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I'm Stuck

Here are some tips for when writing isn’t happening the way you had hoped. First of all, it’s completely normal to hate writing from time to time and feel like you just can’t do it. When I hear people who claim to “love writing” I start to suspect that they don’t actually do a lot of it. Odds are, if you’re writing regularly, writing is going to feel like torture at some point.

On the other hand, maybe the people who love writing just have some good ways of getting through the painful parts more quickly. Here are some ideas for getting through the rough patches more quickly:

 Keep moving.

It is totally normal and ok if you get stuck during a work session. Just move on to something else work-related. You can refer to your to-do list and your list of brainpower tasks for ideas. But don't stop working--keep moving through your list.

This is helpful because people are far more efficient when they're actually working and not just staring at a screen. It is also gets so much easier to work during work time if you associate work time with getting lots done without tons of pain.

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The more often you write the easier writing should get.

I would really love to run a marathon. But I would probably injure myself pretty badly or crash and burn at mile two if I just strapped on my shoes and ran toward the finish line without doing some training first.

Think about your writing ability and stamina as something you exercise over time. If you attempt to crank out a paper the night before its due you might end up feeling awful about writing because you associate it with sleep-deprivation, the pain of sitting in a chair for hours, tired eyes from staring at the computer screen, and feeling a bit disappointed with what you’ve produced.

If you build up your writing stamina over time, you may find that you’re able to get a lot more done and writing isn’t quite the awful task it can become when you’re stressed and tired. You can “train” your brain in intervals, like athletes do. Try setting a timer ten minutes and just write. Once the timer goes off after ten minutes, set it again for two minutes and give yourself a break. Once the timer signals that the break is over, start the whole process over again by giving yourself another ten minute writing burst. Repeat as necessary. As you get used to interval training, you may find that you can work for longer than ten minutes, which will mean that you bust through writing faster and more efficiently. This is a great way to learn how to make the most of every bit of time you get throughout the day; ten minutes of pure writing power can produce quite a bit of writing, actually!

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Pay attention to motivation.

If you're feeling really perky and excited about your work for the day, dive in. But if you're dragging, put a few things that take only a few minutes on your list and do those first to get everything rolling. Even if you're just sending an e-mail to a prof, ordering a book, and printing some reading—and all of the tasks take a total of 20 minutes—crossing three things off your list to start the day when you're not heading in super motivated feels incredible. That said, watch how many of these little things you put on your list and how much time they take.

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Know that your work shouldn’t be perfect from the start.

It really is ok if your work isn’t mind-blowingly awesome from the first word you put on the page. In fact, lots of people realize that their first few paragraphs are pretty junky and will probably get deleted. Your writing shouldn’t be good at first—revising and proofreading make writing good, so don’t stare at your screen until the amazing stuff comes out.

When your professors publish articles and books, they usually have to have anonymous readers review their drafts and tell them where they’re making mistakes. One author, Anne Lamott, talks about writing “$h!77y first drafts” that get the writing process started.

Give yourself permission to get writing without judgment so that you have time before turning in your work to do the editing and proofreading.

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Talk to someone about the assignment.

Find a friend or family member and explain the assignment to them in your own words. Tell them what the professor wants. Explain how you’re going to write the paper. Describe any parts of it that you’re struggling with.

This technique is pretty magical. I think it works so well because you can test out ideas without the risk of typing a bunch of pages only to figure out that the ideas aren’t great or that you’re not answering the professor’s prompt question. There’s little risk involved and I’ve seen people who were horribly stuck on a problem almost run away from conversations in order to write because their ideas are suddenly so clear to them because they had to communicate them to another person without writing getting in the way (at first).

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Just start typing your name and the title.

When you need to get started on a paper but feel stuck, try just typing your name and title on the paper and set up the right font and line spacing. You can send signals to yourself that it is time to start writing by consistently performing a ritual like this.

Like I mentioned before, my daily ritual that lets me know that it is time to start working is plugging in my USB flash drive into my computer. Once the flash drive is plugged in, it feels weird not to start working.

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Switch to a different way of writing or  writing location.

Approaching writing in a way that feels different from your normal method may feel less like writing, and therefore easier.

If you usually type, try writing by hand for a bit instead. I suspect that part of the reason this method works so well for people who usually type is because you partially focus on writing the letters, and partially focus on what you’re actually saying. This is really useful for when you’re feeling like your brain is all jammed up and your inner critic is ripping every sentence you almost put on the page. Sometimes, overthinking everything we want to write keeps us from writing at all. If you try to write by hand, you might find that it borrows just enough brainpower to keep you from being too critical of what you want to write. This is also a really good way to get away from the temptation of the internet.

Switching to a different writing location can do something similar. Sometimes, my desk just feels too serious. This is the reason I can’t write in a library: the place makes my skin crawl because it is just so serious! If I already have tons of pressure crushing down on me, and I want the paper I’m working on to be amazing, I sometimes have to change up my routine to keep from pulling my hair out. In cases like this, the local bagel shop, the laundromat, or a park can be a great place to get your writing on track.

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Set a timer and journal about writing for 10 minutes.

Tell yourself that it doesn’t matter what you write or how good it is, just that you only have to write about your writing for 10 minutes.
You could write about what went well on past assignments:

  • What have you done in past assignments when you couldn’t start?
  • What did you do in your past essays that were really good?

Writing about what you did well on past assignments can be really great for remembering the writing strategies that work best for you. It’s also a nice way of giving yourself a pep talk to sort of fire up before starting a paper.

