Oregon State Bar Bulletin — OCTOBER 2006

The Legal Writer
Unblocking Writer's Block:
Moving ideas from head to page

By Suzanne E. Rowe

The blank page stares back from your computer screen. The empty whiteness mocks you for all the words you haven’t yet written. The clock ticks away as the deadline approaches. How do you get over the hurdle of writer’s block and begin to move fledgling ideas from your head to the page?

Each of the following suggestions allows you — in fact requires you — to quickly and uncritically throw ideas on the page. Once you’re over the block, you can go back and carefully organize, revise, rework, edit and proof. But before you have words on the page, there’s nothing to organize, revise, rework, edit or proof. Here’s how to start.

Dump your brain
Sometimes your head is so full of ideas, concepts, new leads and possible counter-arguments that you can’t see a way to get these thoughts on the page in a coherent way. You need a bit more brain space to see your way through — a bit more room on your mental hard drive.

One solution is the "brain dump." The goal of a brain dump is to move as much information as possible out of your head and onto a page. That will free up space for critical thinking.

So give yourself 10 minutes to write as much as you can, as fast as you can. Don’t think about typos, organization or even coherence. In fact, try to look out the window so that you don’t see the drivel that is pouring through your hands and onto the page. If you’re really stuck, you may have to begin by writing "I don’t know where to start" five times, which will fill five lines of text. But then describe what you know and move on to what you think. Most of all, just dump it all out.

The point of a brain dump is quantity not quality. You don’t decide during a brain dump whether an idea is strong or weak; you just write it down. For 10 minutes, dump ideas as fast as you can. Of course, you can keep writing after 10 minutes, but the short block of time is less overwhelming.

Assessment comes later, when you’ve gotten some brain cells freed up. At that point, you can skim through and see where themes emerge, how thoughts should be organized. You’ll be deleting big blocks of text from the garbage you dumped out, but at least you’ll be able to identify it as garbage by comparison to the diamond sitting in the next line.

Talk to yourself
If dumping on your computer screen doesn’t work — perhaps because you can’t ignore how imperfect all the garbage looks — try talking your way through the garbage first.

The old-fashioned way to do this is with a Dictaphone. These are inexpensive, and you might even find one gathering dust in the office supply closet. Prop your feet on the desk and press "play." Talk, talk, talk. Say everything you know about the issue, the law, possible solutions and further questions.

Then ask a very patient secretary to transcribe your garbage while you get some coffee or turn to another project. (You may want to explain that you realize this is garbage so that the secretary doesn’t report your pitiful work product to the firing squad.) When you come back, continue as if you’d dumped the words on the page yourself. Look for themes, connections and the occasional beautiful phrase that rolled off your tongue unnoticed. When you move to the assessment phase, you’ll still need to delete lots of garbage, but you’ll uncover some treasures, too.

The 21st century way to talk to yourself is with voice activated software. It’s getting better all the time, and it will save your secretary the pain of transcribing your garbage. Whether you dump on your own computer or ask someone to transcribe junk for you, at the end of the exercise you’ll have words on the page and the cursor won’t look so lonely blinking there by itself.

Find a friend
Another way to overcome writer’s block is to go for a walk with a colleague who is a very good friend (i.e., willing to invest precious time in your project with no credit). Take an index card and a pencil in your pocket. Then start talking your way through the problem.

As you walk and talk, you’ll see how the organization needs to flow and you’ll put into words your rudimentary thoughts. Your friend will naturally ask questions whenever your analysis has holes or your ideas get murky. You’ll see where you need to organize your explanation differently as your friend’s face crunches into a question mark. Occasionally a lightning bolt will strike with a great way to express one of your half-formed thoughts. Stop and take some quick notes. Once you’re back in the office, staring at the blank page, you’ll be armed with ideas you’ve already tried out, and putting them on the page should seem less intimidating.

Create a bubble chart
Outlines can help overcome writer’s block, but they sometimes carry baggage from papers written in high school under the watchful eye of a draconian teacher. If you were taught that all outlines must begin with a roman "I" and follow with points "A," "B," "C," you may assume that outlines are straightjackets. But some are liberating, like the bubble chart.

A bubble chart springs from a loose set of scribblings on a page. This is messy, so get a large sheet of paper before you start. Write down one key idea about your project, and circle it in a bubble. Write down more ideas, encircling each in a bubble. Continue scribbling until all your ideas are on paper. As you go, draw lines between the bubbles that are somehow related. At this point, you’re just brainstorming connections and organization, so don’t stop to think about which items are major points and which are sub-headings. Just bubble in ideas and draw lines between them to show they are somehow related.

When you’ve exhausted your store of ideas, look critically at the bubble chart. Which ideas are connected by lines (and thus fit together analytically)? Does one bubble have lots of related lines (suggesting a major topic)? Is any bubble unrelated to others (and possibly a useless idea)?

Use different color highlighters to show which ideas are closely related, and decide what theme unifies those ideas. Then transfer your work to a page of text, either as an outline or as rough paragraphs.

Write while researching
Every project has that critical moment when you have to stop researching and start writing. That is, unless you begin writing while still deep in the research phase.

Begin outlining your ideas as you research them. Start with a rough outline of the questions, issues, elements or factors involved in your project. As research fills in your analysis, add key ideas and citations to your outline. Don’t think about how perfectly you’re writing each sentence; just get the thoughts down in some semblance of order. Because your focus at this point will be on researching, you’re less likely to become hyper sensitive to how you’re writing the outline.

At some point, you may find yourself writing big chunks of text simply because the research has uncovered a concept that suits your situation perfectly or because the analysis is finally coming together. By the time your research is complete, you’ll have at least a thorough outline. You may even have a rough draft. That’s a sure cure for writer’s block!

Suzanne Rowe is is an associate professor at the University or Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. You may contact her at srowe@law.uoregon.edu.

© 2006 Suzanne Rowe

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