writer’s block

A few weeks ago, I met Joanne Buckley* (author and co-author of a number of books on writing, including Fit to Print), who works at McMaster’s Student Success Centre and Student Accessibility Centre. In no time at all I found myself learning a number of strategies from her about teaching writing. What I’d like to share with you today is her strategy for tackling writer’s block.

When I or my students have writer’s block, I usually recommend lessening the pressure by cutting the project down in size. So, for a conference paper, I’ve started it by imagining it as a series of two-page response papers, and focusing exclusively on one “response paper” at a time. Last week I started my dissertation by imagining that, in fact, I’m not writing a dissertation, but that I’m writing a 10-page conference paper that just happens to be related to my thesis. I don’t know if I can write a dissertation– I’ve never written one before. But I do know I can write a conference paper. So I’m now happily knocking out 1-2 pages a day towards that “conference paper.”

Joanne offered another excellent idea, one that I think would be especially effective for undergrads: Begin your paper by first writing it as a powerpoint presentation. I think this might work as a tutorial assignment: TAs could get students to prepare a powerpoint of their proposed essays, and then ask them to bring them to tutorial to workshop with their peers. In any case, writing an essay first as a powerpoint removes a number of scary-ass hurdles from students’ paths. Students may feel more comfortable using powerpoint; indeed, its interactive feel might get their fingers moving. It also removes the pressure that the complications and length of an essay can produce. Finally, it gets students to create an outline! We all know the blank stares that the phrases “start with an outline” or “give yourself time to revise” produces in the classroom. Asking a student to write a powerpoint of their proposed essay might just show them the benefits of outlining a paper before they begin. How cool is that?

*Joanne Buckley  holds a few positions at Mac: she supervises the writing tutors at the Student Success Centre, and is also a Learning Strategist with the Student Accessibility Centre. Yes, fellow-Mac teachers, this means that there are writing tutors available, by appt, to undergraduates. In fact, there are five of them.  Plus a few academic skills counsellors.  Students can make an appointment on OscarPlus. I should add, too, that Joanne is wonderfully approachable and kind, which makes her a great person to refer students to in her role as a Learning Strategist.