Overcoming Writing Paralysis

Overcoming Writing Paralysis:

Empowering FY Writers’ Invention Processes through Writing Therapy

Melissa Huff

I had never considered the muscles required to stand, walk, tie my shoes, or just smile until my mother was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder that causes temporary, whole-body paralysis. If you’re going to have an autoimmune disorder, GBS would be the best since the vast majority of its victims recover completely over a period of three to thirty-six months. I didn’t feel lucky, though, as I watched my chronically capable mother lie flat on her back in the ICU, completely unable to move any muscle, even to do something as simple as focus her eyes to read. Eventually, as her vital signs stabilized and she no longer qualified for acute care, she was sent to the physical therapy unit—still paralyzed—to begin the daunting task of learning how to control her muscles once more.

Many English 150 students find themselves in a comparable situation as they approach their writing assignments. Generally competent and intelligent, they freeze— deer-in-the-headlights style—at the words “choose your own topic,” and they wait for inspiration to strike. If (when) it doesn’t, they’re both disappointed and unsurprised that their 2:00 a.m. attempts to churn out quality writing don’t quite succeed. “I’m just not a very good writer,” they reason, “I tried. I just can’t do it,” or, “My teacher’s expectations are so subjective—of course I got a bad grade.” Both perspectives are probably equally valid (though not exactly true). The students’ methods of invention are, to some extent, paralyzed by their lack of experience, while the teachers’ approaches to writing assignments are often so natural that they fail to prepare their students adequately for a successful writing experience. Comparing this kind of psychological writing paralysis that novice writers experience to physical paralysis yields insights into the kinds of “therapies” needed to help students overcome their invention paralysis. Modeling, repetitive exercises, a sense of community, and a kind of gestation period—all principles vital to a patient’s success in physical therapy—can help freshman writers become more aware of their sometimes-dormant writing muscles.


During her first days on the rehab floor, my mom could do little besides watch as teams of therapists met with her and repeatedly modeled the exercises that would strengthen her severely atrophied muscles. Their purpose in doing so was twofold: first, modeling was an efficient method of expressing what the physical therapists wanted her to do; second, their modeling did real (and vicarious) work, exercising the muscles she couldn’t yet feel. As we model effective writing practices with our students, we can expect similar outcomes. Modeling effective writing does what writing teachers so often repeat to their students—it doesn’t tell, it shows. It stands to reason, then, that the more efficient and effective our method of expressing expectations is, the better the students’ understanding and production of the assignment will be. Also, as we model efficient invention methods, the students will become aware of the process they need to go through in order to begin writing.

A professor at Winthrop University in South Carolina, Susan Bahner approaches modeling by writing a whole-class collaborative paper at the beginning of each course. She sets aside an entire class period for that specific purpose because, she says, “it helps demystify the writing process . . . [and] helps them to see a rough, reasonably well- written paper, produced in collaboration, take shape in a short time. It is the result of work, not taking dictation from a muse” (14). Writing as a class thus lowers the stakes a little: instead of worrying that “they [are] not born to [write] as other students [are],” Bahner’s students are empowered by the in-class illustration that writing takes time, work, and critical thinking, but not genius (14).

Janet Winter of Central Missouri State University has a more invention-centered approach. By providing students with a specific prewriting plan, she models what she believes are the most important elements to consider as they begin to write: who the audience is, what appeal to use, how to organize the message, and so forth. Her method has another distinct advantage: “Writing the plan usually takes less time than writing the composition by itself and thus allows the instructor to provide feedback and direction, or modeling, without actually having to read and grade an entire document” (49). By using Winter’s modeling plan, instructors give their students more educational freedom because they can choose individual rather than whole-class answers to the questions of audience, purpose, and method. Because of this, their process may vary within the structure provided, making Winter’s modeling procedure less prescriptive than most while still ensuring the students’ success, and without increasing the instructor’s workload.

Clearly, a variety of successful modeling practices exists. The success of modeling in writing as well as in physical therapy, however, may depend more on timing than on the specific procedure used. Bahner uses modeling often and early in a course; Winter uses it at the beginning of each large assignment. Both use it at their students’ point of need when they are most likely to see its usefulness and direct application to their own writing skills. For the English 150 course, modeling seems particularly appropriate as students approach the rhetorical analysis, a kind of thinking and writing that often bewilders students. As the instructor takes the class through the writing process, from recognizing tools and analyzing their effect to developing a working thesis and organizing paragraphs, much of the instructor’s expectations are demystified and students can approach the task with greater ease. Modeling does for students (and patients) what they can’t yet do for themselves.

Repetitive Exercises

Repetitive exercises, though, strengthen their skills with the purpose of increasing independence. Such exercises are vital in physical therapy where patients focus their attention on certain muscle groups in order to accomplish specific tasks. There, repetition is the application of practicing to make perfect, so that when patients are faced with actual tasks but are without the assistance of their therapists, they’ll be able to function successfully. Since writing well is the task instructors want their students to accomplish, one logical way to strengthen their writing muscles is to make them write. Freewriting and journaling are both simple methods to make sure that students are writing— practicing the skills that they need to use on larger writing assignments—as often as possible. Additionally, regular reading will expose students to the kind of writing instructors want them to emulate.

