Paul McCartney on Writer's Block:
"Looking back on it, the writer’s block that I would have occasionally, would just be getting hung up on a phrase. You know, ‘sweet little long-haired lady’, ‘fine little long-haired baby’, and you’d just go on for hours on this one phrase. What I’d do now - and I was just saying this up in Liverpool to some of my ‘songwriter students’ - is that if you ever get a block, just steamroll through it and fix it later."
Writer’s block is real. It can be the brick wall that stands between success and failure. And it can be the force that prevents students from completing writing assignments. It’s important to communicate to students that ALL WRITERS suffer from writer’s block at some point—Stephen King, Sir Paul McCartney, and J.K. Rowling have all talked about it—and they are all great writers. So, what separates them from everyone else who fails to finish a piece of writing? Two things: discipline and strategies.
Professional writers have strategies for breaking down the writer’s block wall. Here are 8 strategies we can teach our students to help them work through a writer’s block and finish a piece of writing.
Free Write + Quick Write
The internal critic within all of us can lead to writer’s block. Students can get caught up in not being able to write the perfect sentence or articulate their ideas perfectly in the first draft, which can cause them to shut down and give up. That’s where free writing (automatic writing) and quick writes come in to help! The idea behind writing freely and quickly is to turn off the critical mind and allow the ideas to flow freely. I’ve used this strategy for many essays I’ve written. Free writing helps me explore ideas without any rules in order to “discover” my thesis. Putting pen to the page for three minutes can make all the difference to break through writer’s block. When a student gets “stuck,” I tell them to put the pen to the page and write for three minutes about the topic without stopping or rereading. If that’s not enough time, go for five minutes or even ten minutes. Then, have students go back and highlight the “golden nugget” ideas and use them to progress a piece of writing.
I’ve blogged about essay interviews HERE. Check out more about this idea in detail and also download a FREE Essay Interview Guide that students can use during writing workshop. In essence, an essay interview is a type of peer conference in which a student interviews another about his/her essay idea. The students can converse about the thesis, and a topic from that conversation may spark a new idea or new direction for a writer. “Talking it out” can be a great strategy for breaking through a tough spot.
Scientific studies have shown that exercise stimulates the brain. Specifically, walking (or running) stimulates both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously, which is why many people pace around offices or rooms when brainstorming new ideas. Stimulating the whole brain at once can lead to more creative thinking. The next time students face writer’s block, have them take a walk or jog for ten minutes. They can record their thoughts into their phone notepads as they move (or anything that doesn’t make them stop). I like to pace and dictate at the same time. It helps me generate ideas. It’s almost like my feet power my brain like a battery. Movement matters!
Doodle it Out
Sketch Notes or Doodle Notes are very popular in classrooms right now because of how they help students to comprehend, analyze, assess, and connect information. Drawing can also stimulate both hemispheres of the brain and help a writer generate new ideas. To implement this idea, tell students to “sketch it out” when they face writer’s block. This means to take the ideas they’ve been working with and begin to sketch them out, or map them out, using any structure they like. Doing this quickly can also help with turning off the critical mind and letting the creative mind make new connections. This strategy is particularly effective for visual learners who need to “see” an idea in order to “see” it through.
When writer’s block strikes (as it does all writers), I like to refer back to the words of famous writers for motivation and inspiration. When students can realize that they’re not just “bad writers” and that they’re not alone in having writer’s block, that can oftentimes make all the difference. I’ve heard students say, “I can’t think of what to write next. I’m bad at this. I can’t do this.” Students make the correlation that because writing is difficult that they are bad at it—and that is not the case. So, my first step in helping students combat writer’s block is to talk about how famous writers also face writer’s block and to show them the wise words of other writers. Here are a few quotes to show your students to encourage them to break through writer’s block:
Artists of all genres look for inspiration from the world for new ideas. An artist might go to a museum, read a new book, see a play, surf the web, scroll through Facebook, try a new restaurant, or travel to a new country for ideas to inspire a new work of art. Writers are the same. If a student is facing writer’s block, I encourage the student to get inspired from art.
When it comes to analytical essay writing, I encourage students to look at other essays for ideas and inspiration. My students create class anthologies at the end of each school year, so I have a collection of anthologies they can look through for inspiration. I also keep various books of essays in the room for them to access as needed.
When it comes to creative writing, I may encourage students to visit a bookstore, watch a new movie, read an interview, view a sculpture garden, etc. for ideas to take their writing in a new direction. I also like to show them works of art that are topically or thematically related to a piece of literature we are studying and have them explore connections as a way to help them spark ideas for analysis.
For example, I may show them the famous painting The Scream by Edvard Munch while we are reading Macbeth and ask them to make a connection that could eventually lead them to a thesis statement for a literary analysis essay. Bring the world to the classroom and encourage students to go out into the world to break through writer’s block.
Name the “Beast”
This strategy comes from a creative writing professor I had in graduate school who is a published science fiction writer. We spent an entire class talking about writer’s block. In his words, “Writer’s block is the one thing that stands between mediocrity and greatness.”
Starving the “beast” basically means to cut off contact with any distractions until you’ve broken through the wall. My professor had us visualize writer’s block as a “beast,” and he had us give our beasts a name. His was a bear named “Pete.” He told us to talk to our “beasts” whenever we got stuck to negotiate a deal. I know this sounds crazy, but it can really work! The most important part of this strategy is to starve “Pete,” or the “beast” until he gives you an idea. Starving the beast means not to give in to ANY distractions when writer’s block strikes. Don’t check social media; don’t check email; don’t eat; don’t move from that computer until the breakthrough occurs. It’s the distraction from focus that can continue to delay and delay and delay a writer from finishing an idea. Students can have fun with this strategy, and you can have them visualize their writing block “beasts” the next time they face writer’s block. And when they get stuck, they can tell Pete, “Look. I will let you have 20 minutes of Instagram time if you get me to the next page.” It just might work!
Paul McCartney has talked about how he sets deadlines for himself to write songs. He will see on his schedule that he has two hours of free time, and he will give himself the goal of writing a song in that amount of time. Stephen King does the same. He’s talked about setting writing goals every single day in terms of pages and word counts in order to produce content. Setting goals and deadlines is a strategy that can work for many writers—as long as the writer sticks to them. Writers can even give themselves rewards and punishments for meeting (or not meeting) their own goals.
For example, I reserve TV time as a reward for completing a task. I tell myself that I am not allowed to watch a show until I finish a blog post (like right now—this is a meta moment). If I don’t finish this post, then I don’t get to watch TV. Some students may be disciplined enough to do this, but others may need our help. As teachers, we can be really good at setting deadlines, but it’s important to give rewards for students who meet specific skills goals. Check out my post on Motivating Secondary Students here for lots of ideas on how to do this!
All of these strategies together create the acronym: FEED MIND. So, the next time you or your students are dealing with writer’s block, simply remember these strategies to break through to the other side!
What strategies do you use with your students to help them with writer’s block? I’d love to hear from you!
About the Author
Meredith is the founder and creator of TeachWriting.org and Bespoke ELA. She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University. She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas. Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.