How do we help students through writer’s block?

Photo by Rennett Stowe.  Used under cc license

Photo by Rennett Stowe. Used under cc license

The second hardest semester of my college career was the spring semester of my junior year.  That was the semester where I took both creative writing: advanced fiction and writing for the stage and within a few weeks I was hit with a furious case of writer’s block.  Everything I came up with was utter crap and I struggled to put something together that I deemed worthy of being workshopped by peers and graded by my professor.  I eventually got a B+ in each of the classes, probably because I persevered, but I can’t say that I ever felt I earned it.

Looking back, I see that was the moment that i should have realized that my strength in writing was non-fiction prose, as I rarely if ever had a problem writing my weekly column in the student newspaper and even once resorted to the tried and true hack way of writing about writer’s block.  I have brought this up in my English classes on occasion when students are stuck because I want them to know I empathize–I have been there more than once.

Writer’s block can kill a developing writer’s motivation so easily that you as a teacher want to do everything you want to prevent those you teach from becoming even mildly frustrated.  You want to keep them constantly inspired to constantly reflect and share, and when you do that it is the only time you ever do your job the right way.  At least that’s what I’ve been led to believe.

Never mind, of course, that writing is about work and even the greatest writers hit walls, scrapped ideas, got frustrated, attempted to throw in the towel, and in some cases needed an even more capable editor to pull them out of whatever rut they’d dug themselves into.  Because as much as the inspiration maniacs will deny it, the reality of writing (and by extension, being a writer) can be harsh.

But as much as I think that persevering through a can be rewarding to a young writer, I don’t want to hang them out to dry because I want to help them see the reward that comes from such perseverance.  How do I as a teacher help combat writer’s block?

I’ve got five ideas.  They aren’t tested or proven using any sort of measurable data, nor are they comprehensive.  They are simply ideas.

1. Vary the assignment as much as you can. In teaching writing, you are working within a curriculum with a set of standards, so there are certain modes of writing you want your students to work on, especially if you also have the obligation of a state writing test in the spring.  But there is a difference between following standards and teaching to the test.  With the latter, you are feeding them state-provided writing prompts as practice all year.  With the former, you can have students generate their own topics to fit whatever you’re looking to cover.  They might enjoy it more.

2. Have a pile of backup prompts.  That being said, don’t throw out that state-provided list of prompts.  I have given students free reign on writing assignments before and while some absolutely love it, others completely freeze and actually wish they would be forced to write about something.  Before we start such writing assignments, my classes and I often do a whole class brainstorming session and I add what they come up with to a list I already have so if a student is stuck, i can offer suggestions.

3. Allow for conversation.  Sometimes, ideas come from having someone to talk to and “bounce ideas off of.”  Other times, what is in your head can’t seem to get to the page but you definitely can say what you mean.  It’s helpful to give young writers the time to talk out their ideas; heck, it’s helpful to give any writer the time to talk out his or her ideas.  I’m still learning how to do this with 28 students in the room without making it a cacophony for those who want peace and quiet, but I have encouraged students to talk to one another or to me and to take notes while doing so in order to jog things along, or to talk into their cell phones and record their thoughts (something I have done countless times with my MP3 recorder) out in the hall.

4. Limit distraction.  Yes, I work with music playing too, but I also write a number of drafts in longhand in a notebook because I find typing on a computer doubles my writing time due to the number of tabs I keep open.  Saying that my students should cut themselves off somewhat electronically does not make me an Innovative Educator, but one of the drawbacks of multitasking is that it makes it hard to get into the zone.  If you want to be productive there is a certain amount of self-discipline required.

5. Be the editor.  For the past couple of years, I have had seniors hand me draft copies of their personal statements for their college applications, asking me to “tear them apart.”  It’s because I murder their papers in sophomore English.  I don’t do this because I am sadistic; I do it because I have high standards.  What I also do is allow time for revision and rewriting.  Every paper that my students write is eligible for a rewrite for a higher grade, and when I give those paper back I try to be as clear with my comments as possible.  I also try and set deadlines that are reasonable so that we can both work well within them.  This does sound like a very traditional teacher role, but I see the back and forth with my students as more editorial than professional.  I can see wh

at they can’t and help them shape their pieces so they use their own strengths more often.

This is not a foolproof system, but I prefer it to being a taskmaster who constantly cracks the whip of assignments or a pollyanna who speaks nothing of rainbows, unicorns, gumdrops, and lollipops of inspiration.

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