very important. But my obsession with the perfect conclusion instead psyches me out, leaving me with a case of writer’s block.writersblock

When this happens, I remind myself that a good conclusion cannot fix a bad paper, nor will it solve any of its organizational or structural problems. I find it more helpful to consider a conclusion as the closing statements of my argument. By this point, I should have already said everything I needed to say and written the meat of my paper. I’ve argued, elaborated, and explicated every point. My conclusion will simply wrap up my paper and place my topic into context for the reader.

  1. In light of this, I have a few tips for conclusions. Which tip you follow may depend on your field, so consider which strategy works best for your paper. These are my three go-to tips: Explain the significance of your paper. Make sure the reader knows why your topic is important. Usually, this involves placing your question into a broader context or comparing it to a current issue. If you cannot think of the significance, ask yourself, “so what?” This approach is especially useful in history or expository papers.DSCN1639
  2. Recommend further research. Now that you’ve examined the current research on your topic, you have the chance to take the next step and recommend a course of action for the future. Is there a topic or approach you would ask a future researcher to consider? In other words: what questions are you left with at the end your paper? This tip will work best with papers that have a significant research component.
  3. Synthesize your points. This strategy requires that you not only summarize your paper, but also put together the pieces for your reader. How does your argument come together? If your paper is either very long or complex (or both!), this type of conclusion would be a good choice.

Any of these strategies would guarantee that your reader leaves knowing the purpose of your paper. You also shouldn’t feel that you can use only one of these strategies at a time—in some papers, you may use all of them, provided they are relevant.

These two writing center sites also have good pointers. Feel free to peruse these before writing your next paper:

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/conclusions/

University College, Toronto: http://www.uc.utoronto.ca/intros-and-conclusions

Happy writing!

How to Get Unstuck: Ways to Start Writing and Tips to Keep Going

Alex Clifton, Consultant

Writing is hard. Starting any kind of writing—or keeping it flowing—can be so difficult. Very rarely do people get out what they want to say on the first try. I should know; I just drafted the opening sentence of this blog post five or six times, going through wildly different options. It can be challenging to figure out what you initially want to say, and even harder when you feel like giving up after one or two paragraphs because the words just aren’t coming. Here are some tips to get you writing and keep you writing!

If you have trouble at the beginning of a writing session because you are thinking too much about other homework, life problems, cat pictures, etc., freewrite for five to ten minutes. It doesn’t have to be anything sophisticated; just grab a notebook and write down everything you are thinking, as it comes to you, for that short period of time. Afterwards, you’ll have cleansed those thoughts from your brain for the time being, so you can get down to working instead of wondering whether or not you’ve cleaned your aquarium.
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Occasionally, you might struggle to find a topic to write about. It might help to make a list of things you are interested in or want to mention in your essay. This can be especially helpful with personal narratives or persuasive essays. For example, if you’re trying to think up concrete examples to support your idea that fish are the best pets ever, you might make a list describing the pros of keeping fish as pets, another list about your experience keeping fish as pets, and another list with all the facts you know about fish that might persuade someone that fish are great. Again, these thoughts do not have to be organised perfectly; list-making is just another way to get you thinking about what you want to write about!

When working on a paper, remember that you don’t have to write everything in a linear manner—there is no rule that says you have to start with your introduction and plough through in the “right order.” If you’re really struggling to make a point, make a note of where you want it in your essay and then continue writing so you don’t lose your momentum. You can always go back and revisit different portions of your paper, and you might be able to rephrase your thoughts better after you’ve written another section.

Sometimes, it’s hard to get a rough draft out at all. One way to get you writing for blocks of time is to use an app like Write or Die (found at writeordie.com). Don’t let the name scare you: it’s a website that helps you write for however long you decide, be it fifteen minutes or an hour. It motivates partially through annoying you: on one mode, a loud pitch will play if you stop writing for too long, and on kamikaze mode, your work will begin to unwrite itself! (Kamikaze is an optional mode.) The great thing about Write or Die is that it gets you writing, and just writing, for however long you need. Think of it as freewriting for your paper; you can type in anything while you are drafting and then go back and revise it afterwards. It will help you get a draft out and may even add to your productivity, especially when you realise you’ve written for half an hour straight without constantly checking social media or your favourite news sites. I’ve found that using it has helped me learn how to write in chunks of time more effectively, so I can sit down to a half-hour writing session and get work done rather than just goofing around. (A word of warning: if you do use Write or Die, make sure that you copy, paste, and save your work in a separate word document—Write or Die will not save it for you.)

Finally, at the risk of sounding shamelessly self-promoting, come into the Writing Center! We’re here to help you with all of your writing needs at any stage of the writing process. You don’t even have to have a word on the page to make an appointment for an assignment. We can help you discuss your ideas and brainstorm possibilities, or we can read over what you have already written and help figure out where your paper will go next. Sometimes it just helps to talk it all out with someone who wants to hear about your ideas—and trust me, we definitely want to hear what you have to say.

I hope some of these strategies work for you. Try one next time you get stuck writing a paper and see if it helps!

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