Staring Down the Blank Page

a field guide to approaching writer's block

Oh no: your child has writer’s block.

Say they had to write about summer vacation because their teacher had writing prompt block. So your kid is staring at that page, dread or fear or defiance rising in their heart because they’re better than this, better than any of it, but also they’re stupid and now everyone will see just how stupid, and there they will be, naked on the iceberg of public scrutiny because they didn’t remember how to spell vacation, and if Harry Potter were real he would have told them the spell to melt into the floor but there they are, and the page is only getting blanker.

Or maybe they’re just distracted.

Either way, you want to do something, but what? Here’s a handy field guide on approaching blocked writers.

"hawk eye" by polandeze is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Distracted Dreamer

 The question “How’s it going?” reels in most daydreamers. I look friendly, but expectant. I remind them of the existence of time, then check back in shortly to make sure it stuck. I also assess whether their environment is working for them. All focused kids don’t look the same. Some kids need quiet. Others do better with background noise. Some need to wiggle to keep their brains engaged. Some need to talk. Maybe your kid needs to work at the kitchen table in the middle of hubbub. Maybe they need to be alone. Maybe they need to get up every once in a while to run to the corner and back. Balanced food and active outdoor play help most kids be at their best, of course, though that’s easy to overlook.

The Lost Motorist

Some kids can’t get going simply because they didn’t understand the directions. Often what they need is for the project to be broken into smaller, more concrete steps. “So we’re writing about summer vacation. Can you write down one fun thing that happened to you this summer?” Often, once they understand the route, they zoom off in a cloud of petrol fumes. Sometimes they need each step explained when they get there, in which case you get to use your nice robot lady voice and be their GPS.

The Clammed-up Witness

Sometimes kids are sure they have nothing to say on a subject. Usually, this comes from either a distrust in the importance of their own perceptions, a desire not to say the wrong thing, boredom, the sense that the subject feels too vast and slippery, or fear of the mafia. THESE ARE ALL FALSE BARRIERS. Dig in. I sit down, slow down, start asking questions. I get curious, playful, reassuring. “You don’t have anything to say? No way! What did you do last summer? Nothing? Just stared at the wall…. Was it an interesting wall? No? A terrible beige wall, all summer. Did any bugs crawl past?” As we’re talking, I listen for a place they could start. Writer’s block happens in the realm of the general and vague. Once they can find something concrete, they have a toehold. And making it all funny helps them take it with a spirit of adventure. Whenever they say something useful, just say, “Awesome! Write it down!”

The Ladderless Carpenter

Sometimes kids can articulate things verbally, but feel stuck writing them. There’s a gap between their thinking and their writing, and they struggle to climb over it. This is often true for kids who have deeper learning challenges, especially when they are learning a new thinking skill in their writing. For instance, they might be fine writing shorter things, but draw a blank when asked to organize thoughts into paragraphs. Whenever it feels like kids are struggling to connect their thinking and their writing, echoing back what they say can help. “You saw a cockroach crawling across the wall? Awesome! Write ‘I saw a cockroach crawling across the wall.’ ” Then ask follow up questions to help them find what to write next: “Where did it go? Did you scream?” Taking notes to give them as they talk can be helpful. Helping them outline or do some kind of idea map before they write can help too. Writing in drafts helps too. Anything that gives them a ladder, or better yet, scaffolding, can make the whole project feel reachable and safe.

The Frozen Perfectionist

The possibility of failure is enough to freeze up many kids. When I see this happening, I encourage them to think of it as a game: Just give it a shot….It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece….Just try it and see what happens. I also offer lots of praise and encouragement on any scrap of an idea they say. I take their thoughts seriously, and lend them my enthusiasm. Working in drafts is very helpful for some perfectionists. Tell them, write it down. You can fix it later. Drafts also allow you to help your child relax without slacking off. Academic rigor can come into later drafts, once that blank page is vanquished. The main thing is to take of the pressure. Besides, as my sister’s PhD advisor Jonneke Koomen told her, “every first draft is perfect, because all it has to do is exist.” Now that’s freedom!

No Matter What

The main thing we can do to help, no matter what kind of blocked writer we have, is to do what we can to make writing projects clear, safe, and fun. I’d love to know what’s working — and not working — for you!

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