Writing is never a smooth process, and most successful writing proceeds in fits and starts. Writer’s block refers to those greater-than-ordinary blockages. It occurs when a writer feels truly stuck and unable to write. There are many possible causes, including anxiety, stress, or a simple lack of understanding of the material. Below are some common causes of writer’s block, with some potential solutions. Do not forget that if you have access to a writing centre, probably the best way to work through writer’s block is to meet with a writing centre instructor.
Are you having trouble understanding the assignment? You can gain a better understanding of the assignment through a combination of outside help and self-help:
- When the instructor gives out an assignment, ask questions about anything that you find new or confusing. If you have questions, chances are that other students do too.
- Most assignments use keywords that will help you figure out what you are expected to do. Look for keywords and phrases such as analyse, discuss, argue, compare, and provide evidence.
Have you done enough research? If you don’t know what to write about, you may need to do more research or review the research you have already done:
- Go to the library and speak with a librarian about finding materials on your topic and specific to the discipline.
- Go back and reread key passages from your research materials. After reading, make notes on key ideas or potential pieces of evidence. Write in your own words so that you engage more fully with the material. Be sure to jot down any of your own ideas as well.
Have you done too much research? Sometimes if you’ve done a lot of reading on a particular subject, beginning to write can be overwhelming. See if either of the following two strategies helps focus your thinking:
- Come up with a narrow research question that you can reasonably answer within the assigned word count. This question should help you discard materials that are beyond the scope of the paper.
- Put the notes aside and ask yourself, what are the essential points to make about the topic? When you gather a lot of notes, you can easily become lost in all of the detail.
Do you have a topic? In many of your courses, you must narrow down a topic or even create your own. This challenging task can make getting started tricky. Try these suggestions:
- Be sure that you have a specific topic. If you try to write on a topic that is too general or too vague, you will probably struggle.
- Use course materials to help you generate or refine your topic. Reread lecture notes or readings in areas that you find interesting or that relate to the assigned topic. Look at the bibliographies of course readings to help you discover possible research directions.
- Talk about your ideas. Have a conversation with a friend or another student in your class. Speak with your instructor about how to proceed with any thoughts you might already have for the assignment. Make an appointment at the Writing Centre. Sometimes discussing your ideas with another person can help you to clarify them.
- Try a mind-mapping exercise. Take a piece of paper and write down your topic, or idea for a topic, in the centre of the page. In the surrounding space, write down any related ideas from class materials and research. Now, look at this mind map and take note of any interesting connections. Cross out any unrelated areas. Use the mind map to help create an essay outline or a research plan.
Have you written a paper in this genre before? It can be hard to get started on a piece of writing when it’s in an unfamiliar genre or discipline. For example, if you’re used to writing lab reports, you might not know how to get started on a thesis-driven essay. To solve this problem, find out the conventions for this type of writing in this particular discipline:
- Check the course and department websites for examples or explanations. This site provides a number of useful advice files on specific genres: e.g., The Book Review or Article Critique, Writing an Annotated Bibliography, The Literature Review, The Comparative Essay, Writing about History, Writing in the Sciences, and The Lab Report.
- Seek guidance from your professor or TA.
- Look for handbooks and guides on how to write in specific disciplines.
Are you worried about sounding smart enough? It’s normal to have trouble expressing your ideas in the early drafts of a paper. Here are tips to avoid paralyzing yourself unnecessarily:
- Don’t try to use unfamiliar words to sound smart, and don’t convince yourself that your readers want you to do so. Focus on getting your ideas down simply and clearly.
- Just get something down on the page! Try a free-writing exercise. Open up a new Word document and turn off your computer screen. Set a timer for five minutes. Start writing about whatever comes into your mind on the topic. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or punctuation, and don’t stop writing. After five minutes, look at what you’ve written. Ignore grammar or spelling problems. Instead, look for any important or recurring ideas.
- Leave plenty of time for revising and editing. Once you have your ideas formulated in a draft, you can work on combining some of your simple sentences into more complex ones. You can also improve your word choice and, if necessary, make the overall tone more formal or academic by eliminating inappropriate colloquialisms and relying on key terms in your discipline.
Do you find introductions difficult to write? Even very experienced writers often find the introduction to be the hardest part of a paper. The best remedies relieve the pressure of having to come up with the ideal introduction before moving on to the body:
- Write the introduction last. This approach may sound radical, but once you’ve written your paper, you will have a better sense of exactly what you need to introduce. Most of us were taught to write a paper from beginning to end, but research shows that many people don’t think most effectively this way. Don’t be afraid to start writing with what you know, even if it is something that you plan to deal with in a body paragraph. A writing plan, outline, or focus statement is still a good idea, but you don’t need to write the introduction first.
- Write the introduction quickly. If you find it impossible to write the paper unless the earliest draft begins with an introduction, then write one just to get going. But don’t waste time on it or expect it to be perfect. Come back to it after you have completed the body, and then rewrite it.
Is outside stress distracting you from your academic work? Everybody has a life outside school, and sometimes outside responsibilities and stress can prevent you from focusing on writing. Learning new study habits can make a big difference:
- Try time-management strategies that allow you to set aside separate time for school work and for other obligations. When you are writing, work somewhere quiet where you cannot be interrupted, turn off your cell phone, and stay off email and the Internet.
- Take a break. If you are exhausted, you’re unlikely to be productive. Take a nap, go for a walk, or have a snack. Often time away from an essay allows you to gain perspective or generate fresh ideas.
