Guest blogger: Joanna Novins
Part 2 of the Series “Becoming Unstuck”
In my previous post, I wrote about the late-night call I’d gotten from a college student with whom I’ve worked in the past. The deadlines for several papers were looming and he was panicking.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get this done,” he wailed. “I don’t know where to start.”
“Send me what you’ve got,” I replied, having learned from experience that when students say they don’t know where to start, often what they really mean is they’ve started writing and gotten stuck.
Sure enough, my panicked student had run into verbal gridlock.
What’s verbal gridlock? It’s when you put all your ideas for an assignment into a single sentence or paragraph, leaving yourself no room to write.
Suppose, for example, a professor has asked you to write about your favorite dessert. You write, “I like rocky road ice cream cones.” Then you stare at the page wondering what else there is to say.
What you may not realize is that your single, concise sentence can be broken out into individual discussions:
- Your affinity for chocolate (Do you like dark, milk-chocolate or white? And how do you feel about vanilla?)
- Marshmallows (Just in ice cream, or raw or fire-roasted or packed in cookies? And how do you feel about Peeps?)
- Fudge swirls
- Nuts (Peanuts? Pecans? Walnuts, and if walnuts, wet or dry?)
- Ice cream (Pure or with “stuff”? And does frozen yogurt really count as ice cream?)
- What about cones vs. cups? (Not to mention the question, who makes the best rocky road ice cream?)
Worried that detail sounds like “filler?” It’s not; it’s your analysis of the subject. Using detail demonstrates that you’ve thought carefully about the question, that you understand all its aspects, and that you’ve evaluated each one. Indeed, you could dive deeper into this simple question about dessert preferences, discussing regional preferences (frozen custard, gelato, shaved ice), their historical origins, manufacturing processes, and chemical compositions.
The more specific details you add, the more you demonstrate your understanding and mastery of the subject. If you’re writing an academic paper, your understanding of the subject is what your professor wants to determine from your work. Were you paying attention in class, did you do the reading, did you read additional materials, do you “get” what he or she has been teaching? Never assume that your teacher knows that you understand the subject matter. Show it.
Verbal gridlock doesn’t only occur at the start of a paper. One student I worked with had a terrific beginning, but ran into trouble in the middle of her paper at a section where she really needed to do some tricky, in-depth analysis. Instead of working through that section, she kept starting the entire paper over. When she finally came to me she had three drafts, all stopped at the same place, and her writing at the beginning had become increasingly over-written and stale.
When you run into verbal gridlock in the middle of a paper, keep writing. Think of it like Legos. If you played with Legos as a child you probably started by dumping them out and then sorting them into piles based on color, shape or size. The sorted piles made it easier to see what you could build. Dumping and sorting also helped you build faster and more efficiently. Writing works the same way; it’s easier to see patterns and trends after you’ve dumped out all the ideas and information.
If you can’t write through verbal gridlock, write around it. A lot of students get stuck trying to write a perfect first draft. If you know you need a paragraph on a particular topic but you can’t figure out what to say, try using a trick lots of novelists use. Simply make a note, “Analysis of X goes here” and keep going. You may be surprised how well this technique works, but you’re basically reassuring the panicky voices in your head that you know something needs to go there and you’ll get back to it when you get the rest of the paper done.
Fun fact: Novelists often change fonts when they run into writer’s block. It’s amazing how little things can make your brain feel like you’re making a fresh start.
As I wrote in my previous blog, polishing comes later. You can edit and organize anything but a blank page. In my final post, I’ll discuss how to do just that—how to develop an outline from a messy first draft and how to use it to transform your first draft into a finished paper.
Read the entire “Becoming Unstuck” series:
Writing Term Papers—6 Steps for Beating Term Paper Panic
Writing Term Papers—How to Turn a Messy First Draft Into a Final Paper
If you need help with your writing skills, First Impressions College Consulting can guide you through the writing process to make it easier and more effective. Gain confidence in your writing. Contact www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com.
With over two decades of writing experience for the Central Intelligence Agency and the commercial fiction market, multi-published author and writing consultant Joanna Novins understands the importance of hooking the reader with the first line. She also understands the importance of telling a great story, whether it’s about manufacturing solid propellant missiles, happily-ever-after, or marketing yourself or your work. She has extensive experience working with writers of differing skill levels, from senior intelligence analysts and published authors to aspiring authors and high school students. Joanna is a writing consultant for First Impressions College Consulting. You can reach her at www.joannanovins.com or www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com
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