Writer’s Block: How Do I Get Unstuck?

By: Janie Cai

You’ve brainstormed, outlined, and started a draft. You might have even visited the Writing Center or your professor’s office hours. But it’s the first, second, third, whatever day of looking at this Word document, and it’s not getting any longer. What’s going on? Why can’t I write? Why can’t the words just come out onto the page? You don’t have to be a professional author to get writer’s block. Everyone gets it – seriously, everyone does. But how do we get around it, over it, or at least pry ourselves out of it for a little bit?

Turn Your Computer Off

And do something else. If you start getting frustrated with yourself or your writing, just stop for a second! Take a deep breath, save your work, and do or think about something else. If you’re not terribly strapped for time, go on a walk, work out, talk to a friend, get started on a different assignment or project — do whatever that’s not writing that for a few hours, even a day. If your essay happens to be due that day or the next, then take a slightly smaller break — you could go to the bathroom or fill up your water bottle, or take a lap around the library, or call a loved one, or just exit out of the document so that it’s not filling up your entire screen.

Once you’ve cleared your mind for some amount of time, go back to the document and see if you can start a new thought or finish that sentence. If the answer is no, don’t stress! You might need to try something else first, or take another break.

Talk It Out

One of the reasons why we might have writer’s block is simply because we don’t know what to write. Or if you do know what you’re trying to say, then you might not be able to express it the way that you want — “How can I get across this to the reader in the way that I want to?” you might be asking yourself.

If this is the case, try just saying out loud – to a friend, yourself, your TA, a Writing Center consultant — what you want to say or what you want to do next. You might take ten sentences to say something that you want to write in one or two, but that’s okay! What’s your idea, your next point?

A great strategy here would be to record yourself or have someone else take notes – you don’t want to forget your “Eureka!” moment.

Write on Something Else, Write Differently

Similar to talking it out, writing on something else or in a different way can be a helpful way to get your thoughts out without the stress of writing formally. Sometimes, if you’ve been writing on the same document for a while – and that’s the document you plan on turning in eventually – you might feel stressed out – this is what I’m turning in; it has to be perfect! In this case, it can be helpful to write in a different environment. This could include:

  • Writing in the same document but with a different font or font size
  • Printing the document out and writing by hand on the pages thereafter
  • Writing in a new document
  • Writing by hand in a notebook or on a separate piece of paper
  • Writing in incomplete sentences, short phrases
  • Whatever works for you – as long as it’s not what you were already doing

Go Back

If you’re not sure how to start (the whole assignment, a new paragraph, a new thought), go back to your outline. What did I want to write? Is it still possible to write that? If you don’t have an outline, do that – there are Writing Resources on this site to help you with precisely that.

If your outline doesn’t help you at this point, then look at what you’ve already written. How would I proceed from there? What’s the next logical thought? Make sure to trust your gut here — what was your first reaction? Why did I think that?

Make Yourself Write

This tip might be the hardest to execute, but it can bring about some great results. Force yourself to write for a period of time. It could be ten, twenty, thirty minutes — just make yourself write! You don’t have to write a certain number of words, and it doesn’t have to be “good” or the final product — you just want to have something on the page by the end of this period. If you’re worried that you’ll set the timer and still not write, have someone hold you accountable. Get a friend or someone at the Writing Center to sit with you.

Even if you don’t like what you wrote just now, you got something on the page, and that’s a huge accomplishment! If you don’t like it, ask yourself why? What might work better? How can I edit it to make it better? If you do, then great – keep going; you could even set another timer.

Strategies for Effective Conclusion Writing

After writing an entire essay, writing the conclusion paragraph may seem like a mere formality or a tedious chore. But conclusion paragraphs can hold a lot of power to impact how a reader receives an essay. The conclusion paragraph is the writer’s last chance to make sure that their ideas have come across in the ways that they intended. The conclusion synthesizes all of the information in a way that feels new for the reader but leaves them with an enduring message. A great conclusion can help the reader to comprehend what they just read, why it matters, and how they can apply it to their own lives.

The conclusion is the writer’s chance to go beyond the prompt and connect their paper to the world around them. If the introduction acts as a first impression, the conclusion paragraph is a last impression. While different disciplines may desire different functions of a conclusion and there is no “formula” to writing the perfect one, these strategies can be a great starting point in writing a conclusion that closes an essay with finesse.

Answer the Question: “So What?”

Perhaps the most important function of a conclusion paragraph in any essay is that it provides the essay with a level of significance and importance. In answering the question “so what?”, the conclusion will tell readers why what they’ve just read matters.

Create Closure

An essay is a journey for its’ readers and the conclusion works to signal to the reader that their journey is not only finished, but also that it was whole and complete. This effect is often created by echoing ideas in the conclusion that were introduced earlier in the essay. Instead of simply repeating the thesis or general ideas of the essay, the conclusion is an opportunity to recast these ideas with a deeper and more refined perspective.

