How to Get Students Past Writer's Block
That force that causes students to sit in front of a blank screen, frustrated by the lack of flow, unable to continue on with a project—call it anxiety or call it perfectionism, but it is often given the name of “writer’s block.”
Writer’s block might be seen as a necessary part of writing, but there really isn't any reason for it at all. If you follow the right steps when you are implementing a writing assignment with your students, they might need to pause and think on occasion, but the whole process will go much more smoothly for everyone.
Here are my 8 tips for getting students past writer’s block:
1. Get things going with research or discussion.
Telling students to go figure out an interesting topic is bound to end in failure. But doing a close reading of a poem, analyzing articles on a controversial topic such as cellphones, or spending some time researching primary sources are all ways to get students thinking.
2. Inspire with mentor texts.
This one is tricky—as students can sometimes feel discouraged by reading published writers. But when they start off a unit with mentor texts, the act of reading a variety of samples of the kind of writing that will be expected of them will open students up to the possibilities that writing offers. Rather than seeing only one path to a finished product, they will realize all the potential journeys that their writing can take. Another trick to inspiring students is to have them simply copy out a favorite line from a mentor text or to try imitating that sentence. There’s something about internalizing great writing that really helps with flow.
3. Brainstorm as a class.
Not all students will respond to a big rowdy discussion, but some need to externalize their thoughts before they even know what they think. Getting a big brainstorm going as a class gives students lots and lots of topics to choose from.
4. Give students a chance to process.
Some students might benefit from technology that allows them to dictate their ideas to a computer. Others might get a lot out of a teacher conference where you take notes on their ideas or examples. Many students struggle with the mechanical process of writing or typing, and many just need to talk to figure out what’s on their minds. For all of these students, thinking out loud might help the ideas get going.
5. Do freewrites and always do at least one extra.
I always start just about any writing assignment by tasking students with spending five minutes writing informally on a prompt or question. By calling it a freewrite, rather than the first paragraph of an essay, I help reduce a lot of the anxiety that students often feel. Additionally, there is something about doing two that seems to work really well. When students know that they are not stuck with a topic, that they can toss one freewrite away if they want, or that they can choose a third topic if that works best, they feel less pressured. Often, they have to write in the first place just to figure out what they even want to write about.
6. Remind students that first drafts can, will, and should be bad.
In her famous book on writing, Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott writes about the importance of pushing past the inner critic to just get something on paper: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a… first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.” Students often believe that professional writers—or adults in general—sit down to their computers, start at the beginning of their essays, and write a perfect final draft from start to finish. What they don't realize is that most often, those writers create something to start off that doesn't even remotely resemble their final drafts. Showing them famous writers’ revisions is another great way to remind them that no one is perfect.
7. Teach students about the writing process.
Students also need to be reminded that finishing a terrible first draft is just one of the many steps of writing. Then comes revision, editing, peer conferences, teacher conferences, more revision, more editing, and more revision after that. But all of those steps become much less scary when there is something to work with.
8. Write today, write tomorrow, and write the day after that.
When students see writing as something special that they do on rare occasions, they will be anxious about creating the perfect product from the start. But when they know that writing is sometimes messy, often difficult, and yet something that they will do all the time, they let go of that perfectionism and just get the job done.
Probably the biggest key to avoiding writer’s block is to remember that writing is really about thinking. When students don't have anything to write about it is because they aren't passionate about any of their thoughts. Get them thinking, get them to have an opinion on those thoughts, and give them a way to record what’s in their heads, and they will have plenty to write.
Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.