Write Before You’re Ready: First Steps to Avoiding Writer’s Block
Have you seen an inchworm crawl on a leaf,
cling to the very end, revolve in air,
feeling for something to reach to something?
You still hang your words in air, ten years
Unfinished, glued to your notice board,
Or empties for the unimaginable phrase –
Unerring Muse who makes the casual
— Robert Lowell, “Words in Air”*
You may have noticed that I haven’t sent out my monthly newsletter recently. The reason is that I’ve had a severe back problem for the past seven months. I spent most of that time either lying on my stomach or standing. In the process, I discovered that sitting is an under-appreciated ability. The back pain ultimately led me to visit to a spinal surgeon. But just as in the movies, my back started to improve in the final week before that appointment. I’ve even started sitting!
Like someone coming out of a coma, I’m trying to coax myself back into writing. Perhaps you know the feeling. I’m going to start by sending you some of my older newsletters that have been popular with readers, and which may help me get back into the writing habit. The following article is over four years old. I’ve edited and added to it; this is my way of writing before I’m ready.
“Oh no! It’s happening again!”
You just sat down to write. In the back of your mind, you know what you want to say. But as you stare at the computer screen or your pad of paper, you realize that you probably haven’t checked out all the literature on this subject. Furthermore, you’re not really clear about some of the articles that you’ve read. Perhaps you wonder if you really have anything to say after all.
So you decide to go back to do some more reading, more research, take some more notes, and check out a few more sources. Eventually, though, you find yourself back at the keyboard. Somehow you can’t find a way to express those thoughts that were so clear when you were reading and researching. Every sentence that you write sounds banal, weak, obvious or boring. “I’m not in a creative state of mind,” you think. “I’d better wait until I have a bigger block of time” or “I’d better wait until I’m in the mood.”
The cycle continues, as you try to get clear in your mind what your thoughts are. Eventually you grow to dread the process of sitting down to write, and you think of yourself as a procrastinator.
Many writers get caught in this endless cycle.
Is there a way out? One way is to practice what Robert Boice suggests in Advice for New Faculty Members and in Professors as Writers. His suggestion is: write before you’re ready. By observing “exemplar” new professors, and teaching their techniques to struggling professors, he found that blocked writers can be taught to write more easily. Here are the first few steps of his technique.
In this stage, which might last a week or two, you spend 10 to 15 minutes per week day writing, sketching out, taking notes, making lists, talking through, or otherwise preparing for what you will be writing. This is not a reading/research stage, but a preliminary writing stage. You should start this stage before you feel fully ready.
If you do this for more than a few days, you’ll notice that thoughts will come to you unbidden about your work. Jot down these thoughts.
At the end of each pre-writing session, make a small outline of what you’ve just written and where you want to go next. This will be difficult, but if you make a practice of doing it for a minute or two at the end of each session, you will get better at it and reap the eventual benefits. Avoid making the outline better and better. Be satisfied with its imperfect state.
If outlining makes you nervous, or even, as one professor told me, sick to your stomach, then just make lists, or even turn your writing into a mind map.
Avoid the Urge to Research (at this point)
In some cases, reading and researching can be a way to procrastinate on your writing – you know who you are. If you think you’re engaging in this behavior, then try stopping your reading for now. You will be learning from the prewriting and early outlining what additional specific research needs to be done. This will help you avoid over-researching.
Revise & Expand
In each succeeding pre-writing period, revise and expand your outline. Note what your main points are, and add supporting material. Start to use your notes from previous reading and research. If the notes are too detailed, cull out the pertinent information by making notes on your notes.
At this stage you should write as you would talk. Fight the urge to be a perfectionist in your writing. Don’t try to cover all the points at once. Simplify. Be content with the knowledge that you will eventually edit. Now is not the time for editing, but for getting your thoughts down in writing.
Why not try Boice’s techniques if you have been feeling blocked? If you don’t want to use them all, modify them to work for you. Although these suggestions may go against every fiber of your academic soul, if your current writing techniques have gotten you mired down, “writing before you are ready” may be worth a try.