Image: Der Grossvater erzählt eine Geschichte (Grandfather tells a story). Albert Anker, 1884 (Berlin Museum of Art) via Wikimedia Commons
Sometimes I’ll meet with a grad student who’s feeling stuck on a piece of writing, and I’ll do something they find surprising. It’s this: I’ll think for a moment, roll my chair away from the desk a bit, look up at the ceiling, and dictate the paragraph that’s needed, more of less off the top of my head. (A very rough version, mind you. And I can do it for a paragraph or two – not for a whole paper!) A while ago, one student stopped me midway through dictation and asked me how I could possibly do that. It seemed, to her, like a superpower.
That brought me up short, because I hadn’t consciously realized that when I do it, I’m using a writing trick. I’ve found I use the same trick with my own writing projects too. And that’s useful, because I’m not at all a gifted, fluid, fast writer. I struggle, and I get stuck, just like everybody else. (Well, almost everybody else.) The look-at-the-ceiling-and-dictate trick works pretty well for me – with my students’ writing and with my own – so I put some thought into how that could be.
I think when I look-at-the-ceiling-and-dictate, I’m doing two things. Each one helps me as a writer. Here they are:
(1) I get myself into a new and different mental space. When you’re stuck, it’s very easy to have that stuckness become a vicious circle. Being stuck brings a feeling of pressure, which makes one supremely aware of being stuck, which just ratchets up the stuckness, and so on. Being blocked, you see, isn’t an external force; it’s an internal, psychological one, and it feeds on itself. To break the blocking cycle, it helps to change what you’re doing and thereby your mental space. If you’re having trouble writing on the computer screen, try a pen and paper. If you’re having trouble writing in your office, try the library or your child’s treehouse. If you’re having trouble producing the written word, try speaking aloud. This is, I’ve realized, why I roll my chair away from my desk: even a couple of feet between me and the computer-screen evidence of my stuckness makes a difference. It seems like it shouldn’t be that easy to fool myself into forgetting that I’m blocked – but sometimes (not always!) it is.
(2) I compel myself to be a storyteller. Writing is storytelling, in science just as in any other sphere. When you write, you have a story to tell (a question, set up and then resolved through action with characters – which may be knights and dragons, or study organisms and data). You also have an audience to tell it to. Being aware of that audience, and what they need, is an important part of writing well. When I look up at the ceiling, I’m seeing that audience (no, they don’t live in the ceiling; but the ceiling is boring, so I can unfocus my eyes and imagine who I’m talking to). Having an audience, even an imaginary one, forces me to decide what they need to know, and how I can tell it to them. It might seem that there’s nothing fundamentally different about telling a story out loud and telling it on paper; but when I’m stuck, it seems to help that telling a story out loud is more direct, more primal, closer to the first ways humans told each other stories.
So what might seem at first like a superpower is really just a trick. But it’s a trick that works, and there’s a lot to be said for tricks that work. Writing is hard; I’ll use all the tricks I can pull out of my bag.
What tricks are in your bag?
© Stephen Heard October 2, 2017
This post is based in (small) part on material from The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers (Princeton University Press, 2016). Chapter 6 covers writer’s block, and Chapter 7 is about writing as storytelling.