How to get unstuck when writing
5 tips to overcome writer's block.
Blinking cursor. Blank page.
The tyranny of words that won’t get out of your way.
There’s something you want to write, need to publish. There’s something else that’s holding you back. Maybe you’re writing your magnum opus, and you want it to shine. More often you need to write a pedestrian, ordinary bit of copy—an about page, a press release, a form letter—and you want to sound just right. And so you overthink.
Titles and intros are, for me, the hardest thing to write. They halt progress on every other part of the writing process, hold ideas hostage that otherwise would have been simple to write. They’re where I overthink.
Writing is motion, a character after another, the blinking cursor speeding along until the page is filled with digital ink. You just need to jumpstart that motion, silence your demons and get words out of your head and onto the screen.
Here are some tricks I’ve found to help get unstuck, ideas that work for writing and just might work for whatever other thing you’re creating:
Leave what’s got you stuck for later.
You can write without an intro, without a title, without much of what needs to be present in your final piece.
You can just start writing whatever you want, actually. The conclusion, the middle of the piece, the random story you plan to work in somehow that’s got you inspired.
Start there, when you’re stuck. Don’t stress about the beginning. You’ll get to that. Write first the parts that come easy.
For me, the easy parts are the stories I want to tell. There’s something special about booting an old operating system in a virtual machine, finding Wayback Machine and Google News clippings of the wonders of software decades ago, and weaving them into a story of how we got today’s tech. So I’ll write those sections first, tell a story that feels inspiring and exciting, something I can’t wait to share.
Those lines come easy, flow fast. They might not even make it into the final piece, but that’s fine. As On Revision author William Germano wrote, “Just because a sentence is pretty doesn't mean it's true. And even if it's pretty and true, that doesn't mean it's useful to what I'm writing.”
The pretty sentences are the most fun to write, though, and sometimes you need something to remind you of why you’re writing, get a bit of the high of telling a story you love.
You can always edit it out later. By then, the story will likely have you energized enough to tackle those needful yet harder-to-write sections that had you blocked before.
Write a skeleton, sketch out the general ideas. Write later.
Then sketch out the rest. You know you need an intro or a lede in traditional proofreaders’ lingo. You know the general points you’re trying to make, the things you’ll need to fill in before your copy’s ready to publish.
An outline’s a start, but you can do more even if you’re stuck. You know not only points 1 and 2, but the details and quotes and anecdotes you want to include in both. You don’t know the best way to say it yet, but that’s ok. Fill in the details under each point to get yourself started.
At a minimum you’ll have the ideas out of your head so you can focus better on the sections you’re ready to write. Or, you might get lucky, and find yourself ready to turn those details into prose, that writing down the details got you ready to expand on them.
Write what’s got you stuck at least three times.
Those hard-to-write sections will still take work. They won’t come out as fluently as the sections you enjoyed writing.
So don’t stress them. Get the idea down. Then restate the idea in another way. And another. Write as many intros and titles—or any other section that has you stuck—as many times as you need. Three at least.
When you’re not sure what to say, keep trying. You generally know what you want to say, but there’s always more than one way to say it. So keep trying.
“So you’ve just finished writing something?” asked Germano. “Congratulations. Now you’ll write it again.”
In the end, you might use none of your repetitive tries, may end up throwing it all out and starting over. The process got all the bad takes out of your head, freeing you up to write the best take. You would have never gotten there without all the rewriting.
Don’t pick the best. Let the crowd do that.
To the great confusion of my editors, I took my advice on rewriting the same idea to the extreme. I’d write three intros. 5 titles. Multiple takes on sections that stumped me.
I’d remove the worst, combine the best parts of others into yet another take. Then I’d ask for feedback, dropping my set of titles and intros and other troublesome bits of text into Slack for a quick gut check. Or I’d leave them behind in the draft document, asking for my editor’s input on which take was best.
Or I’d Tweet them, sharing one title, then another, then another later on. If one seemed to resonate, that might be the take that works. A/B testing, for microcopy.
There’s no singular best way to say something. You’re not married to a phrasing; you have an idea you want to get out, not a specific set of words. Share all the phrasings, see which stick.
Tell someone else your article idea.
When all else fails, assemble an audience.
You’re writing to be read, not merely putting words down to get them out of your head. So think about that audience, and tell them your story. Write like you’re talking to your readers.
Talk to them. Be yourself. Break the rules, stop mid-sentence and change directions, like you’re driving and have a general destination but no specific route in mind. Chase rabbits; pull them out of your hat. Go crazy. There’s nothing to overthink. You’re on a virtual stage, your virtual audience waiting for what you have to say. Let it all out.
Then turn over the page and start writing, for real. You might have found a clever turn of phrase; bring it along to your real writing. You may have thought of something that’d make your point clearer; that’s a great bit to flesh out in your narrative.
Before long, you’ll have overcome overthinking and written the piece that had you stuck.
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