Tips to Overcome Writer’s Block

I spend a lot of time working with higher education leaders to distill their thoughts and develop their ideas into topics for op-eds or other works. Despite the fact that we are discussing their areas of expertise, many become nervous once it’s time to begin the writing process.


I find writing to a soothing activity, but I know for many it can be stressful. Below are a few tips that work for me and hopefully will be of assistance to those who aren’t sure how to get started on a writing project or are interested in new approaches.


1. Allow yourself to write until you are done and only then edit your work.
I was lucky enough to attend a book reading and Q&A last week with Matthew Thomas. His first novel, “We Are Not Ourselves,” debuted on the New York Times best sellers list earlier this month at the #6 spot. He shared that he handwrote the 620-page book, because when he types he writes and then immediately edits, rewrites and re-edits the same passage in a highly time-consuming process that often stunts his forward motion. When he handwrites he allows himself to complete his thoughts and work more creatively. His original handwritten prose needs less editing than the words he reworks otherwise.


2. If you believe you are a poor writer, think through how you are most comfortable sharing your ideas and then proceed accordingly.
Last week I had a conversation with a colleague who doubts her writing skills but knows she is a solid presenter. I’ve asked her to record herself giving a presentation and then have the text transcribed. That text will serve as the starting point for a piece she has the expertise to author but was too scared to begin drafting.


3. Consider all resources available to you.
I’m still a fan of the paper copies of my thesaurus and style guides, but today’s online resources and apps available may just make me ditch my paper copies.


4. Rely on your colleagues and friends for support and ideas.
Sometimes when I’m stuck, I call or IM Kristine, Kyle or Erin and have a brief brainstorming session. We’ve talked about policy and case studies as well as goofy topics and unrelated ideas but all three have helped me find ways to reground myself. My husband is also a great sounding board, because he doesn’t work in higher education and often reminds me of the perspectives of those who don’t talk about academic issues everyday.


5. Take the time you need.
I work with a number of people who put off writing assignments until the last minute, but remember, tight timelines stifle creativity. There’s nothing worse that tackling a project, getting enthused about it as it progresses and then not having the time to finish it as strongly as you’d like.


6. And if you’re stuck, sometimes all you need is a shower :) .
Theresa Walker, senior editor of CURRENTS magazine, shared, “If I’m working on headlines, reworking a lede, or stuck on a closing (or some other idea), I think about it in the shower. I don’t focus on anything specific, I just let my mind wander. It doesn’t always work, but it usually helps, and I know that I’m not the only person who does this (see Mental Floss and LifeHacker articles). I know I won’t be able to hold onto the idea for long–it’s like trying to remember a dream–so I record my thoughts with the ‘voice memos’ app on my phone. Make your rote activities (showering, teeth brushing, or whatever) work for you.”


What other tips do those who love or dread writing find helpful? Any resources out there we should know about? I look forward to your comments on this topic.

Knight Commission Meeting Recap

I am headed back to my new home city (Richmond, Virginia) after spending a productive and enjoyable few days in my old home city (Washington, DC). Part of the reason I came to town was the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics’ meeting on Monday morning.


I have known and thought highly of the Knight Commission and its work for some time now, and it was great to attend the meeting and hear from a compelling lineup of speakers.


The meeting received some excellent coverage in major trade and national outlets (read some of my favorite clips here, here and here). Some highlights and key takeaways include:


1.) Concussion research is advancing at a remarkable pace. The meeting opened with a presentation from Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s Chief Medical Officer. Hainline discussed the recently announced initiative between the NCAA and the U.S. Department of Defense to collect a set of data on the effects of concussion—the most comprehensive study of its kind to date.


Hearing about the scope and science behind the study was fascinating. Hainline has been calling for such a database for some time and it is great to see the NCAA, the U.S. Department of Defense and many higher education institutions putting their muscle behind this effort.


2.) The challenges facing college athletics are as thorny as ever. The panel discussion on the future of college athletics was a highlight for me. I loved the balance of the panel speakers. Sandy Hatfield Clubb and Oliver Luck both contributed the perspective of sitting athletic directors, albeit at very different institutions. Dan Beebe was a particularly interesting panelist considering how he was impacted by the recent round of conference realignment.


However, the discussion also served as a reminder just how complex the college athletics conversation truly is. This was brought into particular focus by Sandy Hatfield Clubb. While other speakers focused on the business and governance side of college athletics, she was the only panelist who spoke about specific ways athletics can serve as part of the educational mission of an institution. It was illustrative of the broader gap between academics and athletics – just one of the many athletics-related challenges facing administrators.


I was pleased to hear the Knight Commission announce a new study on financial pressures, governance etc. Hopefully this will shed new light on ways institutions can control costs and provide a better experience for their student athletes.


3.) The Knight Commission is getting younger. Myron Rolle was a panelist at the first Knight Commission meeting I attended in 2006. Back then, he was a five-star high school football recruit preparing to play at Florida State University. Since then, he has earned a Rhodes Scholarship, studied at Oxford University, been drafted into the NFL and enrolled in medical school (class of 2017) with plans to become a neurosurgeon. Not too shabby, eh?


