Decongesting Your Clogged Mind: Tips for Dealing with Writer’s Block

“How’s your paper coming along? How many pages do you have by now?” A fellow classmate inquires in a friendly, conversational tone.

“Umm…I have one page…” I reply.

(Insert eye-rolling from the other party here.)

“But it’s due tomorrow! I never understood how people can wait until the last minute to work on their papers.”

“No! It’s not like that! I actually started a week ago, but ummm… ermmm… I know what I’m going to say; I just haven’t actually written it down yet.”

Yeah…likely story, the classmate implies with her supposedly knowing smile.

I originally wrote a page or two on what I thought I was going to say, but decided later that it was a predominantly a piece of disheveled crap. Well, maybe there’s one solid idea hidden inside the incomprehensible text like a tricky Easter egg, but I still end up deciding to erase most of it and essentially start over. I KNOW the ideas are lurking around in some secret mental corridor. I just can’t happen to find them in that moment.

Writer's Block blog post

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I mean, I can’t just open a blank word document and magically churn out a polished paper. Stare at the screen. Throw a pen across the room. Ergh, so aggravating! So how do you deal with a congested mind? Perhaps you’ve struggled with the daunting enigma that writer’s block is yourself. In fact, Writer’s block often shares a intrinsic relationship with the overall writing process. What follows are a few tips to combat writer’s block by relating it to some of the various stages constituting the writing process.

1. Experiment with Outlines and Handwriting

Already stuck before you’ve even started? Experiment with outlines, maps, and writing by hand. Scour the web for new and unusual frameworks in which you can brainstorm and sort your ideas. Organizing that amorphous mass of ideas into a new, appealing structure may prove beneficial.

2. Write or Die!

Write or Die is a free, twisted little internet application that draws from principles of operant conditioning you probably learned in your intro to psyche class. In other words, punishment is warranted if you stop writing. I personally prefer kamikaze mode, which erases your writing word by word if you stop for even just a few seconds. Write or Die is actually intended for creative writing but I’ve found it to be an incredibly useful tool for freewriting preliminary drafts.

The objective of Write or Die and freewriting in general is to capture your stream of thoughts on paper before they escape from you and disappear forever. Rawness is key, while refinement will eventually follow.You may find it liberating to spit out a torrent of words without consciousness of editing or grammar. However, there is usually at least one solid idea you can extract from that jumble of nonsensical words typed under the inevitable pressure and doom that Write or Die imposes on you. In fact, I am typing this on Write or Die at this very moment.

3. Write on Your Own

Keep your train of thought flowing as a writer to help loosen your condensed blob of ideas. Keep a journal, a blog, or try your hand at creative writing. You may find that scribbling a page in your journal or adding a new blog post can help diminish your paper anxiety and loosen up your chunk of thoughts, however random or irrelevant it might be. It is all about learning by doing.

4. Devise Your Own Idiosyncratic Habits

Develop fun and/or idiosyncratic techniques to help keep your waterfall of inspiration flowing. I prefer wearing a hat when I write because hats are awesome. I guess you could call it a literal “thinking cap” if you want to be corny about it. Dig out your lucky pair of writing socks and make it a a technique of self-motivation. You can ascribe meaning to any article of clothing by remembering all of those difficult moments of writer’s block you’ve already surmounted in the past when you wore that special hat or lucky sock. You have overcome writer’s block before, and you are certainly capable of triumphing again!

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5. Take Breaks or Sleep it off

Sometimes writer’s block is a sign that you need to refresh your mind. Take a break. Indulge in some quality “me-time.” Utilize those off-moments as a source of inspiration. The shower, for instance, is brimming with intellectual revelations. Take a walk. Ponder deep writing thoughts in glar. Or if you are simply too exhausted to engage in any of the above…

Never underestimate the value of a high quality nap. Naps can actually help diffuse all that clutter that’s clogging your flow of thoughts. I confess that that is based on personal experience and not a research study, but naps are still worth considering if you are desperate!

6. Create the Right Atmosphere

There are many excellent blog posts on creating the “write” atmosphere available for you to check out, so I won’t divulge into verbose detail. Acquire self-knowledge by assessing the relative values of different spots on campus and determining the environment(s) in which you can concentrate. Experiment with additional elements of atmosphere, such as classical music. Figure out the time of day or night you work best.

7. Employ Writing Center Techniques!

You can emulate several of the techniques you find here at the writing center, such as reading out loud. Try discussing your topic with friends and classmates. Simply discussing (or ranting, whichever you prefer) your struggles and frustrations with friends can also serve as a mental decongestant.

8.) Make a Writing Center Appointment!

The Writing Center is here for you during any stage of the writing process. We can assist you in your struggle with writer’s block and help you transform your stagnant stream of thoughts into a waterfall flowing with inspiration.

Sarah F, peer tutor

Study Music

Do you ever wonder what other people are listening to through their headphones while they are workin’ away in the library? Everyone writes to the beat of their own iTunes. Here are a few jams that we like to listen to.

Amber is currently obsessing over Youth Lagoon, but her long-term studying favorites have been Modest Mouse and Wilco.

Ben is a fan of instrumental music so he doesn’t get distracted. 8tracks has some great playlists for anyone who wants anything from classical music to instrumental renditions of top hits. Here is a playlist of covers by the Vitamin String Quartet.

Charles likes a website called Songza, which lets you pick from “playlists by music experts” depending on what mood you are in. You start with a broad category, like “waking up” or “reading” and the music experts will lead you to more categories to choose from to make sure you are getting the best type of music for whatever activity you are doing. Charles likes to listen to electronic music because it gets his brain going while he is doing work. This is a great Songza playlist to get motivated without distracting lyrics! And if you need a study break, there are options for “Weekday Dance Party.” 90s Dance Hits anyone?

Barnabas is a big fan of Christmas music–any time of the year. The familiar tunes help him get enthusiastic and motivated about those not-so-cheery assignments during the year. A great Christmas album to check out anytime of the year is Barnaked for the Holidays by the Barenaked Ladies. Here is a Songza playlist called Pop Christmas, with popular artists singing holiday favorites. Or if you are looking for something a little offbeat, here is a playlist with indie Christmas tunes.

Forest says that she can’t do her homework with any music or background noise- if you are like her, check out the silent floors of the library!

Andrea likes to listen to soundtrack music, specifically Hans Zimmer. You can listen to his Pandora radio station here. They are dramatic and motivating. A few of his most famous movie scores are The Lion King, Gladiator, and The Dark Knight.

Josh Ambrose, our director, is a Sigur Ros fan. He also really likes the ambient guitar band Hammock and Tim Hecker’s album Dropped Pianos.

When I am doing my homework, the type of music I listen to depends on the assignment that I have. If I am writing a paper, I want to listen to something upbeat that will get me motivated, like Yeasayer or Miike Snow. If I am reading for a class, I like to listen to something toned down with lyrics that are too complicated to sing along to so I don’t get distracted, like The Shins or Fleet Foxes. This is a really great playlist called 99 Songs to Make your Homework Awesome.

What do you like to listen to? Comment below and let us know! And don’t forget, to learn more about our tutors, click here!

Lauren, peer tutor