Doyle Online Writing Lab

Helping Students with Writer's Block

So your student has writer's block. You've done everything short of getting down on your knees and begging him/her to just turn in something. What to do? Writer's block can be caused by a variety of reasons. All of the writing center tutors are training to helped students who are plagued by writer's block. In addition, Academic Support Services offers counseling and advising for students experiencing academic difficulty due to writer's block and other problems. Please encourage your student to get help before their problem overwhelms them.

In the simplest scenario, writer's block occurs because a student does not understand the assignment or has not done enough pre-writing on a subject. Writing center tutors can help take the student through pre-writing exercises that will allow him or her to develop a thesis and structure for the essay. In more extreme cases, however, writer's block is caused anxiety. Often at Reed, perfectionism gets in the way of being able to complete an assignment. If a student suffers from this problem it is important to for him to get help and that to remember a draft is just that--a draft.

Here are some quick tips that may help students:

  1. Be firm. Set clear guidelines at the beginning of the semester for all of the students for when papers are due. Clearly state on the syllabus what the consequences are for turning in work late. This will help eliminate the lower-level procrastinators.
  2. If a student has already turned in some work late or not at all, meet in-person a couple of weeks before the next assignment is due. Help the student break down the next paper or assignmet into manageable steps and develop a timeline for when each step will be due. You may want to have the student email you the various steps. Reward the student verbally or through email when the turn in something on time.
  3. If a student may fail the course because so much work is missing, you may need to help her prioritize the semester's work so she can focus on completing enough work to pass. Often students can't see the forest for the trees, and the sheer load of work remaining to be done will keep them from doing any of it.
  4. If a thesis student is so blocked he shows up week after week without anything in hand, have him try free-writing on their topic. Your student can do this in front of you or on his own. Have him sit down with an egg timer and write for 15 minutes non-stop even if he only writes "this is dumb, this is dumb." Usually out of sheer boredom he will start writing something on topic. Tell the student not to correct as he writes; instead, he should make notes to himself, like ADD DETAILS HERE or FIX THIS LATER. When he is finished, he should reward himself with coffee, chocolate, or a quick break. You can also take notes as the students taks during your thesis meeting. Give these to the student at the end of the meeting and have him use it as the starting point for his writing.
  5. Help thesis students prevent writer's black before it starts by having them
    1. give themselves time off each week
    2. make reasonable deadlines
    3. break down each section into small, manageable parts
    4. set up a daily schedule
    5. reward themselves regularly
  6. If a student has already done free writing and are now stuck again, help the student cluster his ideas in order to come up with a working thesis and/or outline. Writing tutors can help also help students with clustering.
  7. If are a student is stuck on a section, he should skip it and come back to it later.
  8. Have the student make an appointment with a writing center tutor three days before the paper is due. This will give the student a deadline to work towards and will still allow him to revise after he meet with the tutor.
  9. Encourage the student to work in a space where he won't be distracted or interrupted.
  10. Encourage student to turn in their paper/chapter ON TIME even if they aren't perfect. Many students at Reed have writer's block because of perfectionism.

Also check out our resources on helping students with procrastination.

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Dissolving Writer's Block (
Overcoming Writer's Block (Purdue O.W.L.)
Overcoming Writer's Block (LEO: Literacy Education Online)