Trick or Treat! I know not all of you out there celebrate Halloween. I barely celebrate it myself. (Unless eating the free candy that has suddenly become more plentiful in waiting rooms and in friends houses counts as celebrating…) But in the spirit of today’s most beloved candy-based tradition—trick-or-treating I thought I’d share with you a writing trick or two. And treat you to some anecdotes about how these tips became fundamental to my academic career.
A cure for writer’s block:
Just start writing.
I know this sounds obvious. Unhelpful, even. Everyone who’s ever had writer’s block knows that frustrating feeling of needing to write but not knowing where to start. But this writing trick is not a reminder that you need to start writing. Rather, the trick is that you don’t need to start writing on topic. Yet.
Whether it’s a creative piece, an analytical piece, or just an email to your professor—that message you’re avoiding writing is probably just percolating in your mind. When you have writer’s block, you’re worrying too much about what you’re going to say. So don’t try to say it yet.
The trick here is to just sit down and start writing. Anything. “The cat sat on the mat” was my college roommate’s go-to opening sentence for anything from short written responses to that novel she was working on. Once she’d conquered the intimidating blank expanse of the empty page, writing what she actually wanted to communicate became easier. It helped that the go-to opening sentence was so simplistic. Once that simple subject, verb, direct object construction was out there, the act of stringing together more complex ideas became less daunting for her.
The trick is just to start writing, to remind yourself that the first draft is allowed to be bad. In fact, it’s supposed to be bad. Just don’t forget to go back and delete that unrelated opening sentence.
A way to make compiling your bibliography/works cited page easy:
Do it first.
In college, I was surprised by the number of friends I had who’d moan over compiling their works cited pages. It was their final, most frustrating step when they were writing essays. Hunting down their sources (some of which had been returned to the library or lost in their internet search history) and formatting them on the final page of their open document was an annoying, time-consuming chore for these students. They were laboring under the mistaken impression that papers are written in order. Thinking that, since the citations went at the end, they should be done last.
But any seasoned essayist will tell you that the final sentence in their first draft often becomes the opening statement for their final draft. Writing is a process. The document your reader gets represents an accumulation of work, not a timeline of that work. And the citations—even though they come at the end—should be done first.
The moment you find a source you might want to use, write down all the information you’ll need to cite it. Format a citation like you’re going to use it. Alphabetize it with all your other potential citations.
This writing trick actually came to me from elementary school. Back when we did our research using physical books instead of the internet. (Yes, I’m old.) Our librarian told us to write out all the information we’d need to cite a book on the top of our notecards. The first notecard would have the full citation, and each notecard after that would have an abbreviated label so we’d know which source the notes came from (e.g., A, B, C). We’d write down the page number any time we made a note, whether it was a quotation or just a piece of information we hadn’t known before. (We’d also number and color-code the notecards. But you need not be so obsessively organized to make this writing trick work for you.)
Now that I’m older, I’ve abandoned my colorful notecards in favor of my MacBook Pro. But I still use this organizational trick to make my research easier to consult. Whenever I’m doing research, I open up a fresh word document and paste all my potential sources into it. (I useEasyBib to make sure I get all the information and format my citations correctly.) As I take notes, I make sure to include the page number with each bullet point. And I insert a page break between each new source, to keep it organized.
Once I’m actually writing up my paper, I copy and paste the citation information from my “Notes” document into the final document’s citation page. Not all of the sources I thought I might use make it to this page. But I’m always so glad that I have the citation information already compiled and formatted. My elementary writing trick makes compiling my works cited page into a quick cut-and-paste job rather than a stressful hunt for publication information.
This method of organizing your sources as you’re doing your research helps keep you aware of the fact that you’ll need to cite them later. Compiling your citations as you go helps you remember that you’ll need to cite specific sources, and specific pages for those sources, when you actually write your draft. If you want to go back and delve deeper into a source where you found some useful information, having already written up the citation information means that tracking down that source will be easy for you. After all, the whole reason you include a works cited page is so that your reader can consult the same sources you did.
I hope my writing tricks help you be a more organized, more productive writer. And I hope they weren’t too obvious (or too confusing) as pieces of advice. Writing them up has definitely made me nostalgic for my school days. I think I’ll go eat some candy…
Have a happy (and safe) Halloween!