Writing Tutor: What to Do When You Can't Get Started

Posted by Christine Hsieh on 7/28/14 10:57 AM

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In my 1 on 1 tutoring sessions with students in Boston, I’ve been able to see in action the good old mental barricades that regularly come up for all of us when we’re trying to approach some fearsome academic assignment.  And before we know it, we've read 32 Buzzfeed listicles, and we hate ourselves for succumbing once again to procrastination.

One thing that can invite in this familiar foe is actually the fear of commitment - to an idea, a method for the assignment, an opinion for an essay.  It’s a particularly challenging circumstance when you allow this kind of commitment-phobia to fester, because it can completely hold you back.  Maybe you’re afraid that if you write about this topic on the standardized test, it will lead to failure.  Or perhaps you’re afraid of choosing that certain stance on the topic, because it’s the “wrong” one.  Or it’s choosing that one concluding sentence that has you paralyzed, frozen in indecision, losing precious seconds.  So here I have some mental gymnastics to practice to avoid these eternal ruts.

Use infinity to your advantage.  

It’s true that there are probably infinite ways you could answer certain essay questions that would yield bad scores.  Did I really just say that?  Yes I did – because conversely, there are also infinite ways you could answer those questions well.  If there are any mathematicians, philosophers, or even physicists reading this, you’re probably experiencing a deep feeling of objection to this reasoning; after all, there can’t be infinite existence of two contradictory things existing simultaneously!  Or can there?  When you’re stuck being afraid to commit to the answer that you have started to formulate, remember: there isn’t one right way only, there are many, many right ways.  Yours could be one.  Think of all the correct answers you have waiting in your repertoire of knowledge, not the mistakes you could make.  Get going on making that answer great! And if you realize a few paragraphs in that you’re off-track, well, there are far worse things in life than having to toss a few paragraphs.

Stop thinking, start doing.  

Being stuck in a room full of unmarked doors is a classic cinematic suspense scenario, whether in a video game or our favorite movie.  But in all cases, if the protagonist never goes through any door, she never leaves that room - and that’s a fact.  We’ll have to step outside the game and movie analogies at this point, because real life doesn’t involve lions behind doors or traps and pits lurking in the shadows beyond the doorway.  Instead, in reality, choosing to go in one direction suddenly makes what you are doing real, and reality can bring sweet relief.  It will come in the form of fewer options to choose from as you go along, and in the end, you will only turn in ONE term paper, ONE answer to question 5, and ONE final exam.  You may complete more than one iteration of a standardized test, but at any given time you are still only completing ONE.  Regardless of what comes after, each time you complete something, you are free to go on to see what you learned, and what reality will bring to you next.  Then, you can make decisions again, with more knowledge, skill, and experience under your belt!

So the next time you find yourself with analysis-paralysis, just stop, and take a breath.  Think of your infinite toolkit of handy solutions, and leave that hesitation behind.  You have the answer within!


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Tags: expository writing