Tutoring Strategies for the Student with Writer’s Block

Writer’s block.  Writer’s anxiety.  It’s the simple act of thinking, “I have no idea what to write.”  It has plagued us all from time to time, and it takes many different forms.  Feeling anxious, helpless, or lost about what or how to write is one of the most common challenges for college writers.  Despite the frustration that comes from writer’s block or anxiety, luckily tutors can develop lots of skills and tools to help students who come in to a writing center with these issues.

In their Bedford Guide, Ryan and Zimerelli emphasize the emotional support a tutor can provide for tutors with writer’s anxiety – perhaps more important than writing help itself, at least at the beginning of the session.  When faced with a student with writer’s block, they assert, “it is always helpful to present yourself as a sympathetic ally” (Ryan and Zimmerelli 62).  Since everyone has experienced writer’s block, including tutors, it is a natural choice to begin a session with a “blocked” tutee by reassuring them: “everyone has trouble at some point in the writing process,” you might say.  Offer examples of the times you have likewise struggled to start a paper, or felt stuck in the middle of one.  In these cases, it is necessary to emphasize the “peer” in peer tutor rather than the “tutor.”  For some tutors who are very confident and skilled writers, it may take some effort to connect with tutees, and to an extent make themselves vulnerable in sharing anxious or blocked moments of their own.

The causes of writer’s anxiety or block are numerous.  Often, however, the causes stem from a disconnect between how the writer conceptualizes the “proper” writing process and how a specific paper might actually be written successfully.  Mike Rose has written about the inability of blocked writers to budge from their plan or process.  In his words, a blocked writer might have a “closed system” while a flexible and unblocked writer thinks about writing process as an “open system” (Rose).  I have identified several reasons (disclaimer: definitely not encompassing all possible causes) why a student writer might experience anxiety or blockage and paired them with some suggested activities or strategies for peer tutors to proceed with beyond initial contact and reassurance.  (Another disclaimer: although my categories have negative labels, they’re not meant to malign the writer.)

  • First, confusion. A confused writer might not fully understand the writing assignment or project OR they may not understand the ways in which the writing process can be manipulated to their benefit.  They might not even realize they are confused, which is where the peer tutor comes in.  This student may be experiencing anxiety and/or blockage.
    • Try starting with this student by looking at the assignment or prompt and have the student try to explain it precisely on their own. They might say things like “I just don’t know” or “I don’t understand this…” which you should then talk through together.
    • Suggest a visit with the professor – it is possible that the confused and blocked writer has not spoken with them, which could clear up a lot.
    • This writer could benefit from making a plan together. Ask about their preferred writing process and then break down the assignment into manageable tasks.
  • Second, boredom. A bored or disinterested writer may not be invested in the class or the topic, and thus have a difficult time starting.  This writer is likely more blocked than anxious, and is just at a loss because they feel disconnected from the subject.  These writers might normally go about writing easily for their own area of expertise or discipline, and thus a change of pace is paralyzing.
    • Tease out in discussion with the writer some things about the assignment they do find interesting or intriguing. Below is one guided way to facilitate this:
    • Give them a few minutes to write down ten questions about assignment, text, or topic, then discuss. Inquiry often leads to topics or ideas worth pursuing.
    • Ask what the student is interested in or what sparks their curiosity. For instance, if a diehard English major is pushed out of their comfort zone to write an anthropology paper, ask them why they love English.  Together, writer and tutor can try to find parallels between disciplines, or often even use elements of their favorite subject in a different field.  The world is not divided into sections; everything is interdisciplinary!
  • Third, obsession. This writer has a different outlook than the previous two.  Rather than alienation from, or confusion with, the writing task ahead of them, they have obsessed over it for hours or days, unable to make progress.  These students are most likely to be anxious.  In my opinion, the writer who has been overthinking things might actually be the easiest type of writer’s block student to assist.
    • Ask how they usually write and about their process. This might help you to identify together what is different about this blocked writing situation.
    • Remind the writer that they can start by writing any part of the paper, not necessarily the introduction or first body paragraph.
    • Suggest radically different techniques. One of my favorite ideas is for the student to record themselves talking out ideas, then listen, write down, and play around with the ideas (thanks to Purdue OWL for that one!).
    • At a more psychological level, make sure to encourage this blocked writer to take breaks, try writing in different spots, with or without music, stretch, breathe deeply, etc. As simple as they sound, these little things might help the anxious writer or the student stuck in a rut.

Working with a student with writer’s anxiety or writer’s block may not be easy, but it will absolutely happen to all tutors.  The examples I have shown will hopefully come in handy someday in certain situations.  Above all, remember to stay calm, reassuring, and confident.  With any luck the student can absorb some of these qualities via osmosis!  Please feel free to comment, critique, or add to any of my ideas here.

Works Cited and Consulted:

Conrey, Sean M. and Allen Brizee. “Symptoms and Cures for Writer’s Block.” Purdue OWL. Web. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.

Rose, Mike. “Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: a Cognitivist     Analysis of Writer’s Block.” College Composition and Communication 31: 4 (Dec. 1980), 389-401. JSTOR. Web.

Ryan, Leigh and Lisa Zimmerelli. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors, Fifth Edition. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. Print.

Some Henry Miller Tidbits

Today I wrote the first two blog posts of my life – one for class and this glorious one. I also just decided I probably shouldn’t even be allowed to write on a blog, based on my frenetic and rambling tendencies…but oh well. It’s happening because I lie in wait for earnest writers-in-need, who apparently do not need my services tonight!

According to a display shelf thingamabob (not even a squiggly red spell-check line beneath that!) in Penrose Library, it is currently Banned Books Week. A little recent web surfing led me serendipitously to author Henry Miller. Miller wrote quasi-autobiographical novels such as Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring, but his works were banned in the U.S. until 1961. In fact, when Grove Press released Tropic of Cancer, the publishing house was charged with pornography and obscenity, and a series of court cases led all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1964, the Grove Press v. Gerstein ruling went in favor of the publisher. Tropic of Cancer was officially deemed “literature” by the highest court in the nation. Huh, I thought. Are those nine individuals qualified to define what is and isn’t literature?

Henry Miller also wrote this marvelous list called 11 Commandments of Writing. I’ll share my two favorites (here’s a link to all eleven: http://kottke.org/12/02/henry-millers-writing-commandments):

7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.

11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Nicely contradictory, aren’t they? Perhaps the seventh is all the more appealing as I am tired and eager for the weekend, but it’s easy to forget to “keep human” when buckled down and writing. If you’re slogging through an assignment right now, Wednesday night at 11:46, take heed! Stay sane, take breaks, and remember to take a moment for yourself. If not now, then later tonight and absolutely tomorrow.