Writer’s block is a terrible plague for many authors. I rarely get it. I almost always have to remove large chunks of material from what I write in order to make it useful. I write lectures, speeches, and lessons literally every week. I also grade papers, essays, speeches, and research reports on a weekly basis. There are, as far as I can tell, four reasons for writer’s block:
- Trying to sound profound (This is part of the game in fiction and poetry.)
- Poor research
- An inability to make an argument
- Nothing to actually say
- Bonus Reason Five: A clever phrase for procrastination.
I have very little to say to help poets and fiction authors to overcome writer’s block. What I will say is this: Write about something else. Literally just write a narrative or a poem about something entirely unrelated to the project that has left you stumped. Write a narrative about your trip to the bank or a rhyme about your wait in the grocery line. That helps me come up with sermon illustrations and illustrations for speeches on engineering topics as well.
The big question is this. What can people who are writing term papers, essays, sermons, and persuasive speeches do to overcome writer’s block?
I introduce to you: The Common Topics
The common topics are not subjects of writing, but topics of argument or ways of making argument. The topics can be seen as tips for persuasion, but also as avenues of research. Aristotle had a list which has been expanded over the years. My favorite version of the common topics is in the book Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (Corbett and Connors). Here they are:
- Cause and effect
- Antecedent and Consequent
- Possible and Impossible
- Past Fact and Future Fact
Uses of the Common Topics:
- Research Tools:
When you’re doing research look for these types of support in relationship to your thesis statement, topic sentence, or rhetorical purpose. Find definitions that frame the paper in the direction you want it to go. Look for research that determines relationships, find testimonials and statistics about your topic, look for old quotes that seem to carry handed down truths, and try to determine logical relationships (possible/impossible). If you find enough evidence to establish deductive certainty or a high probability that a position is correct, then you are not only closer to that elusive truth you wish to grasp, but you are also ready to write a paper!
- Persuasive Tools:
If you know your audience, then you can determine which types of arguments will most convince them. For instance, personal testimonials work really well for people who want to experience personal transformation, whereas statistics and maxims do not seem to work very well. In a courtroom testimony, by way of example, is a very common form of argument. One tactic that I’ve witnessed work on a jury is utilizing audience sympathy for a party who, on the evidence presented, did not seem guilty. But when admissible evidence remained scarce, an appeal to pity worked very well.
- Reading Tools:
When you read a book and wonder, “How is the author actually making this point?” The common topics give you the tools. If the author makes the point without using them, then the point is not being made well or you’re not reading carefully enough.
- Mindset Tools:
The common topics give you mindset tools that help you be confident and humble when giving a speech and answering questions. You can say things because you have good evidence and feel confident and courageous in the process. But, because you know why you accept an idea, you can also be humble because other people might have good reasons for rejecting the idea. Knowing the common topics and how to use them can arm you for more confident and humble conversation. Knowing the common topics can also guard you against smooth operators who make claims with no support or spouts profundities with no apparent meaning.
The Common Topics are quintessential for any liberal arts education. Really, they matter for engineers and scientists. One has to consider whether or not the evidence in favor of a proposition of any type is compelling and which lines of it are most convincing to a particular audience.
Appendix: The Specific Topics
- Deliberative (speeches meant to call people to action)
- Inherent Worth
- Forensic (speeches meant to convince people of the truth of a proposition concerning past fact)
- Evidence (whether something happened)
- Definition (what is the nature of the thing)
- Motives/Causes (qualities and circumstances)
- Ceremonial (speeches celebrating people, virtues, institutions, and so-on)
- Virtues and Vices
- Personal Assets and Achievements
Corbett, Edward P.J, and Robert J Connors. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.