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Writing Resources Library

Our resources library features all of the tips and suggestions from our "Guided Tour" of the writing process, but organized alphabetically by title. It also features resources that, due to the specific nature of their topic or audience, do not appear in the "Guided Tour." (Examples include discipline-specific writing information, tips for writing at the graduate level, creative writing resources, etc.) The resource library, like any library, is a work in progress—we expand our resources and enhance their effectiveness whenever we can.

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Avoiding Writers Block

1. Avoiding the Permanent Pause: Thoughts on Dealing with Writer's Block

Many writers suffer at the mercy of the great myth of "getting it right the first time." This myth tells us that the best way to write is "all at once," and ideally (according to this myth), a writer opens a new computer document, composes an introduction, and begins to type one paragraph after the next in an orderly fashion until, upon approaching the length requirement, the writer composes a nice conclusion that ties everything together, hits print, and is done.

This rarely happens. Our thoughts do not often spontaneously spool out in well-stated grammatical sentences arranged in a logical and effective order. The mind associates freely: a thought about computers leads to a thought about a music playlist on your computer, which leads to a thought about a band, which leads to a thought about a concert, which leads to a thought about money, which leads to a thought about things you don’t have, which leads to a thought, strangely, about moon rocks. Or something like that.

Thought may proceed this way, but an essay cannot. So writers often find themselves in a deadlock with that heartless little cursor, struggling to type the next line and feeling that they are lacking direction. If you feel every written word is permanent, it makes sense to pause before writing the next word. And before the next sentence. And, again, before the next paragraph. It becomes dangerously easy, in that frame of mind, to become permanently paused.

But fear not. There is hope.

The next time you begin a new writing project, try thinking about the project as a series of steps that you can start and stop several times, as opposed to completing all of them at once. Knowing that you’re going to let yourself go back and fix things later will keep you from having that "every word I write is set in stone" feeling. Most people write much faster and produce better material when they give themselves the freedom to write a first draft with a few rough edges. A writing project that includes some pre-writing brainstorming, the composition of a draft, some reorganization and fixing, and strategies for straightening things up when you’re done will usually help you write faster, make your writing time feel more productive, and strengthen the quality of your final product.

"Re-visioning" your essay: how writing a rough draft often changes your ideas and focus

The mind associates freely, but an essay cannot. It is true that a final product should not feel like a string of loosely connected combinations of words. But during the writing process itself, this kind of loose connectivity of ideas is perfectly permissible because writing is more than just writing, it is also thinking. Some people even claim that they must write in order to truly understand what they think.

You may start a rough draft with the feeling that you know exactly what you will say in the essay. You may even have a handy outline in which you've detailed all the pertinent points you want to make. An outline is an excellent tool for preparing to draft, and you should use it if it suits your process. But as you start to write, you may find new ideas popping into your mind asking to be heard, ideas that may differ from your original, neatly mapped-out ideas. Since you now know that every word you write is not set in stone, you can be kind to your new ideas, giving them space in your draft and revisiting them with curiosity as you start to revise. Being open to new thoughts that emerge as you write is particularly important because they will often be even better, more precise, analytical or fresh—than any ideas you could have come up with before you started drafting. This is because writing begets deeper thinking, which begets deeper writing, which begets yet deeper thinking…and on and on while serious smartness accumulates.

Practice letting new ideas into your draft, no matter how random or weird they may seem to you at first and no matter how they may deviate from your outline. When it's time to start looking over what you've written, highlight ideas that emerged during the drafting process itself, overlooking (for the moment) ideas that you mapped-out before hand. Can one of your new ideas provide a more fruitful and interesting focus for your essay? Let yourself "re-vision" the possibilities. In your next draft, if you wish, explore them. This step is part of the process we call "Global Revision" because it involves totally re-seeing your essay from the inside out.

Thoughts about why you became disenchanted with your topic

Boredom sets in when we don't give attention to our new ideas. Think about it: new ideas give us a sense of exhilaration, a feeling that our brains are changing and growing. The mind takes pleasure in real learning when surprising connections are made, but it will fall into torpor when it is forced to simply plug data into pre-crafted formulas or to regurgitate existing information. Even when it is difficult, the writing process can be a pleasurable experience because it is a great way to engage in real learning, to alight on new ideas and to stimulate the mind. If you are disenchanted, give yourself the opportunity to create new ideas by revisiting generative invention strategies (do we still have this one?), or by paying attention to how writing a rough draft often changes your ideas and focus (resource for this?). Most importantly, keep your mind open to sparks of imagination and creative connections that may help inject excitement into your writing process.

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