Archive for February, 2014

An examination of writer’s block

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

One of my early blogs related to how I coach people who are struggling to pass exams – not because they don’t have the knowledge, but because they panic or talk themselves out of it, or something similar. This work is often with CIPD candidates, and I worked with another such person in the lead up to the exam at the end of January.

One specific aspect we worked on together was that of writer’s block. Have you been in that situation? You have a pen in your hand or your fingers are hovering over the keyboard with that pristine piece of paper or the blank screen … and nothing happens. Where do you start? What do you start with? The longer you wait, the harder it can become – you convince yourself it will not happen, and so of course it doesn’t.

Perhaps the starting point for all this is our brain – and how we have been trained to use it since childhood.  At school we were taught to be very reliant on our left brain – using its logic, detail and patterns – however, the creativity and flow comes from the right brain. Sadly, the left brain doesn’t get the right brain, and vice versa – they don’t play together well.

The consequence of this is that if we attempt to generate ideas and write creatively (with our right brain) and structure and edit our work at the same time (with our left brain) it often doesn’t work very well. Our efforts become victim to our brains’ battles … and the paper or screen remains blank and our fingers are like living statues.

As an aside, do you know what your personal preference is for the use of your left or right brain? This fun experiment from Youtube can tell you!

The other increasingly evident issue for those taking written time-bound examinations is their normal reliance on computers. The younger members of society have been brought up on computers. They have never had to get a document just right from the start – pen and paper or typewriters were never very forgiving if you got your sequencing wrong. Secondly, writing with a pen for 2 or 3 hours is hard work if it’s not something you are used to – another aspect that if dwelt on, confidence can start to ooze out of their pen far quicker than any ink does.

Those are the problems. Here are some top tips to experiment with:

1              If it happens don’t say to yourself (more than once), “I’ve got writers block”. It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and make it much more difficult to change your state. Move around in your chair a little, stretch your hands and use one of the following techniques which you will already have tried and tested …

2              The University of Reading suggests you should, put your pen down, take a deep breath, sit back and relax for a moment. If you’re in the middle of an answer, read through what you have written so far – what happens next? If you have to remember formulae, try associating them with pictures or music while revising. If you really can’t progress with this answer, leave a gap. It will probably come back to you once you are less anxious.”  Becoming less anxious is easier said than done, you may say to yourself – possibly, but here are some tips to assist you.

3              Warwick University Counselling Services suggest, “brain-storming or making a mind map of the information”, together with, “Try to ignore any critical voices in your head. Don’t aim for ‘perfect’; remember your objective is to get yourself working again.” I have outlined the issue of ‘being perfect’ in previous blogs, together with how to address it.

4              And ‘perfection’ means 100% – but you don’t need 100%! The majority of exams require between 40% and 70% to pass.  Remind yourself of this. You can (and will!) make mistakes and drop marks – it happens with everyone in every exam.

5              Author Seth Godin says, “No one ever gets talkers block”. I’m not sure that’s completely accurate, but I understand what he means.  If you are stuck, start talking to yourself as if you were talking to your tutor or explaining the ides to a friend or colleague.

6              Another option is to start in the middle of an essay. Leave the first page blank and come back to it later. Report writers will complete the Executive Summary last of all, even though it is at the start of the report – consider completing your introduction as the last part of your essay.

7              Perhaps you are an auditory person – you learn and are motivated through listening. If so, there may be a song that helps you. For me, the Eagles’ “Do Something” fires me out of inaction in certain circumstances. I hum or sing the chorus and off I go! Here are some of the lyrics:

But when I feel like giving up
And I’m ready to walk away
In the stillness, I can hear
A voice inside me say
Do something
Do something

Don’t leave it up for someone else
Don’t feel sorry for yourself
Why don’t you do something?
Do something
It’s not over
No, it’s never too late
Do something
Don’t wait too long
Even if it’s wrong
You’ve got to do something
Do something

8              Finally, what’s to say you have to use every line on the page? In most exams you are marked for content rather than the number of lines you use or don’t use. Your take on normality and acceptability will possibly make it harder for you to only use alternate lines, or leaving 5 lines between paragraphs – but try it. This will give you the chance to go back and make additional points if you wish to – thus releasing the concern of having to get it right first time.

One or more of these ides will help you to start writing something meaningful – and once you get that first point or sentence down it becomes a whole lot easier.

Final tip – don’t leave this until the day of the exam to practice. Try them out beforehand (as suggested in Tip 1). You will then know which work for you – which will give you additional confidence as you wait to turn over the exam paper …

Do you have other tips that work?

Let me know which ones work for you.

Paul