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Can Limiting Choice Make Writing Flow?

Do we need other people in order to understand ourselves better?

Take just a few seconds to consider this question.

OK, now: unless you were too rushed or distracted to actually invest those few seconds, you found that your mind automatically began forming a reply.

Questions can be great for kicking the brain into a productive mode, because:

  • Questions stimulate thinking, and…
  • Questions provide focus.

A good question carves out a workable chunk of topic, broad enough to think deeply about, yet defined enough to give the brain something it can wrap itself around.

By narrowing down the subject, a good question counteracts the paralyzing effect of too much choice and becomes a tool for mental productivity.

The question above is an essay prompt from an old SAT test. Here are some more SAT prompts:

Is the world changing for the better?

Do you think that ease does not challenge us and that we need adversity to help us discover who we are?

Do changes that make our lives easier not necessarily make them better?

Can knowledge be a burden rather than a benefit?

When the College Board first added the essay portion to the SAT, I worried. These seemed like daunting questions! Students are given the prompt, and then they have a mere 25 minutes to write a two-page essay. I imagined a sea of panicked faces and blank pages.

In fact, my students do just fine. They read the prompt…think for a minute or two…and begin writing.

I was timing students as they wrote practice essays earlier this week, watching kids bent over their pages, writing steadily, and I realized the advantages of the format:

  1. A given topic to write about
  2. A defined time frame (25 minutes)
  3. No distractions (including no electronic ones; students write with pencil, on paper)

And, so, I’m now experimenting with these strategies to get me past my own writer’s block!

  1. I assign myself a prompt (I decide on it the night before). You’ll notice that my post title is in question form; it’s my prompt!
  2. I set a timer for 25 minutes. I don’t actually get finished writing within that time, but it ┬ámakes me write steadily for that first 25 minutes, and then finishing up seems easy.
  3. I shut down all other tabs and windows on my computer…or, I write on paper.

And, guess what!
I’m writing!

[photo taken at LisSurMer, Cape Cod. The trees were planted purposely, to focus attention on the ocean view]

Can Limiting Choice Make Writing Flow?

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS is an educator, counselor, writer and speaker. She's been a tutor, test prep coach and home school teacher for over thirty years. Click HERE to visit Leigh's website and to subscribe to her newsletter, "Learning Something New."

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APA Reference
Cousins, L. (2012). Can Limiting Choice Make Writing Flow?. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Mar 2012
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