Writer’s Block

You know what to say, but have no idea how to say it. THE VOICE September 4, 2002

Writing papers: no matter what your major, the year of your studies, or whether you are an undergrad or a graduate student, the majority of the work you must submit for your courses must be in essay format.

Unfortunately, most students are not English majors, but they are still required to turn in well-formatted, grammatically correct, clear and concise research papers. With an average of three papers required for each course beyond the junior level, this means you must turn in an average of fifteen papers per semester, or about 4 papers a month.

These papers require us to master a number of skills extraneous to the subject matter of the course. Essays require good technical writing skills, an excellent grasp of the English language – including grammar and sound sentence structure – and a sound research methodology.

On top of this, before we begin to write we must have some inspiration – some spark of an idea of how we can best present our material in an interesting and cohesive manner. Often, the most difficult part of writing a research paper is figuring out how the paper will begin, and how you will structure your thoughts to lead in to your conclusion within the allotted space.

Writer’s block – often thought to be the particular scourge of the creative writer – often affects students too. Unfortunately, not much is written to help students work through this obstacle. This is a real problem, because students with a full course load may only have a week or so to prepare most papers, and every hour of writing time must be utilized if the student is to succeed.

Anyone who has studied creative writing will be quite familiar with many strategies for overcoming writer’s block. Technical writers may overlook many helpful writing texts because they do not believe that they apply to them. On the contrary – strong creative writing skills can help all writers to more easily format their ideas and get them down on paper in a succinct and interesting manner. Creativity may not be considered essential in technical courses, but professors will always admit that presentation counts, and that an interesting and absorbing paper will often score better than one which is dry and difficult to follow.

One very important thing to understand is that writing develops the brain in the same way that pumping iron works out your muscles. The more you write, the easier it is, and the only way to get good at writing is to write a lot. Try writing a little every day in a journal, or maybe write a very short story once or twice a week. Exercising the writing “?muscle’ can be invaluable practice for when you must write something within a deadline. If you sit down and have no idea what to write, then write about how you have no idea what to say, and how you feel about that. If you are angry, try venting by pouring out everything you feel onto paper or into your word processor.

The number one mistake most novice writers make is waiting until they have a good idea. This doesn’t work because if you rarely write, literary ideas simply will not come. Besides, it’s easy to write when you have a good idea, but often we are not fortunate enough to have a good idea when we really need to write.

Practice writing when you have no idea what you want to say, and in time you will be much better prepared when you have to produce a paper on a deadline and have no idea how to begin. Even if you start out without an idea, if you follow the flow of thoughts as you put them down on paper, you will often end up having much more to write about than you first thought. You may be very surprised to find yourself writing 4 or 5 pages when you thought you could not write one.

The next time you find yourself sitting in front of a blank notepad or computer screen struggling for that pivotal first sentence, try some of the following suggestions:

There are tons of resources available at http://www.writersmarket.com, a website for writers that want to get published. Through this site you can subscribe to a number of weekly and daily email newsletters filled with writing tips. The companion site, http://writersdigest.com also has a lot of online tips that they call “?prompts.’ These are simple exercises to help you start putting words on paper. Try them; they work!

Don’t always write in the same style. Anyone can benefit from writing something very different from what they are comfortable with. If you usually write science fiction, then challenge yourself to write a page or two of really mushy romance, or if you love romance, try to create a very harsh, violent horror story. You do not have to love the finished product – it’s just a way to expand your repertoire and possibly add some small touches of diversity to your favored writing style.

Students often develop very stale, jargon-heavy writing styles from years of producing factual, technical papers. However, even your essays can be improved with some small flourishes of creativity. Pick up a book or two of complied essays on any topic, and you’ll notice that the best of them are not only informative, but also interesting to read. If university papers are all you write, then try a little creative writing on the side. Go crazy and write something really fantastic or absurd, just to remind yourself of how to use your creativity. Your technical writing will improve as you learn to express factual ideas in a more descriptive way and it might be easier for the reader to follow.

Remember – you may have fantastic ideas and tons of knowledge in your field, but it doesn’t mean a thing if you cannot get others to read and understand your papers.

If you are stuck, try out some or all of the tips on Literacy Education Online’s [LEO’s] Overcoming Writer’s Block Page, located at:


More tips can be found at Edmond’s Community College: http://web.edcc.edu/gvb/block.html

Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab [OWL] has a number of suggestions directly aimed at students who are having trouble writing papers:


And if you are really stuck and cannot seem to get a single word down on paper despite all of the above, try some tips from the Idiot’s Guide Writer’s Reference, located at:


Good luck!

Tamra lives in Calgary with her husband and two cats. A fulltime AU student, she splits her free time between her duties as an AUSU councillor, writing her first novel, and editing written work by other students and friends.

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