How to overcome writer’s block

A few weeks ago I gave my students their first lecture on technical writing. As part of their two-semester capstone course, they produce a comprehensive report for their client. The thought of writing 50 or more pages about anything would be daunting for most people, so I break it into several more manageable parts. These low-stakes scaffolding assignments help them overcome writer’s block.

Writing Across the Curriculum

At the University of St. Thomas we don’t have a separate writing course. Instead we use a teaching method called Writing Across the Curriculum. Certain courses carry one of three designations:

  • Learning to write: These courses teach the mechanics of writing.
  • Writing to learn: These courses use writing to help students process what they’re learning. For example, a study abroad might require them to journal about their experiences and observations.
  • Writing in the discipline: These courses give students practice in writing the kinds of reports they’ll produce during their careers.

In our capstone course, the students act as consultants who are solving a real-life problem for a company or a nonprofit. All of the engineering disciplines are in one class, as projects may require multidisciplinary teams. Depending on the project scope, three to five students work with the client to define the problem and come up with a solution. Often that means designing, building, and testing a prototype.

The final report is the culmination of two semesters’ work. It’s much like what the students would produce for a major project for an internal or external client. Most of the students have written lab reports for some of their classes, but this report is much longer and more demanding.

Mad Hatter tea party from Alice in Wonderland
Alice had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Illustration: John Tenniel. Shutterstock.

Scaffolding assignments

Even experienced professionals may put off writing the report until the last possible moment. Unfortunately, procrastination can result in stress and a poor-quality report. And clients aren’t nearly as willing to give extensions as professors might be. To avoid that, the scaffolding assignments have much earlier deadlines.

Scaffolding assignments are worth only one or two points (out of 100). That’s enough to motivate students to turn them in, but not enough to panic over. The first one is the introduction, which includes the project context and background information. By the beginning of the second semester of the course, the students should have a pretty good understanding of the problem they’re working on, why it’s important to their client, and any existing technology that may be useful. There’s no reason they can’t start writing about it.

To help them overcome writer’s block, I emphasize that I’m grading on completeness. At this stage it’s all about quantity, not quality. We can fix bad writing and semi-coherent thinking—and we will—but we can’t work with vague ideas that don’t exist except in their heads.

The second assignment is the ethical factors analysis. As we’ve discussed previously, the students must analyze their projects in terms of their global, social, cultural, economic, and environmental aspects. I’ve found that the students benefit from making more than one attempt at this analysis before they do it for a grade. Their first attempts tend to be too vague and incomplete to qualify as analysis. But reading them helps me suggest what needs closer examination and recommend good sources of information.

The comprehensive draft

As with literal scaffolding, each assignment builds on the previous work. The students can use the markups to improve their prose and sharpen their thinking for the next version. That way they’re not getting a lot of practice in doing it poorly and then trying to undo bad habits at the end.

The third assignment is as comprehensive a draft as they can produce. They may not have all the data by then, so the discussion and conclusions won’t be complete. But they’ll incorporate improved versions of the previous drafts and as much new information as they can.

One thing that helps the students overcome writer’s block is that by now they’ve already written two chapters of their report. That is, they’re not staring at a blank screen; they’re perhaps a quarter of the way into it. They’ve had some practice and they know what I expect from them.

At that point I meet with each team to go over the markup in detail. It usually takes me about two hours to mark up each draft, and each team meeting takes 60 to 90 minutes. But the more effort I put into feedback for the low-stakes assignments, the more professional the final reports.

Some teams have to contend with difficult clients, ideas that didn’t pan out, schedules they didn’t meet, or problems they couldn’t solve. Such adverse circumstances mimic real-life consulting. During the team meeting we can discuss how best to handle these situations so the report is both truthful and professional.

Tips to help you overcome writer’s block

As the students find in this course, several habits can help you overcome writer’s block.

  • Write what you can as soon as you can. You don’t need to wait until you’ve completed the project before you start to write. You can work on the introduction once you’ve read whatever previous work will inform your investigation. As you’re conducting your investigation, you can describe your methodology.
  • Just write something. You can edit it later, so don’t second-guess yourself.
  • If paragraphs don’t come to mind, write an outline—or even a list. That will help you figure out what you need to say. Then you can organize it and work on how to say it.
  • Work on the nonverbal itemsphotos, graphs, and tables. These are all good ways to organize and convey information. They help you better understand the information and its implications. And if you do a good job with them, you don’t need as much text.

For most engineers, writing seems an unnatural activity. But most of the student reports end up looking very professional, however unpromising they were in draft form.