C’mon be productive, you got this.
Productive, that’s a good word.
I just need more good words, you know? Just one perfect sentence and I’ll be back on track. Then I can watch an episode of Friends to reward myself.
Well that was easy, maybe I just needed some motivation.
*Rereads sentence after watching Friends*
Nope, that was garbage. Delete. Delete. Delete.
I’ll go make three pots of coffee, that’ll get my mind going.
Wow, now I’m having a lot of thoughts, but none of them are relevant to this paper.
Caffeine, why have you forsaken me?
Students, do these thoughts sound all too familiar? Chances are if you’ve dealt with any realm of academic writing, you’ve most likely encountered some form of writer’s block in the process. Mike Rose, author of Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer’s Block, defines writer’s block as, “that frustrating, self-defeating, inability to generate the next line, the right phrase, the sentence that will release the flow of words once again” (389). Before shifting attention to decoding the major cause and possible solutions for the blocking, we conducted a research experiment to see just how many fellow students have been plagued with writer’s block. We will use the findings in our own research and in that of others to determine whether or not the process-centered teaching (as opposed to product-centered teaching) of composition correlates with student writer’s block.
We surveyed fifty random students at the University of Arkansas and lead with the question: Have you ever, at any point in your academic career, struggled with some form of writer’s block? An astounding one hundred percent claimed they had experienced moderate to severe writer’s block at least once while writing a paper for school. After these results we decided to go a step further and do more in depth interviews with ten additionally selected classmates. These ten students represented a fair population at the University of Arkansas: Caucasian to third world origins, majors ranging from chemistry to elementary education, grade point averages from 2.8 to 4.0.
Of the ten students questioned more in depth, three said that they wrote with relative ease, experiencing only occasional, minor set backs. The other seven claimed far more difficulty formulating ideas and putting them together. These blocked thoughts usually resulted in rushed ideas, late papers, and grades that did not accurately reflect the student’s writing abilities. One student stated, “I try to edit as I go, and I get stuck when a sentence doesn’t sound exactly like I’d like it to. I’ve always struggled with grammatical errors in writing, so I dread the negative feedback that most likely awaits me when grades are posted. I am far more worried about pleasing my teacher than I am about expressing creative ideas.” Interestingly, what seemed to separate the seven students from the three who wrote with more mastery wasn’t skill, but rather, an emotional aspect of writing- fear of criticism, anxiety, insecurities, etc. Another observation made was that the three students who were less hampered by writer’s block adhered to writing rules but saw them as less rigid. For example, these students said they felt free to depart from the use of an outline if they changed their viewpoint on the topic or came up with better ideas as they wrote.
Without knowing it, the student quoted above described exactly what Lawrence J. Oliver Jr. argues is the primary cause of writer’s block in students: the step by step method that makes up the traditional academic writing process. The root of this problem goes so much deeper than a fatigued brain and it cannot simply be cured with a change of scenery. Oliver, in his article “Helping Students Overcome Writers Block” published in The Journal of Reading, suggests that the focus on organizing, outlining, and developing topic sentences, while not detrimental by themselves, cripples any ideas the student may have by forcing them to spend their time instead analyzing examples and studying grammar. Teaching writing as a linear, static, even an algorithmic activity is simply off-target, and it inevitably leads to a halt in the composing process due to the inability to express thoughts and ideas – or even to come up with them in the first place. Oliver explains:
Students taught according to conventional methods typically are instructed to follow a step-by-step procedure for composing (organize, outline, construct and develop topic sentences, etc.), and devote far more time to studying grammar and analyzing examples of good writing than to authoring their own pieces. They receive little or no advice on how to generate ideas or explore their thoughts, and they usually must proceed through the writing process without guidance or corrective feedback from the teacher, who withholds corrective feedback and criticism until grading the final product. (162)
Mike Rose performed a study at the University of California, Los Angeles where he observed and questioned students with and without writer’s block. He found that the deviation between the groups (blocked and non-blocked) came down to the use of two distinctly different sets of rules. Rose categorizes these sets of rules as algorithms and heuristics. Rose defines algorithms as precise rules and says that the danger of applying algorithmic rules to writing is that they are meant to “always result in a specific answer” (391). An elementary example of an algorithm is the math problem 1 + 1 = 2, where the precise method of addition is used to arrive at a single, specific answer. When applied to the academic writing, however, algorithms take a very different form. Most commonly, they look like overly explicit writing requirements demanding the inclusion of certain aspects such as page length, the use of an outline, and being limited to one specific topic of research. Despite this, algorithmic methods are not solely detrimental. They have obvious benefits when applied to things math and science related that have the need to be universalized. Even in writing they offer some advantages such as providing basic instruction for logically organizing a paper and making it easier for teachers to grade consistently. However, when teachers overuse or rely solely on algorithmic methods writing becomes a more painful process and writers block is likely to occur.
