Whether it may be our end-of-school-year papers or college application essays, while trying to complete a written piece, it’s not uncommon to find ourselves sitting and staring at a blank screen and blinking cursor.
Perhaps there’s already a jumble on the page where we mumble, fumble, and stumble. In this mess of sentences, we type out indistinct utterances, get clumsy with words, and type, delete, type, delete … type out phrases as if stuttering in a confused manner. We say we “can’t write” and get flustered, which, as with all things, doesn’t help.
Let’s take some time to patiently consider some reasons behind this frustration and what we can do to have a happier time writing. We can be content amid the chaos in writing as we learn that we don’t actually have to write coherently. Rather, we write toward a coherent piece that speaks loud and clear.
1. We are afraid of what people may think of us or of how we “sound.”
We may feel anxious about scrutinizing eyes of readers and feel pressured to “sound good.” Much like speech anxiety, writing anxiety can come when you’re asked to write for an audience—even if it’s one person, such as your teacher. It’s like you’re performing and the page is your stage. Unlike with speaking, when you can revise what you say while the audience is listening, you can’t correct yourself while someone is reading what you wrote.
Still, writing isn’t about performing; it’s about communicating.
What to do: Focus on being authentic.
Aim for honesty.
At first, it’s actually harder to be genuine in your writing than it is to be pretentious, especially in personal essays. In editing student work, I’ve read too many cliches or paragraphs that sound polished for a politician. The writer feels safer this way.
I’ve worked with students who didn’t want to write about something that’s near and dear to them because they don’t think it’s interesting enough. In attempts to try to sound better, they reach for something outside their realm of knowledge and interest. Yet working with what you do have in your vault is much easier and your writing is more authentic. Your piece would in turn be more credible, compelling, and memorable.
2. We’re overwhelmed by our own thoughts, whether cluttered, scattered, or vague.
My high school sophomore English teacher told me “You can’t write from inside a vault.” I was buried in my research and my own thoughts, and I needed to get out and look objectively at what was inside my storage room.
But sorting can be challenging. Just what do we pull out and how do we organize these items; how are they related or different; why are they relevant? And how do we present all this in a way that makes sense and is engaging?
Difficulty with writing is often difficulty with thinking. “I can’t write” can be interpreted as “I can’t think straight” or “I can’t think in tandem with my pen.” My students who had a tough time writing also had problems with focusing and organizing their thoughts.
What to do: Step away; pick your own brain; and think out loud.
If you find yourself staring at your screen, step away. Come back at a time when you’re sharper. While you’re away, when you’re doing mundane activities, pick your own brain about how you might respond to that essay prompt, or frame that paper thesis, or write that letter.
To make sure your writing is relevant, ask yourself: “Why do I care? Why should someone else care to read?” and ask “What is the purpose of this written piece?”
And to make sure you’re getting to your point, ask, “What am I trying to say here?”
Check to see if you really know what you’re talking about. A good way to do this is to think out loud and talk to yourself about it. You can’t fool yourself. Say to yourself, “What I’m trying to say is this … .” It’s easier to revise your speech than your writing. Take advantage of this and keep revising and rewording until you’ve made you points plain to yourself. Talk like you’re explaining something to your best friend; you’d want to make it understandable for them. Then write out what you’re saying.
But you don’t have to wait until what you say is polished, as you’ll see in the next point.
3. We wait for our thoughts to crystallize before writing them.
We may have something to say, but it’s fragmented—a piece here, piece there—and we’re not sure how to connect them. We have a point but are unsure of all the words to get it across. We’ve come up with some ideas, but we’re not set on them and don’t feel they’re fully developed.
But waiting for a thought to crystallize before getting it out is one sure way toward writer’s block.
What to do: Get out your thoughts as they are.
Get your thoughts and ideas out of your warm, muddy mind and onto the cold, clean paper. On that canvas, you can see how the fragments connect, what’s worth keeping and expanding and what can be tossed, and what’s missing. You can sift through any rambling to find how what you’re really trying to get at.
Writing is a tool to help shape our thoughts. All this writing will help us think. This further thinking, in turn, will help us write more.
4. We love our writing, but we don’t love to write.
Consider a draft you’re so proud of; you feel it’s good enough to be the final draft and you don’t want anyone to touch it. But another pair of eyes is almost always necessary for a piece to be complete. If a teacher or editor strikes your carefully chosen words, revises your wonderfully crafted sentences, slices or shifts your packed and purposefully placed paragraphs—will you be offended, maybe even crushed?
We can’t cling to what we’ve penned. Our writing should be able to withstand the process of editing, which is part of writing. Writing should only get stronger with editing.
What to do: Love the act of writing more, and write more. Cut and rewrite.
Just as talkers love to talk and talk, writers love to write and write. Take time to write more. Fool around with words. Make new connections. This practice of writing is just as important as the product.
Nothing you write is wasted, even the parts that are cut, since cutting is part of decision making. Cut what won’t advance your story; you’re making room for new growth. Cutting is cleansing, as you rid your page of what’s muddling up your message. Cut the redundant; keep where you said the same thing best. Your piece can’t be molded into its final product without the art of cutting. Cutting gives us the opportunity to write and rewrite—fill in any holes, expand, clarify, and say things better.
Since writing is communicating, we write within community. You need another pair of eyes or two to read and make any edits to your writing before it’s complete. These eyes are your practice audience and they partner with you to help you communicate to your actual audience.
5. We try to get clever and creative—before being clear and laying out the bulk of our content.
We can get lost in the joy of coming up with good words — words that sing. We may rack our brains for just the right word. It’s easy to obsess over words. After all, when you write, all you have are words. But the overall message is more important.
Let’s say a written piece is like a car: The words are the wheels, while the message is the engine. The engine makes the wheels go, just as the message should fuel the words.
If we focus on words more than meaning, then we can create fluff, but we need real stuff. We need substance in our writing. We don’t need lots of words that aren’t communicating anything.
What to do: Focus on content and clarity—before creativity. Aim for meaning first.
Let’s focus on what we want to say before we figure out how to say it. First, get the stuff down on the page—bare-naked so you can easily see what’s there. This way you can better massage it and shape it. You can finesse it and dress it up later.
All this advice shows a written piece to be much like patchwork. This imagery may not appeal to people who would like to think of writing as more of a flow. It may very well be that way for some people; I am not one of them. My guess is most people experience squirts here and drops there, and likely dry spells. This is normal and we can work with ourselves through it. Something intelligible, audible and beautiful—something that is uniquely you—will come out through the process.