Suffering from writer’s block? Maybe you need an audience

Now on Zoom, the famous motivation program Shut Up & Write is helping U of T students stop procrastinating


When you’ve got something to write, there’s nothing more intimidating than that blank piece of paper – or screen. It’s so easy to just check out Instagram, prepare a snack or scroll through your Netflix recommendations instead.

Add to that a deadly pandemic and the subsequent sense of fear, uncertainty and enforced solitude, and you’ve got a major excuse to keep procrastinating. 

Enter Shut Up & Write, a University of Toronto program that can give you a much-needed sense of structure and discipline to work on writing projects. Run by the Gerstein Library since 2018, the in-person class has allowed any U of T student – undergrad, grad, post-grad or even faculty members – to participate. After the group was cancelled in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, it launched again in May with virtual sessions. And they’ve been very popular.

“Even before COVID-19, students were anxious about writing,” explains Heather Cunningham, the interim director of Gerstein Science Information Centre, who began the program.

“Writing is a solitary activity – you’re alone in your dorm room or your apartment. When you couple the anxiety of writing with that sense of isolation – and compound that with COVID-19, because now you can’t get together in groups – it became even more necessary to create an online social space for students.”

Cunningham sought permission to use the Shut Up & Write name – it started in San Francisco in the 00s and has since branched out all over the world. The two-hour sessions use the Pomodoro technique, which consists of several 30-minute bursts of writing, punctuated with five-minute breaks. At the beginning of the session, which is now held on Zoom, there’s a chance to introduce yourself and what you hope to write, and a brief time to chat socially at the end. 

The introductory remarks help give each student a structure and feeling of accountability.

“If you say out loud, ‘I’m going to write Chapter 2 of my Master’s Thesis,’ or ‘I have a biochemistry assignment and need to write up my discussion section,’ it will help give you focus and make you commit to something,” says Cunningham. “That way you won’t just spend the time writing emails.”

Although you’re not barred from checking your cellphone – there’s only so much the Zoom camera can pick up, after all – students are asked to silence them and turn off any notifications, since sounds can distract others.

Although not every participant has a computer with webcam and audio access, the video helps because it’s more personal. 

“It shows you’ve made a commitment and you’ve shown up,” explains Kieran Menzies McGarry, a graduate student who oversees the weekly Zoom sessions.

And the sense of others being around – even on a screen – can help keep you in line. 

Cunningham recalls one student who tried using the Pomodoro technique at home, setting a timer for 30 minutes and taking a break. It didn’t work.

“Without that positive peer pressure around her, she found it difficult to do,” says Cunningham. “She needed people around her. Some people have organized their whole day around a Shut Up & Write class. We used to run it in person on Thursday mornings, and people would say Thursday morning was their writing time, and they’d do everything else in the afternoon.”

@glennsumi

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