Rolle became the Knight Commission’s newest member at Monday’s meeting. His youth and unique experience are sure to add a great deal of value to future Knight Commission initiatives. I can’t wait to hear his contributions at future events.

TFA: Transforming for America?

As I mentioned in a recent post, I was woefully unprepared for my first job, a high school English teacher in Denver Public Schools. I landed that job through Teach for America.


When people ask me about my corps experience, I always hesitate. Ultimately I’ll respond, “It was interesting,” or, if there’s more time, I’ll elaborate and explain that it’s hard for me to comment because there were so many moving pieces and no one else has had my exact series of circumstances and factors.


Part of the issue is that I don’t know where I stand on TFA, even in hindsight. But I do know some of the things that rubbed me the wrong way were how defensive the organization (and many of the leaders I dealt with directly) always seemed against criticism, as well as how much the superhero syndrome was drilled into corps members’ heads. And then I read this—as an alum who has stayed in the education realm, I felt hopeful.


Seriously, I could weep. Alumni discussions with new co-CEOs. New pilot programs. Sending teachers to areas of teacher shortages, not areas with layoffs and hiring freezes. A willingness to engage in honest, tough conversations about change. These things actually make me feel proud, not ambivalent, about my participation in this organization. It’s so great that TFA is looking to evolve and develop after becoming a prestigious name brand.


I’m interested to know if the new CEOs and organization leaders are talking to community members more. Are they engaging veteran teachers who’ve had success in their classrooms? Or with other teacher-preparation programs or with civic all-stars who came through schools without TFAers in the classroom and have risen to serve the needs of their neighborhoods?


Whether you love or hate Teach for America (or if you’re like me and the jury’s still out, even several years later), this article is a must-read. I can’t wait to read the rest of Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars—or to see what comes next from TFA. Maybe “One Day” will be sooner than we think.

TVP Communications Week in Review

The next time you see the TVP Communications team, hopefully we’ll be decked out in some serious embroidered neon tracksuit swag. Until then, you’ll have to just get your dose of us by reading the Week in Review!


What’s new this week:


We were very excited to have a “PR hat trick” in the Washington Post this week! The Adler School of Professional Psychology, Drake University and Frostburg State University were all featured in an article by Amy Joyce about helicopter parents ruining college students. The story made it to the number one spot on the “Most Read” list on the Washington Post site; Joyce and her article were also highlighted on the Today Show.


What we’ve been talking about:


In the wake of the Sotloff and Foley tragedies, Kristine Maloney shared her conflicted thoughts about the future of war reporting and war correspondents.


The release of Aspiring Adults Adrift struck a chord with two members of our team this week. Ali Lincoln reflected on her first adult job experience and Brian Wachur called into question responsibility and expectations of college degrees.



You may also be interested in:


Some thoughts on why links between sexual assault and alcohol are so tricky for college campuses.


Goucher College is taking a transcript-free transcript-free approach to admissions, offering a video-only application option.



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Another Take on “Aspiring Adults Adrift”

While I sometimes can trick myself into thinking I’m still a young, fresh college grad, my hairline, wedding ring and early bedtime all provide regular reminders that I am no longer part of that demographic. Still, it’s easy enough for me to look back on those first few years after college and remember living at home, being broke and feeling “adrift.”


So, the news that many college graduates have a bumpy transition into “the real world” was not particularly surprising to me. Many smart, successful professionals (like my colleague Ali Lincoln) started off “adrift” and have since blossomed into productive members of society.


To me, the most interesting things about Aspiring Adults Adrift are the questions of how much responsibility lies with the institutions and whether Americans expect too much from college degrees.


Many of the most popular careers for recent college graduates do not pay very much, are located in expensive urban areas and require advanced degrees. That’s not a recipe for immediate success after college, but it’s also not necessarily the fault of the graduates’ alma maters.


For example, in some states, the starting salary for an elementary school teacher (one of the best careers for recent college graduates) is actually below Arum and Roksa’s $30,000 bar. Does that mean young teachers are “adrift” or that their alma maters did not prepare them for the workforce? No, it just means teachers are woefully underpaid.


These thorny issues are familiar to anyone who’s been following the conversation around President Obama’s proposed college rating system, which will place a heavy emphasis on outcomes.


Beyond the financial implications, the focus on career success will likely become a common message point in many institutions’ marketing efforts. We’re already seeing this sort of thing at places like Suffolk University and Wheelock College. Both institutions recently launched marketing campaigns with messages about toughness and a strong work ethic—themes that carry over into the conversation about post-graduate success.


Aspiring Adults Adrift might not be shocking to most of us, but it’s an interesting reminder to think back to when we were fresh out of college and wonder whether we were technically “adrift.”

Notes from a Former Drifter

The commentary on the new Aspiring Adults Adrift book has given me pause for the past two days, particularly the articles on the Chronicle. As a fellow 2009 graduate, I decided to see how I fared and took the quiz; I scored in between “Together, for the Most Part” and “On Unsure Footing,” which makes me smile at my 22-year-old self with pride.


