Thriving School Psych Thriving Students

Writer's Block

I usually compose my daily blog entry in my head on the way home from work. I reflect upon my experiences of the day and decide what topic sticks out as a “good” one for the blogging community. My criterion is that the topic should (hopefully) be research-based, at least quasi-interesting, and has a nice anecdote that illustrates the theory in action. In grad school at UC Berkeley, they liked to call it a “scientist-practitioner” model. What I like about this model is it brings research into action and the ivory tower concepts to real-life practical solutions. One would be surprised how little research is used in the decision making for our nation’s schools, but that is another post.

So this afternoon I was sitting in the usual traffic reflecting on the day. And I came up with a few decent topics, but none that met my criterion. And then I decided to use the non-idea as an idea and write about writer’s block.

Writer’s block is a common phenomenon that arises when one gets stuck in a part of the writing process, whether it be coming up with a topic, deciding the structure of the writing, organization, what to write about next, and the sometimes painful re-writing/revising process (Anyone who has done a dissertation is reading this having painful flashbacks). Sidebar: I bought this book while I was writing my dissertation when I had writer’s block called “How to Write Your Dissertation in 15 minutes a Day!” I was desperate. I wanted to throw the first 116 pages of my dissertation and the reams of statistical output out the window going 75 miles an hour down Highway 101 headed to Mexico, yelling “Adios, Berkeley! I quit!” Thankfully, I did not. I sought help.

So what do you do when you have writer’s block (besides fantasize about life without the writing project)?

The answer depends on where you are stuck. For some students, picking a topic is the first roadblock. Actually, picking a topic is easy. Picking a “good” topic is what people with writer’s block worry about. In keeping with the theme of the post, let’s start with the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start, after all. Most of these suggestions are for older students in middle and high school, but some can be adapted to elementary level with some creativity.

1) Brainstorming/Free Association

This is a commonly cited strategy. Basically, you write down whatever occurs to you and not judge it. You may even carry a little book around with you and jot down random thoughts that relate to your writing assignment. I have had mixed success with brainstorming depending on the student. For a student who is anxious about coming up with a “good” idea, this can be a difficult strategy because they are constantly judging themselves and don’t want to write down “silly ideas.” My advice is to ask the student treat it as an “experiment” and try to make it fun.

Some ways I’ve done brainstorming in a fun way is by drawing. Have the student draw a key word related to the topic in the middle of a poster board or large piece of paper. Circle it. Then write down and draw a line to anything that you think of related to the word. You can also draw a picture representing the word. So if your topic is “Writer’s Block” you might draw a line to a new word “Adaptation” which is a movie about writer’s block. Maybe you draw a mini-Nicholas Cage by it. You never know what random thought may trigger a good topic.

Brainstorming is best done with a buddy. I know in writing my dissertation, the input of my peers was invaluable when I got stuck. Students benefit from this as well. You can have one student pretend to be a journalist and ask the other student the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of his/her topic. Who? Me and Nicolas Cage. What? We both have writer’s block. And so on. If you don’t have a study-buddy handy, try you’re good friend, Mr. Google. Type in “writer’s block” and see what you get. Of course, don’t plagiarize! Use the Internet to generate ideas for your own topic.

2) Graphic Organizers

There are numerous examples of graphic organizers to help with various writing genres. I call them “Plug and Chug”—you plug in your ideas in a template for that genre (e.g. expository writing, personal narratives, compare/contrast essay) and chug out your organizational plan. Let’s use the genre of story telling as an example. A story plan is a diagram of the important parts of a story. For young students, this can be as simple as folding a piece of paper into thirds and drawing a beginning, middle, and end as a prompt for writing their story. For older students, have the students fill in information in boxes such as:

Who am I writing for?
Have I looked at a good example of this type of writing?
What is the purpose of the story?
Who are the main characters?
Who are the minor characters?
What are the big events?
How should I organize the events (chronological, flash-back, by theme)?

Another graphic organizer that is common is the outline. Pretty standard. This works well for linear thinkers. For students who have executive functioning difficulties and/or writing disabilities, the outline will need to be explicitly taught as it pertains to the writing genre.

3) Dictation

Some students with visual-motor processing deficits think of writing as torture. It is actually physically difficult to write. Try writing with your non-dominant hand for one day. That’s what it’s like. This can understandably thwart the writing process. Sometimes these students appear “unmotivated.” But remember for many of these students, it is far better to look unmotivated or unwilling than appear dumb.

Teaching typing skills is a good start for these students. But there will not always be a laptop handy when you have to write, unfortunately. As a classroom modification, have the student dictate their initial writing ideas to a peer or a classroom aide, if available. This modification will have to depend on the comfort-level of the student with “announcing” his/her difficulties. Use your judgment based on the student. Even better, propose the idea to the student and see what s/he thinks. Frame it like this: “I know you have a lot of great writing ideas, and I want to make sure we get them all down on paper. Sometimes students like to have someone write down their ideas first. Would you like to try that?” I’m all for empowering the student to choose his/her own accommodations that help the writing process. Then they can have a repertoire of ideas with which to advocate for their learning needs down the road.

Okay, let’s assume now you’ve got something written down and it needs revision. Now what?

1)Change the Modality
Sometimes you can get bogged down and hit a block when you think only in words. My “15 minutes a Day!” book said to draw out your concept instead of writing it. I was resistant at first to make a cartoon of my life’s work, but I gave it a shot.

My topic was a cross-cultural analysis of parenting and adolescent motivation for school. I had come to the daunting “Conclusion” section of the dissertation and was stuck on how to conclude 2 years worth of data. So I drew out my research model with little stick Mexican-American and White adolescent figures entering little school houses from their respective little parents’ houses nearby and the teacher was giving the itty bitty report cards and so forth. Then I drew other concepts such as “perceived caring” with little hearts and “family composition” with one parent, two-parents, or mixed parent constellations (e.g. grandma and uncle). I was surprised at how much clearer my conclusion was in cartoon form and it gave me a new way to explain the complex interconnection among my research variables.

2) Challenge the Worry Thoughts

I have heard many students shoot down their own writing as “not good enough.” They may even hesitate to get started at all because they have already decided they aren’t good writers. I’ve even had students write entire essays and never turn them in because they don’t like them. Remember that for some students, writing is exposing one’s self to being critiqued, and that’s anxiety-provoking. Normalize the anxiety. But remember that even best-selling authors get bad reviews and they live through it.

Sometimes I explain it by playing darts. I tell the student that the bulls-eye represents the perfect writing piece. It’s basically the Pulitzer Prize Bulls-eye. The first outer circle is a “Pretty Good” piece of writing. This piece of writing will get you through the writing assignment and it’s acceptable quality for the teacher. The outer circle is an “OK” piece of writing that gets you by with a passing grade. It’s not the best thing you’ve ever written, but you did it anyway and you pass. Then we play the game. It becomes clear that it is very difficult to get the Pulitzer Prize Bulls-eye but you can still accumulate quite a few points with “Pretty Good” and “OK” pieces of writing. Have a discussion about how expecting yourself to hit the bulls-eye every time doesn’t allow much room for “success.”

Wow. For someone with writer’s block, I sure had a lot to say today. There’s another strategy for you: just write and see what comes out. It’s the Nike strategy, I guess. Just do it. Even if it’s just 15 minutes a day.

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