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Vector illustration of an aerial view of a writer's desk
March 11, 2021
3 mins read

What to do when the words won't come

It’s term paper time. The ideas are all there but for some reason, the words won’t come. It feels like you’re on the precipice of an insatiable sneeze—like a Slurpee-induced psychic brain freeze.

When the words won’t come, you’ve got to change things up. Staring at the computer and counting down the minutes until the deadline while counting up all the mistakes you’ve ever made is not going to help.

Luckily, I’ve got some handy tips from my time as an English student and creative writer. They’re a bit outside the box, but maybe the box is what got you into this problem in the first place.

1. Hit the “books”

I distinctly remember the advice of a professor, who, on the last day of class before the final exam, said that “the best way to study for this exam is to read fiction.”

This was a Geography class, the exam was worth 50%, and the professor was advising us to read for pleasure. Something didn’t add up.

But his rationale did. He suggested that reading creative literature teaches us to express our ideas with more clarity and style. In other words, reading is like studying writing. By reading, say, the latest Esi Edugyan novel, you’re clearing the path for your own ideas to spring forth on the page.

It was the best academic advice I’ve received to date. Before an exam, you’ll see me frantically reading, not my course notes, but a book of my favourite poetry.

If you’re looking for suggestions, I’m always quick to recommend anything by Anne Carson. 

A student reading books outside of a class

2. Cut and paste

If you’re having trouble deciding the sentence order of your essay, start by printing out your work in progress. Then, cut the page into individual sentences. Place them all on a table, and pluck them up at random, reconstructing the paragraph based on the order of the sentences you selected. If the first reordering doesn’t help, keep playing around until it does.

This technique was reportedly used by some of the most creative thinkers of the twentieth century, including musician David Bowie, novelist Julio Cortazar, and poet Tristan Tzara. If it worked for them, it’s worth a shot.

3. Go back to the “drawing” board

Sometimes, thoughts need to be expressed outside of words. So, when I get stuck in the writing process, I start drawing.

I start with random doodles or an object from the essay at hand. Then, I draw the physical shape of the essay. Some essays are triangles, others are spirals. Some essays loop over themselves while others splay like the end of a thread.

When I can see the essay before me, although not in words, it suddenly makes a lot more sense. I see the structure and the ideas in place. I get back to writing, referring back to my drawing as necessary. Sure, this might sound like that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia meme but if it works, it works.

4. Write freely

For a moment, forget about your essay topic entirely.

Instead, write about what you ate for lunch. Write about your last bus ride to campus, or about the strange times we're in. Write in ink, in crayon, on napkins, or on the Business section of a discarded newspaper. Time yourself: 15, 20 minutes. Whatever it takes.

Free writing is a form of unbridled expression, and much like reading, it forges a path for you to voice your own ideas. The process pries loose the words that you already have but need help retrieving. Taking some distance from your essay, however brief, also helps you gain some fresh perspective. Who knows, you might spark a rewarding creative project in the process.

5. Get walking

This one is an oldie, but a goodie. It involves closing your laptop, lacing up your shoes, and getting outside. Literally, and figuratively, walk away from the stress and frustration.

But this isn’t just a way to escape your problems. A Stanford study from 2014 actually found that walking improves creativity, so you can get some exercise and kickstart your writing process at the same time. 

As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” Well, that’s probably a little extreme but he raises a point about the value of a good stroll.

Now you’re ready to get back to writing

Feeling stuck is part of the writing process, but so is breaking past those barriers. As you head into essays season, don’t fear the halts and pauses—instead, reframe them as excuses to exercise creative solutions. Embracing the obstacles can only lead to a more dynamic, and rewarding, product.

These are just a few tips to try when the words won’t come, but it’s by no means an exhaustive list. Get creative and experiment—you never know what might just do the trick.

Whatever the solution, remember to relax. The words are waiting right around the corner.