Writing Out of the Box

Writing Out of the Box

Getting unstuck in the writing process

As I advance through my own process of writing a book-length dissertation, talk to faculty and fellow graduate students about their experiences, and mentor undergraduate writers embarking on research papers, I have increasingly reconsidered how I approach writing. I’ve asked, “How might we put into practice the idea that writing is a process of thinking? And, if writing is actually a process of thinking, how might we encourage creative and flexible methods? How might approaching writing differently address barriers to productivity that writers face?”

Since spring 2014, I have led a series of writing workshops with history graduate students that are effectively laboratories for new ways of approaching the writing process. These workshops emphasize experimentation, iteration, and collaboration. In the short term, writers have described discovering the utility of working through ideas with diverse methods and feeling less isolated in the long dissertation period. The longer-term goals include deeper shifts that help address common pitfalls for dissertators that include getting “stuck” and bogged down in writing or immobilized by perfectionist fears.

Most importantly, these workshops are meant to provide specific methods that put in practice the idea that writing is a messy, iterative, and creative process of thinking, not a linear act of transcribing already formed ideas. The only way to get “ready to write” is to start writing, with the expectation that what emerges will continue to change and deepen throughout the process.

Writing workshops that energize

The writing workshops I’ve conducted in the history department, first with the help of Associate Director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric Christine Alfano, and now with Ph.D. Candidate in History Nicole Martin, are part of a series of experiments that focus on learning more about the writing process and how to more effectively support a diverse range of writers -- from beginning undergraduates to advanced dissertators. The writing workshops are immersive in-person experiences. They are designed to both build a sense of community among grad writers and offer a diverse range of approaches to facilitate writers quickly learning about their own processes and what works best for them. Participants have included graduate students working on seminar papers and dissertations, across geographic and temporal fields – anyone, in other words, working on a long-term project without the productive urgency of frequent deadlines.

 unfamiliarize, draw, write, talk. Photo courtesy of Anneliese Heinz.With the theme of “get started, get unstuck, get energized,” the workshops have an interactive format wherein students engage with their topics and specific “stuck points” by physically moving around the room to different writing stations. Determining where to go helps create momentum: each person has a paper die to roll, with a mode named on each side of the die. When the writer follows the die’s direction and goes to the appropriate station, they put into practice the approach we emphasize: jump in and don’t get bogged down in hesitation before even getting started.

Each station features an activity related to one of four different ‘modes’ -- talk, draw, write, and defamiliarize -- through which the writers can reconnect with their topics. Within each mode, the participants follow an action-oriented prompt that encourages them to produce ideas quickly. They only have a short time (seven minutes) at each station, then three minutes to write out thoughts and "field notes" before rolling the die again.

For example, one particularly popular “defamiliarize” prompt, titled “Asking Questions,” reads:

  • For 2 minutes: List as many questions as possible about your specific topic.
  • Next 5 minutes: Free-write possible answers to one of your questions.
  • Be speculative. Go for volume.

The different modes encourage moving from writing as a restrictive path with a sole goal of a polished product, to writing as a winding and incremental process that demands multifaceted approaches.

Design thinking in writing workshops

I have found core principles of design thinking to be particularly insightful in rethinking my approach to writing: a bias toward action, rapid iterations, attention to process, and collaboration. I learned about these principles through the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, known as the d.school.

For example, my workshops enact a “bias toward action” through productive time pressure that encourages active engagement. Brief periods of intense production temporarily gag the inner critics that can stifle and ultimately stall the creative process. These seemingly minor structural elements encourage more significant mindset shifts that encourage writers to change their relationship to failure and feel empowered to enter intimidating intellectual territory.

Male student sitting at table, drawing, with colored pens and crayons scattered aroundThus far, the workshops are having an incremental but unmistakably positive effect. Surveyed a few weeks after the workshop, writers have reported using some of the basic techniques on their own. Some report setting a timer for “writing blast” freewrites. Others have used specific prompts they found helpful, such as freewriting about an idea they’re passionate about in their project. One participant explained that the workshop “reminded me that I actually like writing.” Reflecting a few weeks later, she described how the workshop “has caused me not to dread writing and to try to get something done even if I only have a short window.” I was particularly delighted when participants reported gaining strategies for teaching writing to students, as well as experiencing increased productivity for their own work.

Perhaps most importantly, participants have described achieving the larger goals of building a sense of community and creating a “bias to action” mindset -- to embrace experimentation and messiness instead of fear and judgment.

Please let me know if you have thoughts or questions by emailing me at heinzam@stanford.edu. Join the conversation by tweeting your thoughts to #jumpstartwriting.

Try it Out

If you’re devising your own writing prompts, keep these principles in mind for turning an idea into a production-oriented prompt for yourself or others:

  1. Identify a mode of production (write, talk, draw, something else?)

  2. Make it a direct call to action, within the mode you identified. What EXACTLY should the writer actually DO?

  3. Be extremely specific. How many minutes? If there is a first step, quantify it: how many ideas or thought bubbles or sources should the writer first generate?

  4. Make sure it is designed to foster production on the writer’s actual project.

  5. Include any brief core principles the writer should keep in mind (ie: go for volume, stay big picture, etc.)

  6. Stay brief.

See Also

By the same author: Jumpstarting the writing process