Three tips for overcoming writer’s block

One of my guiding principles in writing is to separate my creative voice from my technical voice. What are these voices exactly? Your creative voice can be thought of as your internal artist who creates the ideas that fill the page. Whereas, your technical voice is your internal editor: the part of your brain that likes to edit and shape those ideas into a more polished product.

Both voices are important in writing, but work best in sequence rather than in parallel. Your creative voice lets you generate new ideas, arguments, and linkages. Subsequently, your technical voice helps to fine tune those lines of thought into a comprehensible, finished piece. Usually, several passes of both voices, in sequence, are required to make your work shine: creative, technical, creative, technical, and so on.

However, when both voices compete for the same airtime in parallel, the critical nature of your technical voice can debilitate the creative process. This is akin to that annoying guy in a brainstorming session who loves to nitpick new ideas as soon as they are shared. At best, this limits your capacity to generate new ideas. At worse, it results in burnout and mental paralysis.

In a brainstorming session, a good facilitator can effectively manage an overly critical participant. In writing, as with other individual creative work, it’s not so easy. It is difficult to keep your inner critic in check. If your technical voice gets too boisterous, your creative voice can freeze. In my view, this is one of the chief causes of writer’s block. It’s like having a micro-managing boss constantly looking over your shoulder as you try to work. Not the best conditions for optimal performance, especially when your work requires creative and original thinking. Your technical voice is that over-eager boss. Sure, its input is valuable, but it needs to give your creative voice space to do what it does best: create.

To this day, I routinely struggle to keep these two voices separate when I write. While I haven’t found a foolproof solution, I believe these three strategies can help:

Design in analog

In first year university, I took a computer science course to learn how to program. I still remember the professor telling our class how the very best coders designed in analog. What he meant is they used pencil and paper to map out the logic of a computer program before making a single keystroke on the computer. Typically, the result was a more elegant program design: one that’s more efficient, has fewer lines of code, and with less bugs. Simply put, designing in analog helps a programmer to be more creative and effective in developing software.

While I’ve long since forgotten how to code, I still take this lesson to heart in my own work. I find that using pencil and paper is conducive to the expansive style of thinking needed in the early creative process. Ordinary handwriting helps to slow down your thinking, which is important when generating new and different ideas. It’s only after I have etched out my ideas on paper that I start working on my laptop.

My computer’s word processor works wonders in the latter editing stages of writing, but all those easy-to-use tools that make editing a breeze can restrict the creative thinking process. One example is my word processor’s thesaurus. Sure, it beats manually leafing through the thick hardcover version sitting on my bookshelf. However, with its ease of use also comes the temptation to almost instantly fine-tune my words as they hit the page. My habit to wordsmith on the fly has good intentions, but hinders my creative thought process. Designing in analog – with old-fashioned pencil and paper – helps to keep my critical technical voice in check, so my creative voice can flourish.

Use pictures

If there is one thing I do well in writing, it is editing. With the written word, my technical voice is strong and confident. It has been built up through the years in my work as a consultant and university instructor. I have edited, critiqued, and given feedback on hundreds, if not thousands, of articles, reports, essays, and papers. From all this practice, my technical voice is razor-sharp and operates almost on autopilot.

Possessing a strong technical voice is useful. Its critical approach helps to improve your writing, but it can be a hindrance to your creative voice. One way I’ve learned to quiet my domineering technical voice is to change mediums. Instead of using the written word – where my technical voice is strongest – I will often use pictures to help generate new ideas and lines of thought.

For me, drawing pictures is an effective way to temporarily sideline my technical voice. My pictures are simple and rough – think stickmen and the sort. They aren’t especially good; in fact, they probably wouldn’t make the grade in an elementary school art class. But because I have neither experience nor aspirations in the visual arts, my technical voice doesn’t have much of an opinion on my drawings. In the visual realm, I’m like a five year-old with a box of crayons. I don’t over-analyze my work; I just draw. By using pictures in the early creative process, my creative voice is freer to express new ideas and think outside the box, without the constant interruptions of a well-meaning, but stifling, technical voice.

Be your own facilitator

Your technical voice can be very persistent. Despite your best intentions, it is almost impossible to silence your internal critic during the creative process. So when your technical voice starts to act up, it helps to adopt a third voice: that of facilitator.

In this role, think of yourself as the person responsible for keeping your own internal brainstorming session on track. When a participant in an actual brainstorming session critiques a new idea that is generated, the facilitator should politely acknowledge the comment, and then “park it” and quickly move on. Do the same thing in your own mind. I literally tell myself there will be plenty of time to edit my work later. My technical voice can have its say then. For now, I need to park my critiques and give my creative voice the space to create freely.

To avoid writer’s block, try to avoid the tendency to critique and edit your work during the creative stages of writing. Designing in analog, and using pictures, can help in this regard. And if you do catch yourself being too critical, try adopting the role of facilitator to get the creative process back on track.

Do you have other tips for overcoming writer’s block? Please share your ideas below.

Technology has radically changed the role of universities

Technology has radically changed what types of cognitive skills are valued today. Prior to the Internet age, it was difficult and time-consuming to obtain information; you had to navigate libraries and other repositories to find material relevant to your needs. Information was more scarce, or at least accessing it was more difficult, so there was inherent value in storing it in your brain or in your notebook.

The Internet has changed all that. Information is no longer scarce. It is free, endless and available almost instantly. Now, there isn’t much value in storing it in your brain or in a filing cabinet. It’s more important to be able to synthesize, process and analyse information. Higher-level skills – such as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, cross-disciplinary thinking, and communication – are the new cognitive currency in the Internet age.

According to a national survey of businesses and non-profit leaders conducted in the United States, employers are more interested in critical thinking and problem solving skills than a candidate’s major. Nearly all employers surveyed (93%) stated that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems” is more important than an undergraduate’s major when evaluating new hires. Three-quarters of the employers surveyed said they want more emphasis on five key areas: critical thinking, complex problem solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings (AAC&U, 2013).

The implications for post-secondary education are profound. If universities are to add value and thrive in the future, they will need to move beyond the outdated model of content delivery and rote learning. Since content can be accessed much more efficiently and cheaply online, universities will need to look for other ways to position themselves in the marketplace, especially given the high price of college tuitions. To remain relevant in the Internet age, universities should help students develop the skills needed to make sense of all this readily available information. The role of universities should be to develop students as critical thinkers, innovators, effective communicators, and problem solvers.

Not only has technology created the impetus for change, but it is also part of the way forward. Technology can play an important role in transitioning the classroom from a means of content delivery to a space where students can learn and practice higher-level skills. In his book Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, Jose Bowen argues that technology should be used to deliver content mostly outside of class, while class time should be used to develop higher-level skills.

With the use of technology, the options for introducing new material are considerably more diverse. Instructors no longer have to stick to one type of media, such as a single textbook or reading package. Technology allows content to be delivered in a wider variety of ways (text, videos, games, etc.) and gives students more options for accessing new information. And by moving content delivery out of the classroom, class time is freed up for more engaging, hands-on activities that help students cultivate advanced cognitive skills. Examples include class discussions, debates, case studies, interactive workshops, and other applied activities.

Like most educators, I want to do my best to help students learn and acquire these higher-level skills. It will take work to restructure my courses, but the fulfillment in knowing I am setting up students for future success will make it worth the effort.