How to Obliterate Writer’s Block

Aug 05, 2022 | Posted by Jennifer

The blank page. It can be a formidable force. An intimidating expanse of seemingly interminable white, the empty page has been known to bring even the most prolific writer to his knees. But that need not be the case. IEW’s Structure and Style approach demonstrates that it has the cure for the dreaded blank brain syndrome. If you or your students have ever wailed (aloud or in silent dismay), “I don’t know what to write about!” keep reading to learn how to banish writer’s block forever.


Envision the Process

Let’s begin at the beginning. IEW’s Structure and Style method incorporates nine structural models (called units) that build incrementally. With the exception of the first two units, students generally move through one unit per month. Students first begin to write paragraphs by learning how to create key word outlines based on supplied source texts. It isn’t until Unit 7, well after students have had plenty of practice with the outlining process and then with writing from their outlines, that students begin to write prompt-based compositions or essays. This is a marked difference from many other writing curriculums that begin with prompt-driven assignments.

Bolstered by the confidence gained from outlining source texts and writing, and from the thinking skills honed through incremental application of the Structure and Style approach, students are ready to move to prompt-based writing when they arrive at Unit 7. Rather than providing a source text for students to utilize, in Unit 7 the teacher supplies a prompt that students respond to. Prompts vary widely. On page 112 of the Seminar Workbook, there are several prompts suggested. For illustrative purposes, let’s use “electricity out” to demonstrate how to obliterate writer’s block.


Separate Complexity

First off, students need to know the teacher’s expectation regarding the length of the composition. Length dictates structure. If the teacher wants a one-paragraph assignment, the student will select one topic to write about. A two-paragraph assignment will have two topics. Three-paragraph assignments have three topics. Adding an introductory and concluding paragraph grows a three-paragraph assignment to a five-paragraph essay. Expanding on the idea of “electricity out,” let’s make the full writing prompt this: What are three things you can do if the electricity suddenly goes out?


Take a Brain Inventory

Now that the prompt has been provided, it’s time to think about possible topics and note them. The topics one person comes up with will almost certainly differ from others’ because each person has different experiences and memories to draw upon. In my writing classes, I note ideas on the whiteboard provided through the students’ comments and collaboration. Since that isn’t possible in a blog post, I’ll write out some of my inner dialog. My possible topics are bolded:

Well, I live in Florida, and generally speaking the summertime is the most likely time that my power would be out. Why? Usually power outages occur in my area because of an intense storm, such as a hurricane. So while I could theoretically go outside to ride my bike or do a bit of gardening, that would not usually happen because the weather would be stormy. Same for swimming although I suppose the electricity could just simply go out. I’d definitely prefer to stay indoors. What do I like to do indoors that doesn’t require electricity? Well, I really love to read, so as long as I had a light source, I could read books. Also, I am a knitter and a spinner, so I could enjoy those hobbies even in the dark because I’ve been doing them so long I don’t even really need to look at my hands anymore when I work on them. Hmm. What else could I do? Well, I would still have a working gas range, so I could whip up a pot of spaghetti for my hungry family or maybe a homemade batch of chicken noodle soup. I could also journal because I really love to write. And if I were home, probably my husband and at least a kid or two would be home with me. We could pull out the board games and enjoy an afternoon of game time. Of course, it wouldn’t necessarily all be fun and games. Presumably, I’d need to spend at least part of my time cleaning and making certain our home was still safe from the storm. Since I wouldn’t be able to work on my laptop, I might dedicate a lot more time to doing some deep cleaning, assuming the storm isn’t too bad. I could mop, dust knicknacks, clean out my closet, and pull out things to donate. Oh! I recall that I have a bonsai I need to trim up too! I could do that!


Narrow Your Topics

There are a lot of potential topics I’ve come up with during my brain inventory. It’s time to narrow down my options. The assignment is for me to write three paragraphs, so I will need to decide on three topics. How shall I choose? I’ll pick topics based on what I think will interest my target audience. I also like to pick something that I’m personally interested in as well. In this particular piece I think I’ll aim for something fun as an individual pursuit (spinning yarn), something fun as a group activity (playing board games), and something work-related (cleaning out my closet). Any of the possible topics would have worked though.


Ask Questions and Outline Answers

Once the topics are selected, it’s time to begin outlining. How is this accomplished? By asking myself questions. I’ll model by using the topic “cleaning out my closet” for illustration. Here are a few questions I could consider:

  • What sorts of things do I keep in my closet?
  • What are my goals in cleaning out my closet?
  • How much space do I want to have when I’m done?
  • What items can I give away?
  • What items do I need to recycle or toss?
  • How am I going to have enough light to get the work done?
  • Florida summers are hot. How will I deal with the heat?
  • Is there anything I need to move out of my closet to a better area of the house?
  • What’s the worst thing about having an overfull closet?
  • What’s the best thing about cleaning out my closet?
  • What sort of storage solutions should I introduce as I clean out my closet?
  • What can I do to avoid a messy closet in the future?
  • Why should I clean out my closet?
  • What is the best way to begin organizing my closet?
  • Why did I let my closet get so out of hand?
  • Who might benefit from me donating items that I don’t use or wear anymore?
  • How much time will it take me to complete the project?
  • What sorts of odd things could I discover in my closet?
  • Where should I take my donations?

If you look over the list, you will notice a pattern. They all begin with a question word, e.g., who, what, where, when, why, or how. By coming up with a list of questions, we can begin to consider the answers and formulate an outline based upon the answers. Repeat this process for each topic. Don’t feel as if every single question needs to be answered. Use just the ones that you feel will work best for your paragraph.


Write with Structure and Style

Once the outline is completed, it’s time to write the paragraphs. Students of Structure and Style have a powerful tool in their writing toolbox to use for this portion: the checklist. Using this tool, students write up their paragraphs, following the appropriate structure (in the case of Unit 7, being certain to follow the topic-clincher rule) and inserting the stylistic techniques they have learned along with one they are currently working on. They also use the checklist to attend to grammar, punctuation, and spelling. The paragraph does not need to follow the outline point for point. Arrange the information so that it suits the paragraph, and feel free to adjust it as needed.


Polish It Up

After the paper is written, there are just a few more items to attend to. Send it to a trusted editor so that you have one more set of eyes on it to verify that it makes sense and is mechanically correct. Apply any needed edits, and complete the second draft. Read it and smile. You have successfully defeated the dreaded writer’s block and need not fear its daunting return ever again!

A few years ago Andrew Pudewa presented a webinar titled Cure for the Blank Brain/Blank Page Syndrome. If you’d like to learn even more about how to banish writer’s block, check it out.

Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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