The Common Application makes it easy to apply to lots of schools without having to duplicate information — over and over and over again.
At present, more than 600 schools accept the Common App, meaning that you can apply to any participating schools, and all you have to do is complete the required supplementary materials for the institutions on your list. This also means, however, that your personal statement — or one of the (up to) three versions that you’re allowed to submit — will be seen by every school to which you apply using the Common App. The pressure of having this one piece of writing figure so importantly in all of your college admissions decisions may be anxiety-producing. But the Common App essay also presents an amazing opportunity to showcase your strengths.
New Essay Prompts, New Opportunities
When the Common App published its new essay prompts, I was especially excited about the fourth of these, which asks about a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. I couldn’t wait to see which problems my high school students would set out to tackle.
Would there be an essay on revamping airport security? Speeding up highway construction and road repair? Tackling identity theft? No such luck.
Instead, the most recent version of the Common App essay ended up steering many applicants toward the first prompt because students tend to be more comfortable writing about themselves: “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
Now that my most of my students are fast at work tackling their prompts of choice — they know it’s important to get a draft done before they get deeper into the semester — it hurts to see some of them struggle as they write their personal statements. When they hit a wall, I urge them to think back to the skills they used in the simpler days of essay writing.
Strategies for Conquering the Common App Essay You Choose
Since many of the students I work with ultimately choose prompt 1, let’s use that as an example — though the strategies below can be applied to any of the Common App essay prompts.
Here are 7 rules for writing effective Common App essays:
1. Start by brainstorming.
Resist the urge to jump in and write! Except for the most gifted writers, the tactic of opening a document and pouring out your story can waste time and make you lose focus. For prompt 1, input the keywords background, identity, interest, and talent, and jot down ideas that apply to you in each category. It’s possible that you may not come up with a response to each of these categories, or that one category, such as interest, will have several. Next, narrow down your choices for your essay topic, keeping in mind that that it is often beneficial to select something that isn’t readily apparent from the activities section of the Common App. For example, an academically strong student might disclose something about a favorite hobby, or an athlete might reveal an unexpected appreciation for art.
The best essays usually come from unexpected situations, talents, or interests, or the most sincerely-held passions. Make sure you’re the only one who can tell your story, and you have a good chance of capturing the admission officer’s attention.
2. Construct your thesis, even if you don’t plan on using it in the essay.
Ground yourself in the topic by frequently reminding yourself of your thesis statement: What is the takeaway message of your essay? For the student who selects prompt 1, a thesis might be: “I wouldn’t be who I am today without my background…” Even if you don’t plan to state this particular thesis in your personal statement, use it to get motivated and craft a focused response.
3. Support your thesis with interesting, relevant examples.
Do you remember that the SAT essay (at least through January 2016) asks you to “support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations”? For an effective Common App essay, jot down the anecdotes that support your thesis, and expand on them by adding names and dialogue. This strategy also makes the personal statement easier to read. Using examples rather than stating behaviors (showing vs. telling) is a sure way to make your essay come to life.
4. Organize your essay by organizing your anecdotes.
While the Common App personal statement is not your standard, five-paragraph essay, it should be organized so that it follows a logical progression. Here’s how you can ensure that it will make a compelling read:
- Pick your favorite anecdote, and try using it as an introduction. For this essay, you need a killer introduction; your admissions officer only has so much time!
- Next, structure the essay by grouping and sequencing the anecdotes. Depending on the topic, that could mean having a chronological organization — for example, how your ability to appreciate other cultures evolved over the course of high school. Or, anecdotes could be grouped by how your interest in other cultures is reflected not only inside but also outside the classroom. You get the idea!
- Finally, create a forward-thinking opinion statement to serve as your conclusion. Maybe it’s a pronouncement on how your ability will come into play when you begin college, and it may also refer back to the introduction. Someone interested in other cultures might write, “As I look toward 2016, I am confident that my appreciation of other cultures will go a long way toward easing the transition from high school to college, when I will have the chance to meet students from around the world.”
5. Take advantage of the personal nature of the essay.
The Common App essay is not a research paper, nor is it a persuasive essay. Rather, it is your opportunity to write about yourself and use the word “I” whenever appropriate — something your teachers may have insisted (rightly) you not do for academic essays. Importantly, this form of writing lends itself to an upbeat, conversational tone (though keep in mind: conversational, not censorable). Tell your story in your own voice. An experienced reader can usually tell if a parent or tutor has taken over the process from a student.
6. Check periodically to make sure you are on task.
Just remember that like the SAT or ACT essays, the Common App essay must address the prompt. Don’t tell a story about a fun experience, for example, if it doesn’t relate to your background, identity, interest, or talent.
7. Don’t rule out changing your mind and going in a different direction.
Don’t try to force a particular response to fit prompt 1. It may be that another prompt is better for you. If you can’t come up with enough anecdotes or examples to support your thesis, that can be very telling.
A Final Word
Once you take these steps, your chances of being “stuck” should decrease dramatically. In fact, you’ll have the start of a working draft that you will continually fine-tune. Remember, you want to write an essay that only you can write! In turn, your admissions reader can get to know you — even without necessarily having the benefit of a face-to-face meeting.
An authentic personal statement, one that conveys how you think and act, will help you connect with colleges that understand and support your identity. Even if you are not gifted a storyteller, you can still conquer the Common App personal essay!
Find further advice about applying to college from Nina Berler and Noodle Experts, such as How to Succeed on Holistic Essays.
If you're interested in exploring your options, check out the free Noodle college search tool to find a school that's right for you.