Helping Students Defeat Writer's Block: 2 Writing Strategies
There’s a rather famous Nietzsche quote you may have heard: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
Most likely, the “monster” Nietzsche had in mind wasn’t writer’s block and “the abyss” wasn’t the blank loose-leaf sheet or the wordless computer screen “that gazes into” our students when they sit down to write. But as far as our students are concerned, they might as well be.
Even for the best writers, Joseph Conrad, for example, writing is difficult. In a letter to a friend, he writes, “I sit down religiously every morning, I sit down for eight hours every day - and the sitting down is all.”
Writing isn’t easy. Writing well…even harder—apparently even for geniuses like Conrad. I don’t know what he did when he sat down religiously every morning for eight hours a day, but I always wondered if he might have benefited from these two writing strategies we’ve adapted from Cheryl Glenn and Melissa A. Goldthwaite’s book, The St. Martin's Guide to Teaching Writing.
Writing Strategy 1: Clustering
Most serious and experienced writers incorporate some sort of writing strategy into their habits, so your students should feel no shame in using them. One that your students might find useful is what we call clustering.
First, you must think of a word or phrase. You can do this with any random word or phrase, but it is far more effective to choose something that is related to the assigned topic. Say your students are writing an essay about their experience with the American Dream….well, “American Dream” might be the best phrase to begin with. Here’s what your students should do next:
- Get comfortable with the process of clustering by letting your playful, creative mind make connections. As you begin this writing strategy, maintain a childlike attitude by letting whatever associations come to you fall out onto paper. Avoid judging or choosing. Simply let go and write. Let the words or phrases radiate outward from the nucleus word; draw a circle around each of them if you like. Connect those associations that seem related with lines—even add arrows to indicate direction if you feel compelled. Just don’t get caught up in organization and tidiness; it’s not important now.
- Write down anything that is triggered by the key word—and whatever you do, don’t inhibit or censor yourself. At this point, nothing is silly, stupid, inane or unrelated. If you plateau and can’t think of anything, scribble or write, “I don’t know what to say.”
- Every writer is different, but you should know when to stop clustering when you feel a strong, sudden urge to write—this usually happens after a couple of minutes when you feel a shift that says, “Aha! I think I know what I want to say.”
- You’re ready to write. Scan your clustered perceptions and insights. Something therein will suggest your first sentence to you, and you’re off. Should you feel stuck, however, write about anything from the cluster to get you started. The next thing and the next thing after will come because your right hemisphere has already perceived a pattern of meaning. Trust it.
Writing Strategy 2: Brainstorming
A second form of invention is brainstorming. Like clustering, brainstorming asks the writer to jot down any ideas that come to his or head. The difference is that it takes sentence form and is best done in 15-minute increments.
The writer decides on a subject, sits down in a quiet place with a pen and paper or computer, and writes down everything—literally—that comes to mind about the subject. Here are some of the main “rules” of brainstorming:
- Don’t criticize or evaluate any ideas during the session. Simply write down every idea that emerges. If you can’t think of something to say for a few seconds, write, “I don’t know what to say, etc.” until something new occurs to you. Save the criticism and evaluation for later.
- Use your imagination for “free wheeling.” The wilder the idea the better, because it might lead to some valuable insights later.
- Strive for quantity. In other words, write a lot. The more ideas, the better chance for a winner to emerge.
- Combine and improve ideas as you proceed.
The writer, in other words, free-associates, writing down as many ideas as possible. After doing so, the writer either tries to structure the information in some way—by recopying it in a different order or by numbering the items, crossing some out, adding to others—or finds the list suggestive enough as it stands and begins to work.
At Marygrove College, we know that teachers need a support system; they need the guidance of caring and experienced mentors; they also need forward-thinking resources and constructive feedback on their curriculum. Mentors in Marygrove’s Master in the Art of Teaching program understand teachers. They want to see you succeed in your career and your classroom and that’s why they’ve built their online master’s degree program around you. Learn more about our online master’s degree program here.