You have a student sitting in front of you with a writing assignment in hand. The deadline is approaching quickly, or maybe it’s already passed. One thing is certain: the essay definitely needs to get done. But the student cries, “I’m stuck!” Or maybe she says, “I don’t know where to start.”
Writer’s block and the anxiety that comes with it can be paralyzing for students. Fortunately, they have you on their team and there are a variety of techniques you can use to pull them out of a writing rut.
Know the prompt
A common source of writer’s block is confusion about the prompt or assignment. Once a student has a good grasp on what the prompt is actually asking, he will have a better idea of where to begin. Nancy Raftery, a faculty member in Camden County College’s English Department, also suggests that students re-write the prompt. This active engagement with the assignment can open up their minds to ideas that wouldn’t have occurred from passive reading.
Gretchen Wegner, an academic life coach in California, suggests that students actively read the prompt. Encourage them to underline or highlight the big ideas. You can also direct students to list in the margins the concepts that the teacher or college is asking them to cover.
Keep a timer in your office for moments when a student needs dedicated time to just start writing. Julie Yankanich, chair of the English Department’s Writing Program at Camden County College in New Jersey, requires her students to free write. In class, they have to spend 20 minutes writing whatever comes to mind. “Even when the writer has nothing to say, he or she should write, ‘I have nothing to say’ over and over until an idea bubbles to the surface,” she says. When her students keep freewriting in 20 minute increments, “a student has a breakthrough and finds just the perfect topic for the writing prompt.”
Talk it out
Students who find writing very difficult may have trouble freewriting. In this case, ask them to talk about the topic. Wegner finds this approach works well with students who have learning disabilities.
But sometimes it isn’t enough to babble about the assignment. “Oftentimes, kids get stuck because they haven’t asked a complex enough question,” says Wegner. Encourage your students to be a little Socratic with themselves in conversation with you. Push them to go beyond the factual questions of who, what, and when to more analytical questions of why and how. And then, they can make connections outside of the text to their personal lives, current events, and history. This process can give students rich information to use in their essays.
Do something else entirely
“Inspiration comes after moments of prolonged focus,” says Wegner. She encourages her students to focus for a period of time, maybe freewriting or doing research, and then get up and do something else. An idea or argument for an essay is likely to come when a student decides to go for a run or clean his room. Breaks like this are not only healthy but also necessary to overcome writer’s block.
Get up and move
Breaks don’t have to be long. If a paper is due soon, stopping to take an hour long walk isn’t feasible for students. Wegner created the MuseCube, a unique tool to get students moving for short periods, just for this purpose. The concept came out of her extensive background in theater improv and interplay. The MuseCube is two dice: one tells students what to do with their bodies and the other tells them what to do with their voice. Some possible outcomes from rolling the dice include: “stretch and groan” or “dance and whoop.” The voice verbs are important because “you’re more likely to have a moment when you’re not thinking about [the writing assignment] anymore,” says Wegner.
When you are helping students with essays, sometimes it’s best to ignore standard writing terminology. “The word ‘outline’ is a horrible verb,” Wegner says. Some students feel restricted and stressed when they hear the word outline. Many students respond similarly when they hear the word “thesis.” They get overwhelmed and start to shut down which can lead to writer’s block. When working with students, don’t be afraid to use different words. A thesis could be an argument or simply “the point,” and an outline could be the “springboard” for an essay.
Writer’s block can strike even experienced writers, so it’s no surprise when students come to you with that problem. With some concrete strategies in mind, you can encourage them to think outside the box and be comfortable. You may even be able to use these tips for yourself!
Jasmine Evans is a freelance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area with experience as a college counselor and English teacher. She writes children’s fiction and education articles for parents, students and educators.