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.
- The more often you write the easier writing should get.
- Pay attention to motivation.
- Know that your work shouldn’t be perfect from the start.
- Talk to someone about the assignment.
- Just start typing your name and the title.
- Switch to a different way of writing or writing location.
- Set a timer and journal about writing for 10 minutes.
- Go back and work on your writing plan.
- Start writing whatever section you feel best about.
- Leave a little bit of writing energy and enthusiasm in the tank.
- Go on a technology diet.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself.
- Super-secret advanced techniques: using rewards to produce writing.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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