A while back, two of the major highways in the Albany (NY) Capital District — the Northway (Interstate 87) and the Thruway (Interstate 90) — both endured heavy rains, flooding, and landslides that temporarily blocked those roads to traffic. As a driver, such a roadblock can be annoying, frustrating, and time-consuming. As a writer, you may also experience a similar roadblock, a writer’s block that prevents you from finishing your writing project. Thus, you must find a way to remove that roadblock and get back on the highway to productivity.
The first thing you should do is make sure you are physically ready to write with a pen or pencil and paper or a computer. Once you are settled in and somewhat ready to go, you may want to try one or more of the following techniques.
Just start writing. This may sound counterintuitive, especially if you feel you have no ideas whatsoever. However, in the movie Finding Forrester, the main character, a writer played by Sean Connery, tells his young protégé, “The first key to writing is to write, not think.” In some ways, thinking inhibits your writing because you edit yourself too soon. You may get so hung up on having the perfect first line or introductory paragraph that you can’t progress any further. In this situation, you should force yourself to write continuously for three to five minutes without ever stopping to edit. In other words, your pen or pencil or computer keys should be moving constantly, and you shouldn’t take time to think or go backwards. If at any time during the process, you can’t think of anything to write, you should write, “I can’t think of anything to write.”
Eventually, of course, you will think of something to write. In fact, you might even consider typing at a computer with the monitor turned off, so you can’t see what you have written. The whole idea here is to go straight from brain to page or screen without worrying about spelling, grammar, punctuation, or any other distracting element. Quite honestly, most of what you write at this stage may not be useful, but if one good idea or thought surfaces, you will benefit. As William Forrester says later in the same scene mentioned previously, “Sometimes, the simple rhythm of typing gets us from page one to page two.” Even later, Forrester adds, “Punch the keys, for God’s sake.”
Gather ideas. If actually stringing words together in sentences seems too difficult or complicated, you can simplify the process with brainstorming. Brainstorming is a simple listing of all ideas that come to mind regarding a certain subject. The listing may include words, phrases, whole sentences, or questions. The order does not have to be logical, nor do the items on the list have to be connected to one another. If you are writing about baseball, for instance, you may jot down the names of famous ballplayers or may include details about a baseball and a broken window that led to a fight. The first idea might lead to an example essay about Hall of Fame inductees while the second might inspire a narrative about a memorable experience.
Organize your ideas. A technique called mapping is similar to brainstorming except that mapping is much more visual and may help you to see connections among ideas. Start by writing the main topic in the center of a blank sheet of paper. Then, add ideas as they occur and place them according to similarities or differences. For instance, ideas about the history of baseball might go in one corner of the page while details about the game’s rules might go in another. In addition, you may use lines to connect similar ideas or surround the ideas with circles, squares, or triangles to indicate certain similarities.
Ask yourself some questions. One way to dig up more information is to ask yourself the same six questions that journalists ask when they work on a newspaper or magazine story: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? If for instance, you are writing about a turning point in your life, you can ask the following questions and write down the answers. Who was involved? What happened? Where did it happen? When did it happen? Why is it important? How did it change you? The answers should provide plenty of information to start with, and those six basic questions should lead to additional questions and more extensive answers.
Talk to someone. You may sometimes struggle to write because you lack confidence in your ideas. You may, in fact, be afraid to commit your ideas to paper, but if the ideas come out verbally first, you may be able to move forward. Thus, your classmate, your friend, or your family member may serve as a “sounding board” for you. If an idea sounds reasonable and workable for the assignment, you should proceed. If, however, the initial idea sounds weak or incomplete, you must keep talking and try to come up with more specific details.
Google your subject. One of the best ways to get ideas about a subject is to read about that subject. Thus, you might just type your topic into a search engine on the Internet such as Google or Yahoo. After perusing or reading the web pages that come up, you may be inspired to develop one of these ideas further, or the web pages may suggest another direction altogether. Just be sure to credit any source used in the final paper (just as this article mentions the film Finding Forrester in the third and fourth paragraphs). Otherwise, you may be accused of intellectual theft or plagiarism.
Generally speaking, the actual act of writing does not require a lot of physical strength; the task is more mental and emotional. However, if you can remove a roadblock from your path, your achievement is just as significant as removing an immense boulder from the Northway or the Thruway.