Heuristics on the other hand are more “rule of thumb” guidelines. They are far more applicable, according to Rose, seeing as we live in a world where tasks and problems are rarely definite (391). Heuristics in writing take the form of open-ended prompts with little specification, and allow ample room for individual interpretation. Unfortunately for students though, Rose found that rules in composition are most often taught as algorithmic. Much like our own research showed, the understanding that writing rules are less rigid is what leads to freer thoughts, which in turn produces higher quality writing with less frustration throughout the composing process.
Rose’s study causes us to question why teachers tend to pay so little attention to heuristic approaches and lean so heavily on algorithmic methods when teaching academic writing. The answer is a simple one: test scores. There is so much pressure on teachers (high school especially) to make sure every single student meets certain grade requirements so that they can pass the course and the school can continue to be funded. What better way to help the students who struggle more in school than to give exact directions on what has to be included in a paper?
Writer’s block can be a detrimental condition to students on deadlines, but surprisingly it is a subject that is very rarely addressed by teachers. With so many students affected by it, we thought some solutions might be in order. Obviously, there is not a single cure-all solution to writer’s block, but there are a few suggestions for writer’s block specifically created by the academic system, and they begin with teaching. So first we’ll address the teachers. Please let us help you, help us. And then we’ll give a few pointers to our fellow students who can’t seem to keep the thoughts flowing.
Teachers, it is crucial that you see rules as heuristic. We understand that grammar is important and it is helpful to know what you expect from us, but we also want to know how to be good authors to our own work. We understand that five paragraph essays are a good starting point for the format of a paper, but let us explore other formats as well. Less formal writing forms, such as letters and blogs, can alleviate some of the stress that comes along with academic writing style. When we aren’t as much worried about being the next Shakespeare, you’ll begin to see more of who we truly are as writers. We are creative; don’t be afraid to let us be.
A word of caution to teachers here: reviewing a student’s drafted paper should not be a search-and-destroy mission for faults. Most students feel vulnerable when handing their work over to their teacher for revising. It is therefore imperative that in addition to commenting on mistakes, teachers praise the strengths of the student’s writing. Even the worst papers have some strengths, they may just take some digging around for. Believe it or not, red pens are capable of producing positive, encouraging feedback. Encouragement is huge; it should not be overlooked or minimized. Students who manage to overcome blocking only to have their work torn apart by an insensitive teacher, will very likely struggle with blocking again, and will be wary to seek help from teachers when they need it the most.
Students: Peter Elbow, an English Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is well known for his ideas about writing through a process called freewriting. Elbow’s own struggle with writer’s block caused him to drop out of Harvard’s English Ph.D. program. Elbow now dedicates most of his work to helping writers write and teaching teachers how to help students write. The term freewriting describes a prewriting technique where a person writes continuously for a set amount of time disregarding grammar and spelling. The result of freewriting is raw material, much of which will be unusable, but it helps writers generate thoughts free from apathy and self-criticism. The great thing about freewriting is that it gives writings something to work with as opposed to drawing blanks for hours on end.
To wrap up, the way composition is currently taught in academic settings has definite pros and cons. On one hand, schooling has to be standardized to an extent so that content mastery in individual courses can be assessed for graduation. A set of strict guidelines can produce clarity for what is expected from students, but on the other hand, writing in itself is a creative activity, and there are ways for teachers to encourage and guide students to have a product-centered mindset as they move towards becoming strong authors of their own work. Ultimately, when this happens we will begin to see more confident student writers who won’t have to struggle as much with writer’s block and self-defeat.
Elbow, Peter, “10. The Need for Care: Easy Speaking onto the Page is Never Enough (2010). Emeritus Faculty Author Gallery. Paper 28.
Oliver, Lawrence J. “Helping Students Overcome Writer’s Block.” Journal of Reading 26.2 (1982): 162-68. Print.
Rose, Mike. “Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer’s Block.” College Composition and Communication 31.4 (1980): 389-401. JSTOR. Web. 6 Mar. 2015.