How to Work Your Way Through Writer’s Block

14 SEPT 2020

It’s officially that time of year! Hundreds of thousands of seniors around the world (if not millions!) have started working on their college essays. If you are a senior that has not started and you are reading this… get started! In college applications, the personal statement holds a unique degree of importance. Top essays will offer a window into the student’s character and personality - offering admissions officers a view of the student they may eventually admit. The statement brings to life the grades and accomplishments that color the rest of the application.

While perhaps it’s easy to brainstorm and decide what you want to write about, sometimes getting started with the essay or finishing it is the hardest part. We help hundreds of students each application cycle with their applications and essays, and there is one obstacle many face: writer’s block.

A great personal statement has very little to do with the rest of the student’s application. It should not reiterate other parts of the Common App. Unless there is a ton of additional context needed on an existing activity, students should shy away from touching on topics covered elsewhere and focus instead on explaining other parts of who they are. Statements should be authentic and reflective: what happened to the student is often less important than how they processed and understood it. Students can write about any topic they want - personal stories from their youth, how they think about important social issues, or their dreams and ambitions.

We (virtually) sat down with some Crimson experts from around the world and asked their personal tips and advice when it comes to writing, facing writer’s block, and overcoming it! To hear from writers from Brazil, China, New Zealand, and the United States, read on . . .

“For me, writer's block is usually a symptom of perfectionism rather than a dearth of ideas. My go-to for overcoming it comes from a book called The Artist's Way. In it, Julia Cameron advocates writing three pages each morning and doing so longhand. This is a useful journaling exercise, but it's not always the best when it comes to writing something focused, like an article or essay. Therefore, what I usually like to do is have pre-writing. For pre-writing, I will write for 10-15 minutes and make sure that my pen keeps moving no matter what. I incorporate this when I'm teaching writing, and oftentimes this has helped me overcome any mental blocks that are due to perfectionism. One thing that I like to keep in mind is that you can't be the author and the editor at the same time; so it's important to give yourself permission to write something sloppy or "bad" and not worry about polished prose--that can be attended to later in the editing process.”

Brant, Strategist, USA

  • Write by hand
  • Write on white/unlined paper
  • Discuss what I want to write orally
  • Force myself to write for x amount of minutes non-stop - full sentences optional
  • Write in another language, especially if you're producing essays in a second language
  • Start with the middle or the end
  • Either start with an analogy and transition to the literal or start with the literal and think of analogies
  • I always remind myself that it's easier to work with text than with space - a first version can always be revised!

Carol, Senior Strategist, Brazil

  • Step away for a few hours or days, return, set your original work aside, and try starting from scratch. This time focus on the most important elements of what you're trying to say rather than on the details that bogged you down before.
  • Use logic, always asking yourself if your writing is clear to your reader
  • Try writing by hand, allowing your brain time to think ahead of your hand
  • Read your work over and over again, playing with new words, phrases, structure, and direction at the point of the block

Cassidy, Crimson Rise, USA

“Go back to the drawing board…literally. Grab a whiteboard or a big piece of paper and use it as a scratch pad — free write, create lists with main ideas or arguments, draw out plot diagrams, etc. Writer’s block often happens when we get lost in the details, so it can be helpful to zoom out and visualize the bigger picture.”

Donald, Tutor Operations, USA

“When starting an assignment, there is nothing more daunting than a blank word document. Completely empty, yet full of opportunities. Terrifying.

Logically you know that the best way to get past this fear is to fill the page. The only question is, how?

Start writing.

Sound counterintuitive? It is, but trust me. If there’s nothing more intimidating than a blank page, then the first step to unlocking your brain is to fill the page. Spend 5 minutes simply typing (or handwriting). It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, whether it’s on topic or not, simply write.

As you write, your creative juices will start flowing and soon, you’ll find yourself ideating left and right. The blank page, won’t be so blank anymore.

If all else fails, eat a piece of chocolate, take a little dance break, and get back to work.

P.S. (not sure if you are doing a section on editing but I have an absolute favorite editing tip)

MAKE A COPY. Writing is personal. It’s literally your inner thoughts and feelings, revealed; therefore, it’s no surprise that it can be extremely difficult to look at your own writing objectively.

Every word, every sentence, every paragraph carries the weight of the world that is, until you make a copy.

Hear me out.

Are you incredibly attached to your writing? Don’t know what you could possibly remove to reduce your word count from 1000 to 650?

Make a copy.

Subconsciously, you’ll know that your original work still exists and you can use the copy to move, delete, and edit to your heart’s content without worrying about losing the integrity of your first draft.

The best part? I can almost guarantee you that you’ll never miss your original 1000-word essay (but at least you’ll know it’s there).

Make a copy.”

Na’ama, Academic Advisor, China

“Drop it for now and do something completely different… say, something aesthetically creative, or listen to a podcast/music, or bust out a recipe and cook a favorite meal. Essentially get the brain out of the “stuck” mode and on to something else that can be accomplished. The brain will continue to process the “stuck” thing in the background — so let it simmer for a bit…”

Todd, Crimson Rise, New Zealand

Hopefully, these tips and pieces of advice offered you some insight on different ways to overcome writer’s block. If you find yourself looking for help with your essays and finetuning them in a way that makes you shine, reach out to speak with one of our enrollment advisors to learn more about how we can support your essay writing process and applications as a whole!

Shannon F.

Written by

Shannon F.

Shannon completed her Bachelors at Franklin University Switzerland where she majored in Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies & minored in Social Justice and Sustainability. Shannon has a passion for environmental and social justice and immersing herself in new cultures. Shannon has worked in higher education and now works as the Community Outreach & Engagement Lead with Crimson. Shannon currently lives in California and enjoys reading, water polo, hiking, yoga, and traveling.