Last week we shared a faculty interview with Zak Lancaster. Zak had one more piece of advice to share…
Do you have any advice for a student who finds it hard to start writing?
Yes, I have an abstract piece of advice and several concrete, specific things. My abstract advice is to find a way to get engaged with the topic you’re writing about. We often find it hard to get started writing if we don’t really care about our argument or our subject matter or if we see it as a chore that someone has made us do. Try not to view it this way. There is also the reverse problem of caring too much, of over-thinking things to the point that we can’t figure out how to get all our complex thoughts in an order that would allow us to start typing sentences. With this problem, I find it helpful to find a friend and talk through my ideas. Or go to the Writing Center! The first problem could also be cured with a healthy dose of talk about our writing.
Here are some concrete things for getting past some kinds of writer’s block:
- Sit down and just starting listing out your points, even if they’re just scraps of phrases. Get your thoughts down.
- Write out your lists longhand rather than typing.
- Work in a plain text file rather than a Word file, which often has a lot of distracting formatting things to contend with.
- If you’re scared of the blank screen, write an email to yourself with a few paragraphs of your paper. Then cut and paste later.
- Tape a piece of paper on your screen (cover up your monitor) and just start typing.
- Find a software program that blocks you from the internet. There’s one called “Freedom” that’s very helpful. You can set it for whatever time period of “freedom” from the internet that you want: 20 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, etc. I would not have been able to write my dissertation without this program.
- It is not true that writing in perfectly quiet places is best for everyone. You might try writing in a coffee shop where there’s some background noise. I have worked in hotel lobbies. Whether you need total silence depends on you and probably the stage of writing you’re in, whether getting out ideas, revising, or editing.
- Figure out the set of effective elements you need to get “in the zone” and then get there. I’ve heard some writers need the sound the washer and dryer because of the repetitive rhythms. Other writers need someone else in the room, but not talking. Find out what you need to make it work.