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Light Night for Writing

Don’t spend hours staring at a blank page…

München, 03/02/2015

On 5th March, LMU’s Writing Center will hold its first “Light Night for Reluctant Writers”. Here, the Center’s Director, Dr. Bärbel Harju, talks about how to conquer writers’ block and get the words rolling onto the page.

Source: Jan Greune / LMU

Do students really need such an event to persuade them complete long-postponed essays and term papers?
Bärbel Harju: Students are quite capable of completing seminar papers and term assignments on their own – though it may require more effort. A night session dedicated solely to getting writing assignments done, in the company of others like oneself, provides a very different context for creative thought, far away from an all-too-familiar writing desk. The unaccustomed atmosphere boosts motivation and productivity, stimulating one to tackle the project that one has shied away from. And when problems arise, there is someone nearby to give useful advice. This saves valuable time, especially for students who are facing an imminent deadline. Our advisors will be on hand throughout, so students don’t have to wait until they can consult their professor. And we will have a motivation coach in attendance, who can help those who experience acute writers’ block. But learning to enjoy writing is the real point of the exercise.

Why did you decide to hold a Light Night devoted to the topic at this point?
The idea of arranging an event to help students who tend to defer writing tasks has been around for some time. It was first implemented at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder). Now, many writing centers around the world provide such one-off late-night courses. This reason why this is the first at LMU is that the Faculty of Languages and Literatures formally decided to set up a Writing Center only in January. The Light Night for Reluctant Writers is a wonderful opportunity for us to make people aware of the existence of the new Writing Center, and to establish contacts with similar facilities elsewhere in Germany. Our Center is just finding its feet, but we have lots of ambition and every intention of growing.

The Light Night actually begins at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and ends at 11. Do you really expect students to type away on their laptops for seven hours at a stretch?
Certainly not! We have put together a varied program for participants: We will demonstrate ways to relax and limber up cramped muscles, one can learn yoga techniques for typists, and one of our tutors will take participants for a nocturnal stroll in the neighborhood, so that they can get a breath of fresh air. On no account should one sit for seven hours at one’s desk gazing at a blinking cursor! We recommend taking a 10- to 15-minute break every hour – it is hard to concentrate for longer periods, and this kind of rhythm helps keep the words flowing.

And what sort of help can you offer to those who can’t get started or get stuck in the middle?
I would advise them first to visit our Motivation Coach’s Workshop, which takes place in parallel. To find out where the problem lies, it helps to put questions to yourself. You have to develop your own personal writing strategy. If you have difficulty finding a central theme, is it because the topic is framed too broadly? Or are personal problems getting in the way and keeping you away from your desk? Maybe it’s the very first assignment one has been asked to write at university. Instead of sitting down and getting on with the task, many students are petrified by the challenge. I always tell students to get started as soon as possible. The first few lines don’t have to be perfect; maybe they won’t even be recognizable in the final version. But it is important to put those first few sentences down, to get beyond the stage of staring at a blank page.

Why do so many students tend to procrastinate when it comes to writing assignments?
Many students simply haven’t learned how to write in a productive manner. In other words, they have yet to discover the writing strategy that suits them best. Then there are the distractions offered by the smartphone and the internet. Students often have no clear idea of what is expected of them. They can’t get themselves organized, and are unable to break a complex task down into manageable portions. All that inhibits them from getting started.

What problems do students most frequently run into when writing formal academic prose?
The most common is probably ‘putting it off ’til tomorrow’: One sits there paralyzed by the blank sheet of paper and a blank mind, and can’t get started. Many students also find it hard to structure a text. How do I organize the content in a logical way? How do I formulate a research problem? How do I construct a strong central thesis? They tend to get lost in the details and can’t come up with a guiding theme.
Another important factor is the language and stylistic level of academic writing. If I have to write a paper on international security policy, the result should not sound like a school essay on how I spent my summer holidays. I always advise inexperienced students to read the research literature in their field – that’s also a good way to learn to write in an appropriate style.

Will the Light Night be able to provide a relaxed atmosphere that is conducive to writing?
Yes, the basic idea is to give the participants a quiet refuge where they can concentrate on what they’re here to do. But of course they can always pop into the Writers’ Café for a coffee, or call on a tutor for help, or discuss their work with other students. Seeing others at work actually motivates those who are slower off the mark. One can see this in libraries. Some students who are listless and inhibited at home soon get into their stride in the library, where others like them are at work.

As you mentioned, participants will also have the chance to learn relaxation techniques and loosening-up exercises. Yoga for typists and a break for a stroll are also on the agenda. All this implies that students are exposed to too much stress.
I do think that students today have to cope with higher levels of stress than their predecessors did. That has a lot to with the modular structure of courses nowadays, and the stricter deadlines for completion of assignments. In the past, students doing a Master’s course were more or less able to divide up their vacation assignments as they wished. Many students now tell me that must hand in three term papers within as many weeks. That’s really a lot.
In addition, there has been a change of paradigm. Students used to be far more willing to try things out – even if it meant that they would need an extra semester to finish their university education. But most of today’s students are afraid of “wasting” a whole semester.

What should students bring with them?
A laptop with the project files on board. We will take care of everything else: refreshments, snacks, fruit. We offer a writing clinic, and rooms in which one can work without distractions or disturbances. What we do expect participants to bring with them are questions – the more specific, the better – although you’re also welcome to turn up with just a puzzled expression on your face. Our writing consultants are there to diagnose the problem that has kept one from finishing the assignment.

The Light Night for the Reluctant Writer takes place on Thursday, the 5th of March in the LMU Lehrturm (Room W401) on Professor-Huber-Platz 2, and lasts from 4 in the afternoon until 11 at night. Intending participants should register for the event by the 4th of March. Tuition and tips will also be given in English.

harjuDr. Bärbel Harju is Head of the Writing Center in LMU’s Faculty of Languages and Literatures.