The benefits of freewriting and journaling are well documented. Experts agree that consistent and constant freewriting “primes the pump for more structured writing by demonstrating that a writer normally cannot produce a perfectly finished essay on the first try, that the process has many steps, and that the most seemingly unpromising gibberish can yield valuable material” (Glenn et al. 227). The allure of such results makes it easy to see how freewriting can help students improve their writing through short daily practices.

Russell Hunt takes freewriting one step further in his class and renames it “inkshedding.” He directs his students to freewrite in response to “shared
experiences” (readings, class discussions, events) and then read each others’ responses, marking vertical lines next to any passages they find striking in one another’s writing (3). In this way, writing is given a social role in the classroom, which brings benefits beyond those accorded by the traditional model of freewriting. The foremost benefit, according to Hunt, is that freewriting with this “dialogically transactional” facet forces students to write with the anticipation of an audience. “It’s not always true the first few times a group or individual engages in it,” Hunt says, “but over a few experiences telltale evidences of the impact of the pressure of audience (which the writer may or may not be conscious of) . . . emerge” (3). Regardless of the form that freewriting or journaling takes in the English 150 classroom, consistently requiring students to write for either a specified time or a certain length will hopefully loosen their mouths (and their pens) such that a four-page essay or ten-page research-based paper will seem significantly less daunting.

Using reading as a method for practicing writing can be another important repetitive exercise for writing students. According to Doug Brent, a rhetoric of reading is essential to a rhetoric of writing: “if a rhetoric of composition is designed to tell a writer how to persuade an audience, it seems simple enough to turn those precepts . . . into information for the reader about how writers attempt to persuade her” (12). Students who read will thus become more familiar with the effective (and ineffective) rhetoric of professional writers—and the more they do read, the more easily they’ll come to recognize strong elements of writing. Of course, immersing students in their topic readers also has the distinct advantages of familiarizing them with a particular discourse community and that community’s current concerns. As English 150 students approach the issues paper, such familiarity is particularly important. Awareness of discussions centering on, for example, globalization or the environment may be more effective in helping students develop topics for their issues paper than any other brainstorming activity instructors can invent. Using reading and writing as repetitive activities can empower students’ writing processes almost imperceptibly as they fulfill what appear to be only class assignments but are actually cleverly engineered methods of helping students to develop their nascent skills.

Sense of Community

A vital—and, for us, unanticipated—component of my mother’s recovery was the sense of community on the rehab floor. Although the maladies that brought the patients to physical therapy differed as much as their potential for complete recovery (one woman, for example, had lost three limbs to Toxic Shock Syndrome and although she learned to walk again, the repercussions of her disease are permanent where my mother’s are not), the patients developed a sort of camaraderie based on their shared experiences. They learned coping mechanisms from each other and cheered one another on with each new success. The demographics in the writing classroom are comparable: some students approach freshman writing with strong skills that they transfer handily to college writing assignments, while others, often ill prepared and uncomfortable, flounder. Creating a communal environment in the writing classroom can increase students’ trust in one another, and as that trust increases, they can use their classmates as resources to begin writing.

But how can instructors form a community of twenty or so students whose biggest commonality is that they all signed up for English 150 at 10:00 a.m.? A key step is to create shared experiences for students through (what else?) reading and writing. As the instructor creates effective ways for those two basic skills to be shared in class, opportunities for discussion—and thus for coming to know (and eventually trust) one another—will increase. Creating such a sense of community early in the semester can form the foundation for effective peer-review sessions and for productive (and peaceable) group work when the brochure unit rolls around.

Donald Murray includes “increasing information” as one of his “four positive forces which help the writer move forward to a completed draft” (375-76). Murray suggests that as a writer approaches a topic, everything he or she “observes or overhears or reads or thinks or remembers” becomes “an inventory of information [that] creates pressure [and] moves the writer forwards towards the first draft” (376). Instructors can actually help to form that “inventory of information” by providing readings—and lots of them—for the students to digest and discuss. It stands to reason that as students increasingly investigate issues and ideas, they will have more issues and ideas themselves, especially if they are given opportunities to discuss their findings in class where the synergy of classroom dynamics can help students develop ideas beyond mere statements of fact.

Karen Burke LeFevre’s philosophy that writing is collaborative—a social product of the communities in which we participate—is especially germane here. Modern writers, LeFevre argues, cannot depend on using invention strategies such as topoi and other forms of stored knowledge as traditional rhetoricians could. Rather, writers today must acknowledge that writing is “an act initiated by writers and completed by readers, extending over time through a serious of transactions and texts” (1). Borrowing Russell Hunt’s inkshedding practice, then, can produce even greater advantages: besides putting students in a situation where writing to an audience is a natural byproduct, Hunt’s freewriting method also fosters a sense of automatic community as it allows a space for ideas from all students (not just the confident ones) to be heard. In Hunt’s words, “What differentiates the social practice of inkshedding from what we might call the expressivist practice of freewriting is that the text is read. And even more, that the text is read in what we can characterize as “dialogic” ways—that is, read for what it says . . . not in order to evaluate it or to help the writer improve her text” (4, emphasis in the original). Writing in this case assumes a more outer-directed goal: in addition to building one’s own writing skills, inkblotting is writing for the sake of discussion as a means to building a community.

