Staring at a Blank Screen: How to “Write Before You’re Ready”

Staring at a Blank Screen: How to “Write Before You’re Ready”

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WHY CAN'T I GET STARTED?

From grade school onwards, our writing teachers tell us to research our topics thoroughly, brainstorm extensively, and outline our work carefully. But what happens when we sit down to begin and find ourselves staring at a blank white screen? What if we’re still confused about how best to structure part of an argument, or how to integrate an important source? What if we can’t seem to get that concluding sentence just right?

Anxieties like these can present tough obstacles for even the most seasoned writer. And according to Morgan Frank, the coordinator of graduate student tutoring at Stanford’s Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, such frustrations stem from an all-too-common mistake about writing: we think of it as a product instead of a process. Frank told me that writers at Stanford often try to perfect every word or sentence of their work, whereas “At the Hume Center, we’re focused on developing stronger writers, not just perfect papers.”

Of course, “Writing before you’re ready” doesn’t mean that writers should begin without any ideas about what they want to say. It just means that we should let ourselves off the hook if we don’t yet know how to solve every problem that might arise during the writing process. "Ultimately,” Frank believes, “you don't know what you're writing until you've written it."

With this key idea in mind, here are six strategies that writers can use during those difficult beginning stages of the composition process. Though this brief list is geared towards writers themselves, teachers in all disciplines can encourage their students to experiment with these strategies when they get stuck.

BEFORE WRITING

  1. Divide and conquer. Frank and other tutors at the Hume Center urge writers to list three or four important ideas they know they want to cover, and then spend five minutes freewriting about each of these points. This strategy helps writers to see links between different parts of an argument.
  2. Stop reading! At a certain point, research becomes a distraction from writing, and it can even undermine your confidence in your own ideas. Trust in your ability to make an original argument, and begin putting it into words—you can always go back and read more later.
  3. Adopt a different perspective. Instead of feeling like your writing is a reflection of who you are as a person, approach the assignment from the point of view of its audience.  What will they be looking for? How will they go about reading what you’ve written? These questions will ease you into writing by taking the pressure off you to begin from scratch.

DURING THE FIRST STAGES OF WRITING

  1. Ditch the computer. Try writing by hand; it changes the rhythm of your writing by slowing it down. Using a pen or pencil forces you to become more thoughtful and deliberative—and it gets rid of those pesky Internet distractions, too!
  2. Write with a blindfold. OK, not really. If you do prefer to compose on a computer, consider covering the monitor with a piece of paper while you write. You’ll produce more writing because you won’t be so concerned about editing yourself. As academic coach Gina Hiatt puts it, “Fight the urge to be a perfectionist in your writing…Be content with the knowledge that you will eventually edit.”
  3. Add a burst of color! Frank, at Stanford’s Hume Center, suggests that students print out early drafts on brightly colored paper, and then spend time editing by hand. “Colored paper—red, yellow, orange—makes things seem less final, and it reminds us that writing is a process,” he noted.

 

These strategies won’t solve all your problems, but they will help get you over those initial hurdles and into a comfortable writing rhythm. And these tips aren't the only ones out there: What do you do to overcome writer's block at the early stages of composition? If you're a writing teacher, how do you help students to dive in? Are there strategies you're itching to try?

Remember, you’re almost always more equipped to begin writing than you think!

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Allen Frost is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at Stanford, where he's also served as an instructor in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric and as a writing tutor at the Hume Center.