Expand the Scope

The conclusion often works well when structured like a triangle, starting with the more narrow and focused ideas of the essay and then moving on to how those ideas can be translated and applied to a greater concept. In an English or Humanities paper, the conclusion may state how the ideas of the essay reveal something about a greater universal truth. For a more research-based paper, the conclusion may suggest ways in which the findings of the paper impact the field of study.

Raise Questions and Discuss Implications

By raising questions for the reader, the conclusion leaves them with something to think about. It allows them to use the knowledge that has been provided to them and apply it to broader ideas. It urges them to make connections and form their own opinions. The conclusion can hint at what the ideas of the essay imply for the reader, for the field of study, or even for society.

Call the Reader to Action

One of the more daring and bold functions that a conclusion can hold is that of charging the reader with action. In doing this, the conclusion uses all of the assertions and evidence provided in the essay to propose a solution to a problem or convince the reader to react in a certain way.


Works Consulted:





Decoding an Assignment – What Now?

Not all writing comes from prompts, but in a University setting, prompts often are involved in the writing process. In this case, fully understanding a prompt as well as the purpose of an assignment is an important early step.

Parsing out the Purpose

Read your prompt, preferably a few times. Then, make sure you understand the meaning of the prompt on the most basic level; in essence, make sure you understand what the sentences mean, especially if the wording of the prompt is less than forthright.

  • Helpful tips:
    • Underline key words within the prompt.
    • If the prompt seems complex, try to write out its different parts as a list.
    • See if you can rewrite the prompt in your own words.
    • Lots of assignments have similar goals; CUNY advises to look for common keywords that often give information about the assignment. Some examples include: identify, summarize, analyze, describe, compare, contrast, discuss, and explain.
    • Ask your professor (or whoever the creator of the prompt is, if not a professor) if you’re unsure.

Reading Between the Lines

Every prompt has something to say aside from its literal meaning. The context of the prompt can also inform your writing.

  • Other questions to ask yourself aside from, “What does this prompt mean?”:
    • What is the genre of my piece? Is it a short, analytical piece? A research paper? A speech? A short story?
    • Am I trying to be persuasive? Analytical? Summarizing? Entertaining? Several of these or others?
    • Given the goal of this paper, what sort of tone would be most effective?
    • Is the prompt meant to be rigidly followed, or is it meant to serve more as a guideline?
    • How strict is my professor about style and tone? If I wanted to try something different from the norm, would they care? Would care if they cared?
    • Who is my audience for this piece? Is it my professor, fellow students in my class, or someone else? How familiar are they with the content of my work?
    • How should I organize my work in order to appeal to this audience?
    • Do I need to do any research before I start this piece? What kind of research if so?

Beyond the Prompt, but Probably on the Next Page or So

A lot of assignments also prescribe certain formatting methods. You might find it important to make sure you understand these guidelines as well.

  • Questions to ask:
    • If applicable, what citation style does my professor prefer?
    • How long is my work supposed to be? Is length determined by word count or pages?
    • What font size and type should I use?
    • How large should my margins be?

Additionally, here are some helpful links to more resources:

Exam Essays: Some Helpful Tips and Strategies

Before the Exam: Preparing

  • If you have the essay questions before the exam, try practicing them. If you have time, write a practice draft. If you have less time to study, you can outline. Remember, any thinking you do beforehand is less thinking you will have to do during the exam.
  • If you do NOT have the questions ahead of time, try studying the major concepts of the course. The better you know the information the exam will cover, the easier it will be to use that information to answer whatever essay questions come up. It can be helpful to try to anticipate what questions the professor will ask if you know the professor quite well, but it can also be jarring to see an unexpected question on the exam.
  • Talk out difficult concepts with others. Never underestimate the power of talking out your ideas, even in casual conversation. It can be very helpful not only for understanding what you are actually trying to say, but also for figuring out how to say it clearly. Classmates, professors, or friends at lunch can be good sounding boards if you are trying to figure out something confusing from class.

During the Exam: Planning and Writing

  • In general, plan your ideas and structure before you begin writing. Do not be afraid to spend the first few minutes of your time outlining. Unlike with take-home essays, you may not have much opportunity (or energy) to go back and revise, so it can be useful to set out a clear blueprint for yourself from the start.
  • Try to focus on the ideas, and do not get bogged down worrying about your sentences. You probably will not have time to make every sentence perfect. Your professor knows this. As long as your language is clear enough to get your point across, it is usually better to leave sentence-level editing until after you have settled the big picture issues (ideas, argument, structure, evidence, etc.).

A Few Final Tips:

  • If you have multiple essays, budget your time carefully.
  • Read the question carefully. What is it actually asking you? Answer it directly.
  • DON’T PANIC. You studied, and you are capable of using words to answer questions.