You could also write about why you’re having a tough time getting started:

  • Why is the assignment so hard?
  • What are you nervous about on this assignment?

Research shows that writing for ten minutes about all the negative thoughts flapping around in your brain is a really effective way to clear your mind and do better work. Students who were really stressed out and did this for ten minutes before exams earned much better grades than those who didn’t. The researchers who did the study think that the reason is because taking all of those distracting thoughts and putting them on paper gives your brain more space to focus. You can do the same thing before writing to maximize the space in your brain for composing sentences and coming up with ideas.

Another strategy is to use journaling to pull out some ideas for your paper. You could ask yourself:

  • What am I trying to say in this paper?

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Go back and work on your writing plan.

Sometimes, particularly when you’re already working on a paper, the reason you get stuck is because your outline and notes don’t end up matching the paper you figure out you’re really writing. That’s ok. It’s good, in fact. In that case, revise your writing plan so that you can move forward. Check and make sure that the paper still matches the assignment prompt, and carry on.

Fixing up your writing plan doesn’t really feel like writing and nailing it down will hopefully help you feel good about the paper.

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Start writing whatever section you feel best about.

Don’t feel like you have to write paragraphs and pages in order. Take advantage of the wonders of copy and paste, and just dive into the paragraph or idea that seems most appealing to you.

To be honest, I started writing this section of the handbook first. I thought that other parts seemed kind of daunting, so I came here to the troubleshooting part. You hopefully won’t know that without me telling you because we will edit and proofread the whole handbook to make it mesh together.  

Instead of being stuck on the first section, and sitting at the computer feeling like a prisoner, here I am at the end of this section, feeling pretty good about what I’ve accomplished and like I won’t dread the next time I sit down to write.

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Leave a little bit of writing energy and enthusiasm in the tank.

When writing is going great, it can be tempting to use every last drop of your writing energy each day. This is called “binge writing,” and it is really unhealthy for your writing life. The problem is that we can only do that so long.

Writing professors sometimes talk about stopping the day’s writing on a high note—leaving your writing when you feel great about it, not when you’re frustrated with it.

Other professors say that they like to “park on a downward slope.” They’re referencing how cars that have manual transmissions are much easier to start when they’re parked to head down a hill instead of up. This means that they stop writing halfway through a paragraph or sentence that they feel good about so that they know exactly where they want to start the next day.

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Go on a technology diet.

A lot of folks check a series of news and social websites before getting started with writing, but I find that it is so easy to get completely sidetracked if I do that. I’m just not able to control my web browsing enough to go there. Its like going to Shake Shack while on a diet—things are going to end badly. I’ve set up a news reader account (I use Google Reader) that saves all the stories from my favorite websites for me in one place so that I don’t have to worry about missing something. That lets me forget about the internet and get working so that I can get done with work faster and get on to the things I really love. Computer programmers have created some plug-ins for the internet browsers Chrome and Firefox that let you block certain websites or block you from the internet altogether after a timer you set goes off. This article explains one way to do this: Other people set just a kitchen timer that signals to them that it is time to stop browsing and start working. The key to not letting stuff distract you from writing isn’t to focus more; its not putting yourself in the way of temptation. If you don’t struggle with shutting off the phone, text, and web from time to time, I’m really, really jealous!

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Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Speaking of diets, researchers doing a study about dieting found that people who were told to take it easy on themselves before eating as many cookies as they wanted actually ended up eating fewer cookies than people who weren’t told not to beat themselves up about indulging in a sweet treat. It turns out that the people who weren’t discouraged from saying mean things to themselves felt awful about having a treat and then ate more cookies to make the icky feelings go away!

When your writing plans don’t work out perfectly, don’t beat yourself up. Just keep moving. A friend of mine beat herself up about comments she got back on a paper so bad that she just didn’t do any writing for weeks—and the comments weren’t bad at all! When I get feedback from people that doesn’t just gush over how brilliant I am, I have to remind myself that falling off your bike hurts and can result in some broken bones and nasty scars, but laying in the road for a few weeks after a fall isn’t the answer. Pausing to say nasty things to yourself will just make it harder to feel like writing again.

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Super-secret advanced techniques:  Using rewards to produce writing.

There was a point a few years ago when I just couldn’t write. I was a mess. I hated writing, I wanted to drop out of school, and study to be a chef. Boo. Not surprisingly, this was before I was diagnosed with ADHD.

In those dark days, I came up with a killer writing trick that I think can get anybody on a roll when they’re really stuck. Here’s how it works: think about the thing that you really want to do more than writing. TV works great, particularly shows with tons of episodes available to you that you’ve never watched before. Come up with a reasonable exchange rate for each page or paragraph of writing. I decided that I would write one page for each 44 minute episode of House I got to watch on DVD. The page would have to be pretty good, then I would get to collect my reward instantly. This really works well when you can reward yourself immediately. This strategy is also awesome because it allows you to work for a reasonable length of time, then take a good break, and then work again. It is good preparation for making the most of smaller breaks you might have throughout the day in which you can actually get a good deal of work done, since I got to the point where I could crank out a good page in under an hour.

The other awesome side-effect of this is that you begin to associate writing with fun things that you like, and it doesn’t feel so awful to sit down and do it because it is sort of surrounded by this happy glow. The other fantastic thing is that if you really, really want your reward, you’ll end up producing incredible amounts of good writing. I somehow managed to make myself go from completely stuck and unable to write anything at all to cranking out pages and pages per day, all because I had many seasons of House to catch up on.

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