Standing in front of a camera in the empty University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan Campus Library, Assistant Professor Stephen Florian spoke of something he believes affects everyone at some point in work or school: writer's block.
"Writer's block: why we get hung up when writing everything from emails to novels" was the title of Thursday evening's virtual "AskUAS" lecture.
"AskUAS" is a series of events that gives local professors the chance to deliver presentations and answer questions about a topic in their field of study.
Due to COVID-19 concerns, Florian's presentation was held via Facebook Live on Thursday evening, and attracted a digital crowd of about 15 viewers.
The presentation was the first to be held completely online and live by UAS this academic year.
Florian, a former professor at the University of California Northridge, is now UAS Ketchikan's assistant professor of writing and communication.
He has experience teaching classes in universities throughout the country in the fields of composition and rhetoric.
Florian opened his presentation by talking about how he chose his topic.
"When they asked me to do an AskUAS, they said, 'Well what would you like to do an AskUAS about?' And I said, 'I don't know,'" Florian said.
Then, he decided that writer's block was an interesting topic.
He recalled that he brought the idea to his wife, and when she asked Florian what he would specifically talk about on the subject, he replied that he didn't know.
"She said, sounds like you might have writer's block," Florian remembered.
He thought she might be right and set about learning more.
After his research yielded sparse results, Florian thought it would be an interesting topic to expand upon during the hour-long presentation.
"The reason why we chose this topic is it's something that happens to a lot of people, but it's not something that gets talked about a lot," Florian said. "Especially in the academic world."
Florian first explained writer's block based on a quote from author Mike Rose: "Writer's block, then, can be defined as an inability to begin or continue writing for reasons other than a lack of basic skill or commitment."
Florian said it's not just students who experience writer's block, joking that the name sounded like a medical condition.
Florian said there are many reasons why a writer might feel stuck while working on a project, whether it's a letter, email, speech or paper.
Anxiety is a common reason that a person develops writer's block in relation to work tasks or school assignments, according to Florian.
At work, Florian said that business letters, reference letters or promotion letters might cause trouble because of workplace pressure.
"If your letter is not readable it affects your credibility as a writer," he said, noting that co-workers often judge each other on their written work.
Additionally, reputations may be "at stake" when writing for work, Florian said.
"You're never quite sure how people are going to read your writing, and so if you are thinking about your audience and the reader, this can sometime cause a lot of anxiety. Especially when the stakes are high," Florian said.
High-stakes situations might include writing about a promotion or raise, he suggested.
Florian then moved into discussing how many people believe they just aren't able to be good writers.
That's often not the case.
Florian cited the fact that most people can have casual conversations without stalling for the right tone or words — even if that might change when it comes to taking pen to paper.
Florian also noted that everyone is "hardwired" to be able to recognize good grammar, even if mistakes are made.
For example, young children often speak in ways that are grammatically correct, but their writing doesn't reflect that same knowledge, according to Florian.
"But when we have to put it down on paper, we're then externalizing that process, that language process," he said.
People then "internalize these levels of shame about their writing" due to this anxiety, Florian said.
This shame feeds into writing-related anxiety and in turn develops into writer's block.
Sources of anxiety may be an unclear prompt, rigid rules, poor planning or heavy editing, Florian shared.
Some may be afraid of criticism.
"We feel like our writing is going to be judged and we don't want to show it to other people," Florian said.
Many times, people avoid writing — making them targets for writer's block — because they were told in the past that they don't write well.
"It's easier to say that than really sort of dig into what the actual problem is," he said.
During the course of the lecture, Florian repeatedly said that a person's "intelligence isn't fixed" when it comes to learning to write.
After identifying reasons that writer's block may manifest, Florian shared some ways that writers — whether students or not — can combat these issues.
"You can either suffer or come up with productive strategies to work around it and work your way through it," he said.
Florian suggested finding a friendly reader to look over your work, or that enlisting the help of a designated editor also might be handy.
Creating an imaginary audience also has been found to be helpful.
"If you can think about someone who you either want to impress or someone who doesn't think you're smart and you want to show them you're smart, ... if that's a thing that motivates you to get writing on this project, great," Florian said. "If you can label this imagined audience, put all your people in there, you can use different people at different moments for different writing projects. And it's going to change the way you approach that writing project."
Florian called this method "extremely effective."
Merely sharing an idea that is causing writer's block also may help move past the issue.
"Having a conversation with somebody about that idea or concept can be incredibly illuminating," he said.
Florian's favorite method of moving past writer's block is creating a "mind map."
"The basic idea of the mind map is you have a big idea in the middle," Florian explained.
Smaller concepts branch off the central idea and the writer can begin to organize thoughts into categories.
Florian said that for every concept in a mind map, a paragraph could be written, turning a 30-page paper into a seemingly more manageable task when it boils down to a paragraph for every idea.
"The more time and space you can give yourself to think about this concept ... and fill in this mind map, the less likely you're going to be jammed up when it comes to writing," Florian said.
There is no wrong way to make a mind map.
"As long as it makes you want to look back at it again and keep thinking about it and keep digging in, great, keep doing it," Florian said.
Florian also stressed that first drafts aren't supposed to be perfect — during the writing process, he said that "bursts of ideas and concepts" often arise, and they aren't always orderly.
Mistakes will be made, and no first draft will be perfect, Florian emphasized.
"People refer to them as mistakes, but in a way, they're not necessarily mistakes. They're purposeful."
He said that writing is similar to a muscle, and must be exercised to become better.