Writer’s Block: Drafting the Reader’s Digest Version of Your Paper

Ever have the problem where you know what you want to say in a paper but cannot seem to articulate your ideas intelligibly in writing? Here’s a quick tip that has always helped me out when I run into this situation. Whenever I am sitting at my computer, staring at an empty word document and wondering why on earth I can’t seem to type a single word, it helps me to draft up a short, colloquial, often horribly ineloquent mini-paper from which to draw inspiration. If I am able to verbalize what I want to talk about but have trouble translating that into prose, I talk through my paper aloud while jotting down everything that I am saying, no matter how disjointed and unsophisticated it may sound. Often, the product of this process looks something like the following, a messy outline I constructed for a U.S. History Paper:

Thesis idea:
We can see, looking at the works of Winthrop + Edwards, that overtime in New England religious doctrine shifted from focusing on community to focusing on individuals.


Body Paragraph Ideas:
Group-oriented à more individualized

More peaceful à hell-fire speeches

Specific covenant of rules, more like political system à more lax system, “guidelines” that are specifically targeted as not necessarily bringing salvation

Remains constant that the Puritans are a chosen people

After jotting this down, I then took a break from the paper and came back to it a bit later. Even though my notes appear to be a rather disorganized mess at this stage, having them on paper rather than jumbled about in my brain really helped me to figure out how to begin. After looking at what I had scribbled down, it was much easier to come up with the following, much more coherent thesis:

An examination of the works of John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards, two Puritan intellectuals who bookend this period, illustrates the Puritans’ attempts to cope with this change, shifting a community-oriented doctrine to one stressing the individual and phasing out the political aspects of the covenant in favor of a predominately spiritual relationship between God and man.

I tend to edit as I write, never happy to leave a messy phrase in my paper in favor of moving on and coming back to fix it later. But sometimes, getting out all of the messy, inarticulate thoughts onto the page can be a really great and necessary starting point.

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