"I Don't Know What to Write!"

Students say it all the time: “I don’t know what to write!”  “I just can’t get enough pages.”  “I have problems when it comes to writing anything.”  Funny, these same individuals have no problems carrying on an intelligent discussion, writing e-mails and letters, and texting.  Yet, there is something about a six-page paper or fifteen-page research paper that causes them to freeze.  Some graduate students have the same experience with a twenty-five-page paper, thesis, or doctoral dissertation.

I have to confess that I never had much of a problem writing, and for those who know how loquacious I can be, that comes as no surprise.  Still, I have experienced mild forms of what some refer to as writer’s block.  More often than not, my problem is finding adequate time to devote to a project.  Once I free my schedule for research and writing, I have little difficulty beginning or resuming my writing tasks.  Based on my own experience, there are a few hints I can convey to help those who find composition daunting.  Following a simple strategy for writing helps overcome a fear of the blank page and writer’s block.

For undergraduates, a common reason for not being able to write is reading insufficiently or ineffectively.  Reading and understanding both primary and secondary sources, either in their entirety or in segments, provides students with new perspectives to formulate theses or answer assigned questions.  It follows that the more a student reads, the greater the number of complex ideas and opinions the student develops.  Another problem is that students read without taking notes or that they neglect to include page numbers in their notes.  It is impossible to remember the details in a text of five or ten pages, let alone several books and documents.  Taking notes also improves one’s ability to understand a text because the note taker must summarize the writer’s thesis and the writer’s use of evidence.  While reading, have a second set of notes for new viewpoints, what I refer to as a concept file.  It should contain unique thoughts the reader has about the topic along with notions based on the writings of others.  Frequently, a casual remark by an author will generate a brilliant idea.  Along with each entry to that file should be references to the reading that inspired the original thinking.  See my blog titled "Taking Notes" for more ideas.

With notes in hand and enough ideas in the concept file, a writer can develop a thesis statement, even if it must undergo changes, and begin organizing the material.  Rearrange the notes in the concept file and expand on them in order to develop an outline of the argument.  This need not be complex or formal.  Some projects require only a list with a few items; other times a chart or table is appropriate.  Big undertakings may require several separate outlines or one detailed outline.  In any case, always be prepared to adjust and expand the outline.

If a writer can not manage to begin to write, it is important to write something.  Although one might be unable to begin with the first item on an outline, start anywhere on the list.  Once something appears on the page, writing becomes ever easier as single sentences multiply into paragraphs.

Whenever one finishes writing for several hours or the day, one should write a few lines at the end of the document as a reminder of the thoughts one had for the next few sentences or paragraphs in order to resume writing.  Include the main idea or perhaps a few choice words or phrases so that returning to work will result in immediate productivity.  Leaving a note to oneself liberates one’s mind from being preoccupied with remembering the next sentence or thought.  That freedom allows one to develop new ideas.

Sometimes a writer returns to a text unable to recapture the creative mood that he or she had experienced earlier.  Do not despair.  Begin with editing the last paragraph or section of text.  Afterward, one will be ready to resume writing with the same creativity and energy that characterized the last writing session.  Another boost to creativity may come from altering one's environment.  A change in physical surroundings from a home office to a park bench may work wonders for creativity.  Another possibility is to print out a portion of the text and continue writing in the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper.  There still are those who find solace in the sound and feel of a pen gliding across paper.

There are a few ways to encourage the thought process.  When finishing a segment and planning on a break, engage in some physical activity, which is known to improve one’s mental ability.  While exercising, even if it is a walk in the neighborhood or in the mall, one may arrive at some wonderful thoughts, so always have paper and pen available.  Another way to develop new perspectives or improve wording is to talk about the project with fellow students or anyone who will listen.  Explaining one’s work is a wonderful way to help develop a thesis statement or sharpen an argument.  Do not neglect to write down immediately any new thoughts.  The last place to prepare the pen and pad is at the bedside.  So often marvelous thoughts arrive in the middle of the night as the mind is sorting through the events of the day.  These ideas will be gone by morning, unless they are on paper.

When writing the body of the paper, jot down notes for the introduction and conclusion.  The introduction should contain the thesis statement and only the background information absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the discussion that is to follow.  For a short paper, the introduction should be a paragraph, while longer papers may need a page or two.  The conclusion should summarize the thought process contained within the paper.  One method for getting ideas for a conclusion is to read the body of the paper and to write down phrases that summarize each paragraph or section.  Afterward, knit together the phrases to show the reader how the paper succeeded in proving the thesis.  A conclusion is not a place to repeat sentences or large phrases from the body of the paper.

The final stage is to edit, a process which seasoned writers undertake many times with one piece.  After a while, it becomes difficult to catch errors, so try to complete the draft with enough time to set it aside for a day or two.  Printing the text or temporarily changing the font or point size before editing are more ways to deceive the brain into thinking that it is seeing new material.  Another helpful trick is to take frequent breaks while editing.  If major changes are in order, make them in a new file to allow a full range of experimentation without the fear of ruining the original text.  Even an anticipated permanent change may prove to be otherwise, so place the original segment of text in a discard file associated with the project, instead of simply deleting it.  That way, it always will be available to restore it to its original location or to use it in another place.  Sometimes information in a discard file might be appropriate for another project.  Once the text is complete, proofread it again with the aid of a spell checker and a grammar checker.

There is one more item to consider: planning. Develop a schedule for the project.  A term paper requires a term, and a paper assigned two weeks in advance most likely requires every bit of two weeks to complete.  Determine how many days it will take to finish reading the material, organize notes, outline, write, and edit.  Allow plenty of time for ordering materials through interlibrary loan, which may require two or three weeks.  The more experience one has with planning and writing, the more efficient the process will be.  Writing is like any other activity in that practice builds experience, which in turn helps insure excellence.  Being methodical is part of the secret to success in writing, as it is with anything.  After all, the saying “practice makes perfect” is a fallacy.  It should read: “perfect practice makes perfect.”

The scariest part about writing is thinking about it, not actually doing it.  Develop a schedule and maintain it.  With wide reading of all types of sources, good notes, a concept file, and at least a basic organizational outline, it will be relatively easy to develop a thesis as well as sentences and paragraphs for the body of the project.  Before taking a prolonged break, leave instructions for how to resume writing.  Always be prepared to jot down notes since ideas emerge any time of the day or night.  Plan the introduction and conclusion during the writing process.  Finally, edit the paper several times and maintain a discard file.

Rev. 9.VI.2011