I freely admit: I was NOT prepared for my first job. Frankly, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for it. I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed nerd walking naively into an urban classroom, thinking I could Dangerous Minds or Dead Poets Society my way into the hearts of students (who weren’t that much younger than me). Oh dear 22-year-old Ali, so, SO wrong.


I wasn’t prepared for the long hours. I wasn’t prepared for the grading, curriculum scaffolding, differentiated learning. I wasn’t prepared for students who didn’t like school. I wasn’t prepared to be an adult, and yet I had to pretend to be one starting at 6:30 in the morning. I cried just about every day in the first semester.


Authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa are right on the money. Graduates are woefully under-prepared for the real world. Their study has solid data, convincing arguments, and important lessons for college students and recent grads. And yet, I’m not totally sold. The word adrift is what’s throwing me off.


In my mind, adrift isn’t a bad thing; there’s something about academic and career wandering that I think holds value. Some of my best moments as a student and as an adult have happened at a point where I wasn’t sure of my direction. I took a risk on a new subject or threw myself into a challenging job, and sometimes I failed.


I’ve never failed so much in my life as I did in that first job. It made me miserable and filled me with doubt and often self-loathing. I was definitely adrift many times in that role, unsure of my next steps in lesson planning and in life planning. But I always had hope that tomorrow would be better, and I’d eventually get things figured out. I had hope that I’d get the next opportunity and find my calling. Looking back, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The job and the experience were major players in my coming-of-age sequel, the adult story. I learned so much being lost in that first role, and though I still don’t have everything figured out, I’ve got it “together, for the most part.”

ISIS and the Future of Journalism

The past two weeks have been a time of tragedy and fear for our nation as a whole—and journalists in particular. The gruesome killing of Global Post reporter James Foley on August 19, followed by this morning’s beheading of freelance journalist Steven Sotloff by the militant group ISIS have shed much-needed light on some of America’s forgotten heroes. It’s also sparked long-overdue debate about the role of journalists in wartime reporting.


Many frontline reporters are weighing in publicly, and even they are divided on the future of how conflicts should be covered. Some, like Tom Peter, a freelance journalist who covered the Middle East and Afghanistan for seven years, has decided it’s no longer worth the risk to be a war reporter. He wrote about it in a fascinating piece for The New Republic last week. But others, like Global Post founder Charles Sennott, have said they’d go back to the most dangerous parts of the world if needed. (In an interview with Boston Public Radio last week, Sennott elaborated on Foley’s decision to go to Syria and discussed the moral and legal issues surrounding his work there, which is worth a listen for anyone interested in the how and why Foley decided to return to such a dangerous part of the world.)


Personally, I remain conflicted myself. I have always deeply respected and admired reporters willing to take on the frontline reporting in war zones. Their work is so important to the safety of other Americans and citizens around the world; they’ve just chosen a slightly different path than traditional soldiers to serve their country. One thing I do know is that all journalists have families and friends, and as honorable as their work on the frontlines of war is, finding other ways—through technology perhaps—to continue to bring to light the realities of war needs to be priority. As The Globe and Mail wrote on August 29 in a piece chock-full of data on war correspondents and the dangers they face, “war journalism is only becoming more dangerous.” If we, as Americans, are to continue benefitting from their work, we must do better at keeping them safe.


In the wake of this morning’s tragic news about Steven Sotloff, I feel compelled to remember some good news that didn’t get nearly as much attention as I wish it did. Journalist Peter Theo Curtis, who had been held by another militant group in Syria, returned home to Cambridge, Mass. (just down the road from my home) last Thursday. For that, and for his work in Syria, I am grateful—just as I am grateful for the work of all war correspondents and the important role they’ve played for Americans throughout history.

TVP Communications Week in Review

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Labor Day weekend is officially here! The start of what I affectionately call “The Ber Months” is always one of my favorite holidays. I love looking ahead to cooler weather, changing leaves and all of that good stuff.


Fall is also a busy time in the world of higher education. Having started with TVP Communications two months ago, I am looking forward to it.


Before we jump into September, however, let’s look back at what happened during the last week in August.


What’s new this week:



  • Craig Owens, associate professor of English at Drake University, had a great column in the Des Moines Register about college move-in day and the value of a residential college experience.


What we’ve been talking about:


  • TVP Communications’ Teresa Valerio Parrot and Erin Hennessy co-moderated a lively #CASESMC social media chat, “Integrating Social Media Into Crisis Planning,” on Tuesday. Check out CASE’s recap if you missed it, and be sure to read Erin’s follow-up post on the major themes from the discussion.


  • Kyle Gunnels discussed his passion for internationalization in higher education and linked to some fantastic resources on the subject.


  • The start of a new academic year made Teresa Valerio Parrot feel a little nostalgic, so she celebrated Throwback Thursday (#TBT) by posting some college pics of the TVP Communications team with thanks to all of our alma maters. The resulting conversation was interesting, to say the least.



You may also be interested in:



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Are you following the TVP Communications team on Twitter? Here’s a look at what we were talking about this week:






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