Musings: On Writer’s Block

One of the great ironies of this post is that it has been saved as a blank draft for this blog since January. It was a topic I meant to write on but then never did. In an effort to get in the habit of weekly posts here, I am finally providing content to what had heretofore been merely a headline.

I currently teach writing to juniors in the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Most of my students are primarily experienced in test taking; reading and writing academically is a fairly uncommon experience for them. In order to get them to write, I often give them advice that I myself could benefit from. This post is an effort to get some of that advice out, not only for others who may suffer from writers block, but also to remind myself of what I need to do to write more.

1. The best way to write is to write.

This seemingly tautological advice is aimed at simply getting a person to write. Many people are reticent to write until they know exactly what it is they want to write. This can mean spending a lot of time in your head thinking about what to write, but very little time actually writing anything. I am particularly guilty of this. To write anything that does not resemble the final product seems a waste of time, but in the end, if you only ever think about what you want to write, you won’t have anything at all.

2. Perfect is the enemy of good.

I have long been considered a “good writer.” This means that when I write, I expect what I write will be perfect the first time. Unfortunately, even for the best writers, perfect is nearly impossible to accomplish. This advice builds on the advice above: if you only ever write something perfect, you’ll never progress. Since no writing can ever be perfect, you have to settle for less than perfect and work on it until it is good enough. The easiest way to do this is to force yourself to acknowledge that your writing cannot be perfect. How do you do that?

3. Write multiple drafts.

As a high school student and undergraduate, my thinking and writing were clear enough that I could often make due with singular drafts. This means that I never truly developed the skills required to read and revise what I wrote. When you begin writing something that will necessitate multiple drafts, you find yourself at a disadvantage. How did I solve this? By getting ancient with my technology. I purchased a Royal Astronaut Typewriter. Due to its analog nature, anything I write on it will be replete with spelling and grammar errors. The goal when I write on my typewriter is not to write perfectly the first time, but simply to get my ideas out of my head. Some people may prefer pen and paper, but I have been typing since I was in kindergarten, so typing is more natural (and more legible) for me. When I type that draft into my word processing software I am forced to read what I wrote and I begin to make minor changes to my writing. These minor changes later become major revisions as I recognize patterns in my thoughts. By using outmoded technology I am forced to accept mistakes and work later to correct them rather than in the moment.

4. Read.

Many students never read except when they are forced to do so. Reading helps your mind make sense of logical errors common in other people’s writing. By recognizing that other work that has been published isn’t perfect, you can then work on your own writing knowing that it won’t be perfect either. Writing doesn’t have to be perfect to be read or published. There are certainly minimum standards, but the bar might not be so high as you think. The second advantage to reading is that you pick up on the tricks and tropes in your discipline. Some of the hardest things for me to write are the most straightforward pieces of information. I’m always concerned that there must be some sort of trick, or that I’m missing an important element. As it turns out, there isn’t such a trick, and sometimes information can simply be straightforward. While it may seem simple, that doesn’t meant it isn’t complex.

5. Share your writing.

It’s mortifying to know that somebody read what you wrote when you are not yet happy with it. You might worry that they will suddenly think less of you. In reality, they’re much less likely to be as harsh on you as they are on themselves. Their feedback will likely reflect areas where they themselves struggle. It’s a lot easier to pick up the types of mistakes you make in other people’s writing than in your own. By sharing your work and helping others with theirs, you’ll not only get fresh eyes on your work, but you’ll also start to pick up on the areas of your own writing that you need to focus on correcting. When you notice something off-putting in someone else’s writing, you start to recognize when you do it yourself. Similarly, when someone points out, for example, that you continually say “the ways in which” rather than “how” you will never be able to use the former again without stopping yourself and correcting it. At first it may be uncomfortable, but in the end, your writing will be all the stronger for it.

Overall, these five simple tips are fairly basic, but I have found that sometimes it’s the most basic elements of writing that complicate the craft of writing. By focusing on perfection and refusing to write imperfectly or share our work, we often box ourselves into corners from which we cannot escape. Hitting publish or send on a piece of writing can be daunting, but if you never do that final step you’ll never have anything.

I often spend a great deal of time working on posts for this blog, but I need to remind myself that many of these writings are thought exercises. They aren’t meant to be complete treatises, but rather reflect where I am right now, or the thought process I am working through. With that in mind, I shall endeavor to write more and publish more frequently.

Post Script: After publishing this, I was forced to edit it several times for errors I caught when reading it on different platforms that weren’t apparent in the initial platform. Two people also pointed out additional errors that I missed. They were minor, but it just goes to show that a second or third pair of eyes always helps.

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