We’ve all been there. You have a paper due (tomorrow!), and as you sit there staring at your computer screen, the words just will not come. How do you break that stasis? How do you, the frozen deer, grab those headlights with your tiny hooves, then turn them around and shine them right in that paper’s face to see how it likes it, huh, how it likes being blinded, see, and why won’t it stop hitting itself?
We all have our strategies for coping with this situation. While your (and my) favorite strategy might be to ignore the paper and take a nap, there’s nothing worse than writing frantically right up until a deadline, proofreading on the bus ride to campus, then turning in your assignment with the paper still hot from a last-second printing.
While it’s obviously preferable to avoid this situation and begin your work when you still have spare time, that ideal cannot always be achieved. Sure you have your topic, and maybe even a tentative outline, but the paper just doesn’t want to be written, especially not by the likes of you. So what do you do? Here’s a few ways to break the deadlock:
1. Change locations: This one is the most obvious, but with good reason. Cooped up in your apartment? Go to the library. Too noisy in the library? Go to a computer lab in the student center. Too crowded there? Go to your coffee shop. Annoyed by the coffee shop hipsters pretending to do work? Go back to your apartment. Changing your real space can change your head space.
2. Freewrite: Put your hands on the keyboard or your pen to the paper, then start writing nonstop for at least five minutes. Sure the first 50 lines of “I don’t know what to say” might be rough, but you’ll produce something of worth by the end if you keep pushing yourself.
3. Outline: If you don’t have an outline before starting, write a messy list of ideas, then organize them in an outline. This might give you a starting point.
4. Start in the middle: If you know your content, but not how to frame it, just ignore the introduction and start in the middle. By beginning your process halfway through, you might be able to revisit your original starting point and find new introductory material waiting for you there upon your return from the far off lands of body paragraphs.
5. Talk it out: Make a friend listen to you talk about your ideas. Just involving another person will give you a new perspective on your problems. By explaining your argument to someone else, you clarify it to yourself.
6. Take a break: if you start things in advance, you don’t have to force yourself to do everything at once, and have the luxury of waiting until you “feel” like it more.
7. Write the parody version: Know your general argument, but just can’t get it out? Write the bad version of your argument, then improve it! This will help you move from the obvious things that anyone could say to the brilliantly specific things that only you could say.
8. Change mediums: Working (or not working, actually) on a computer? Try handwriting. Can’t read your handwriting? Try a typewriter (yes they do still exist). Scared of typewriters? Try writing your ideas out on note cards, one point from your argument per card. If it was good enough for Vladimir Nabokov, it’s probably good enough for you.
So the next time you are tearing your hair out in front of the computer screen, take a deep breath, tell yourself that you are a beautiful, special flower who produces individualized works of incomparable brilliance, then get over yourself, use of one of these strategies (or one of your own), and get to work! What strategies have worked for you in the past? Please share in the comments below.