We’ve all had the experience of facing a blank page when we have a paper due. The hands on the clock seem to tick faster and faster. Instead of prompting us in passionate pursuit of a well-hewn draft, the deadline just seem to drive us into a panic. We feel like something, anything, would be better than facing the task at hand.
Back in February, I blogged about GC writing consultant and PhD candidate Erin Garrow’s tips on how to take ownership of the writing process. In this blog post, I sit down with Erin’s colleague Meira Levinson, who defended her dissertation in English earlier this year, to get her tips on how to write more productively.
Meira and Erin are graduate writing consultants at the GC’s Writing Center, part of the Office of Career Planning and Professional Development. They consult with GC students every week during 45-minute individualized writing consultations (you can sign up for one here). In fact, they just finished hosting Write Now, a week-long intensive writing bootcamp for GC students across fields to write in a social atmosphere. Stay tuned for more events like these from our office.
Find Your Preferred Writing Strategies
During Write Now it was inspiring to see students getting together to write and support each other. Sometimes the room was talkative, other times it was quiet. Regardless of how you prefer to write, it can be incredibly helpful to have someone by your side—someone who holds you accountable, or even just works alongside you and helps keep you focused.
Different writing strategies work for different people. Some people like to budget their daily writing by page count (“I’ll get 5 pages of writing done today!”). Others like to give themselves a dedicated writing time (“No matter what happens today, I’ll write from 8 to 9 am!”). Some people like to plot their writing project on a calendar to stay on track. It’s important to find the strategies that work for you. Is it freewriting? Is it talking out loud to a peer, then recording and transcribing it? Is it turning your idea into notecards that you can then cut and paste and rearrange visually? Is it simply writing something down and then reading it out loud to yourself?
Depending on your personality, these can all be effective strategies for avoiding writers’ block. Our writing center consultants encourage students to take a holistic view of writing as a process. This means that having ideas, and talking about them, is an integral part of writing. Writing isn’t just about grammar and sentences. The entire process of thinking about ideas, expressing them, and refining them is part-and-parcel of writing.
Many people also find this perspective is a confidence-booster: writing isn’t just what goes on the page. Writing includes anything that you’re doing that’s relating to your dissertation. It could include gathering research—that’s writing; it could include free-writing ideas—that’s also writing; if you’re reading—guess what? Writing too!
Having the freedom to work on something that doesn’t feel as intimidating as writing, and being kind to yourself, are key to getting over writers’ block.
Now Transcend Those Strategies
Writing consultants aren’t subject-matter experts in your discipline. Therefore, the advice they give you will never be customized to the specific norms of your field. What they really do is offer coaching. They’re experts in taking your ideas—written or spoken—and workshopping them together with you into the written product that you want. The more you’re able to talk through your own perspective—to verbally externalize your perspective and become aware of it—the more consultants can identify the specific challenge you’re having. It’s all about collaboration.
Many students who visit the writing center are still fleshing out their piece of writing. Usually they’ll bring some type of notes—it could be prose, or bullet points, or even just scribbles. Those are a great place to start. Sometimes you’ll generate this kind of preliminary writing together with your writing consultant. Either way, a typical starting place is asking you, ‘Well, where would you start this piece?’ Just by starting to talk about it, many students realize they have more thoughts about the piece than they thought they did.
Many students get feedback from their professors that their writing isn’t clear enough. Just as frequently, they may not know exactly what being “clear” means. It could mean many different things. It could mean you need to reorganize your writing. It could mean you need to improve the structure of your sentences. It could mean you have a lot of ideas that aren’t making it onto the page. It may be obvious to you—because you’re entrenched in your research—but not all of it has come through in the writing.
As if this weren’t enough, clarity sometimes means different things depending on what academic field you’re in. Writing consultants can help you tailor a piece for a particular audience or genre. While many students fear they’re not using the right jargon for their discipline, often jargon is beside the point. Instead, clarity means taking the care to communicate your ideas fully and clearly. Often, this means stripping away jargon—or using it strategically—so that your ideas don’t get muddled or over-burdened by complex and sometimes frankly unnecessary ideas.
Even for something as straightforward as getting your grammar right, writing consultants emphasize understanding language in real-life contexts. They won’t copy-edit your whole article, but they will take a representative paragraph or two and teach you the underlying writing conventions that will help you learn what mistakes you’re making so you can edit your own work in the future.
In addition to grammar, another issue non-native English speakers may face involves finding the right word choice. Often you might use a thesaurus to find an alternative word that you think conveys the right meaning; but you might not be aware of unintended, and potentially inappropriate connotations this word has in common usage. Consultants will help you understand the conventions that govern words’ meanings according to standard conventions of American English.
Other times, overcoming writers’ block is about receiving validation for your ideas. For example, a student might feel paralyzed by having to write a diversity statement for their academic job market applications. They may feel they have nothing to say. Writing consultants help students realize the experience and expertise they already have that they didn’t know they have. Students didn’t know their experience counts, and it does. It’s just about becoming aware that it counts. Many students don’t have confidence in their piece of writing, so having someone else identify what they don’t know that they already know can be empowering and even transformative in how they approach their writing.
In the end, Meira tells me, writing consultants are like a peer writing group – a group of people who create a safe space to share drafts, offer feedback, and provide encouragement. Seeing that other people have the same fears and challenges with writing that you do can be liberating. It’s all about having someone outside your own head whom you can talk to, explain your ideas, and who then gives you a reflection of what they understand about what you’re saying. Whether that is or isn’t what you want them to take away from your piece, they’ll help you formulate your ideas more clearly and directly.
The best thing for productive writing—whether you’re writing alone or meeting with a consultant—is being open-minded. Of course, it never hurts to also feel genuinely passionate about what you’re writing!
We hope these tips are helpful in your writing process! Don’t hesitate to make an appointment with one of our writing center consultants if you feel like you’d benefit from a second pair of eyes on your writing. If that’s the case, we look forward to seeing you soon.