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Writing Obstacle No. 8 – Wendy Laura Belcher

This month of #AcWriMo we’re featuring heaps of advice from the book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks by Wendy Laura Belcher. She’ll offer a wealth of information on carefully planning your writing and getting over obstacles – practical and emotional.

I just can’t get started.

Many students find sitting down at the computer and starting to write to be the most difficult challenge facing them. Indeed, the horror of the blank page is a frequent theme of literature. The literary scholar Richard D. Altick talked about “First Paragraph Block” (1963, 190). Francoise Sagan described writing as “having a sheet of paper, a pen and . . . not an idea of what you’re going to say” (Brussell 1988, 618). Getting started is painful. One of the reasons for this, as one of my students put it so well, is that “if I never start, then I never fail.”

An excellent way of dealing with the difficulty of getting started is to make a preferred task contingent on a non-preferred task, as the behavior management experts put it. In this case, writing is the non-preferred task you have to complete before you get to something you prefer. For instance, do not allow yourself to read the morning newspaper or check your e-mail before you write for thirty minutes. Tell yourself that you will call a friend or watch a favorite television program after writing for an hour. Most students flip this and tell themselves “I’ll watch TV for an hour and then write.” But it is better to make the pleasurable activity a reward. Turn your procrastination tactics into productivity tools.

One warning on this tool. A friend of mine, when invited to socialize, always told us that she couldn’t get together because she had to write. When we called her the next day, however, she usually admitted that she had just watched bad television. It’s better to feel guilty about really enjoying something than to feel guilty about misspending your time and not writing. Denying yourself a real pleasure in order to force writing rarely works. Delaying a pleasure does.

Another method is to start by writing something else. Some students begin by typing a quote from their reading. Others write a plan for what they would like to do in that writing session. If you really feel shut down, it is useful to start by writing down the thoughts of your inner critic. You know, “It’s hubris for me even to pick up a pen, I haven’t a prayer of actually finishing this article in time,” etc., etc., etc. When you get bored with this inner critic and think, “Oh come on, things aren’t that bad,” then you can start writing your article. Eventually you get bored with this voice. It’s not very good company and writing becomes preferable to whining.

Another method is to focus on writing badly. If you can’t get started because your first sentence has to be perfect, this method can be useful. For fifteen minutes, write down every thought you have about your article without stopping to edit. Just let it all hang out. This is writing what Ann Lamott has celebrated as “a shitty first draft.” I could use the more alliterative word fecal, but shitty gets at the real feelings of shame and revulsion many have about writing. If you set out deliberately to write something horrible, this roadblock is erased. Again, eventually you write a sentence or have an idea that, despite your best efforts at producing ghastly work, sounds pretty good. And then you are on your way.

Still another method is to have a phone or e-mail partner. Arrange with another prospective author to agree to write at the same time. Check in by phone or e-mail when you are supposed to start, encourage each other, and then get started writing, knowing that someone else is going through the same horrible suffering, I mean, wonderful process that you are. Lots of my students have found this really helpful. It seems to be more helpful than the plan of meeting at someone’s house to write together, which often ends up being a talking session rather than a writing session.

A final method is to plan the agenda for your next writing session at the end of the last one. That way you will know what to do when you sit down to write. This will also help you stay focused on your article as a series of small tasks. Some authors even recommend that you always stop in the middle of a sentence, so that you have somewhere to pick up. I prefer to recommend pushing a bit into the next section.

Want more tips on writing obstacles? Click here.

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