Gestation Period

Perhaps the most frustrating element of my mom’s illness was timing. Regardless of her motivation and desire to be independent again, her recovery depended on her ability to feel her body—something that only time could change. Much of the work of her recovery, therefore, was spent doing things that looked nothing like work: she knitted, we talked, I read aloud to her, we planned. Over a period of months, though, she eventually regained sensation throughout her nervous system, at which point her motivation and desire played a key role in her complete, but still gradual, recovery. Integrating a gestation period into each writing assignment can have similarly positive effects on student writing. C. J. Jeney’s rationale for this is that students in a composition class “are quite often grappling with a subject they don’t like, and wrestling within that context with concepts that never were easy for them, concepts which mesh and compound and complicate each other, and sometimes cancel each other out. It takes time for these things to sink in” (3-4, emphasis in original).

In a typical semester-long composition course, though, it’s clearly impractical— even foolish—to consider paring down the curriculum or even procrastinating assignments for the sake of gestation. After all, as Donald Murray points out in what he calls the Law of Delay, “writing which can be delayed, will be” (375). Nonetheless, Murray’s conclusions are the same as Jeney’s. “There must be time for the seed of an idea to be nurtured in the mind,” he says. “Teachers and writers too often consider resistance to writing as evil, when, in fact, it is necessary” (Murray 375). In fact, Murray posits that one reason for the poor drafts of some students may be “that few writing teachers have ever allowed adequate time for prewriting” (375).

Michael Noble’s anti-process approach to writing may serve as a way to build gestation periods into a semester-long composition course without sacrificing other elements. He advocates using post-it notes as a means of recording “hunches and potentialities rather than ordered ideas” as students approach writing assignments (9). Using this system allows students to gather their thoughts as they come without being encumbered by the constraints of a process that Noble says many students find clichéd. Of course, the very logistics of such an approach deal inherently with the notion of a gestation period, because in order for the post-it notes to have a recognizable influence on a student’s writing, he or she needs the time to collect enough “hunches and potentialities” to begin to draft.

A simpler method of integrating a gestation period into the writing classroom might be to simply remind students throughout the semester of upcoming assignments a few weeks ahead of time. As the rhetorical analysis unit is winding down, for example, it may be useful to spend a few minutes of class time discussing possible topics for the issues paper. Although few (if any) students will settle on a topic weeks before they need to, the class discussion can act as the seed that Murray refers to—a subtle reminder to be on the lookout for a potential topic. If the other elements of writing therapy I’ve suggested here—modeling, repetitive activities, and building a sense a community—are employed, then merely directing the students’ attention forward may give them enough time to mull over what they’ll have to produce next. If they’ve already seen writing modeled in class (and therefore learned that effective writing is the product of work, not necessarily inspiration), if they’re practicing writing regularly enough that it begins to feel habitual to record their thoughts and insights, if they can use class time to introduce one another to new ideas as they discuss (through reading and writing) topics germane to the class, then perhaps as students consider the writing tasks required of them, their initial paralysis will disappear when the time to really begin writing comes.

Overcoming both literal and figurative paralysis is a liberating, though gradual, process. Strangers watching my mom walk today might never imagine that just a year ago she lay on her back, completely incapacitated by the disease that gripped her nervous system. Many writing students find themselves frozen as they approach their writing tasks; they can only see themselves as “bad” writers—the kind of students who just don’t have the gift. As instructors become more aware of the kinds of experiences that inform their own invention processes, though, they will be better equipped to help students deal with their writing paralysis and offer them the steps that will liberate their writing.



Works Cited

Bahner, Susan. “Short Takes on Writing: The 60-Minute Collaborative Paper.” College Teaching 43 (1995): 14-15.

Brent, Doug. Reading as Rhetorical Invention: Knowledge, Persuasion, and the Teaching of Research-Based Writing. Urbana, Ill.: NCTE, 1992.

Glenn, Cheryl, Melissa A. Goldthwaite, and Robert Connors. The St. Martin’s Guide toTeaching Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.

Hunt, Russell. “What Is ‘Inkshedding?’” Inkshed Working Conference, Mont Gabriel, Quebec, Canada. 6-9 May 1999.

Jeney, C. J. “Bringing Them Home: Stretch 101 . . . A Practical Guide to the Long Haul.” Conference on College Composition and Communication, Milwaukee, WI. 27-30 Mar. 1996.

LeFevre, Karen Burke. Invention as a Social Act. Carbondale, IL.: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.

Murray, Donald M. “Write before Writing.” College Composition and Communication 29 (1978): 375–82.

Nobel, Michael. “A Post-It Note Pedagogy: Investigating the “Petit Recit” in an Emergent Model of the Writing Process.” Conference on College Composition and Communication, Phoenix, AZ. 12-15 Mar. 1997.

Winter, Janet K. “Student Perceptions of the Value of a Prewriting Problem-Solving Plan.” Business Communication Quarterly 59 (1996): 47-55.