“Writing is easy; you just open a vein and bleed.” One famous author described the writing process with this insightful sarcasm. Anyone who sits down at a writing desk has felt the truth of these words. Writing is hard, at least for most people. Sure, there are some blessed folks who write effortlessly, one magnificent paragraph after another. But for most of us, the writing process is fraught with the struggle of a long, arduous process.
On top of that, the blood of many writers runs thick. We wish writing was simply a matter of opening a vein and watching the words pour out. How often do we sit down at the desk and stare. Our literary blood coagulates in the capillaries. Nothing comes out. A horrid mix of desire and pressure compounds the problem. Not only do we want the words to flow freely; if working under a deadline, we need them to come out. The struggle can breed discouragement or defeat. In my Scrivener sit many pieces which started, stalled, and then died under the demoralized feeling of stuck-ness. Here are eight helpful tips to get the words flowing when you feel stuck.
Pray for words.
A tragic story came out of Louisburg, NC in the spring of 1988. A man fell 10,000 ft from an airplane. In his excitement to sky dive, he forgot to put on his parachute. How could someone forget something so critical? It happens in a spiritual way, every day. Although prayer remains as critical as a parachute, we forget about it.
When you feel stuck, pray. This tip should go without saying, but we often need the obvious stated. Writing relies on words and words come ultimately from God. It makes good sense, then, to ask God to grant fresh focus and impactful words.
With the excited anticipation of writing, sometimes words fail to flow. And in my excitement, I move on to other, less important means of breaking the blockage. I forget to pray. Before you rush off to take a walk or start a brainstorming exercise, stop and pray. Take your hands off the keyboard and ask God to help you. Ask Him to focus your mind. Ask Him to give you good words to use for His glory and your readers’ good. Don’t pray quickly. Take your time in prayer. And then try again.
Take a break–a real break. Go do something else.
We are creatures in this world, and creatures have limits. Sometimes we need to step away from the page for a bit, clear our heads, and return again. Some clogs are stubborn and call for additional doses of Drain-O. When you can’t think of what to write next, and the pressure mounts, just take a break.
Go for a walk or a run, if you’re into that kind of thing. Shoot baskets in the drive-way. Fold the laundry. Run a few errands. Taking breaks have helped many successful writers not only as emergency drain cleaner, but as a regular routine. Charles Dickens kept to the same routine every day. Promptly at 2:00 pm, Dickens took a three-hour walk through the woods or along the streets of London.
You might find the writing project nips lightly at your heels, as you take a break. That’s not bad. While exasperated feelings might drive all interest of writing away from you at times, often you will find your story or topic will linger in the back of your mind. You might find the trickle of thoughts and words return along your path, and you’re ready to write again. As you walk or run your errand, focus on the direction of your writing more than the words. Often failure to find words stems from failure to gain focus. The greatest enemy of great writing is fuzzy thinking. So clarify your thoughts, and see if the words will come into clear view.
Read a book which matches your writing style.
I love to read journalistic writers. Short, simple sentences and paragraphs which bring a clear focus on the subject appeal to me. Journalistic writing communicates through a clear and concise style, which every reader can embrace. Though I’m certainly not the model student, I try to reflect these attributes in my own writing.
The act of reading can open the veins of your writing. Find an author whose tone and style you appreciate, and work through a few pages. Malcolm Gladwell comes to mind for me. Note the sentence structure and flow. How does the author start and end sentences? How does her writing flow from through to thought? What kind of verbs does he use? What about his writing engages readers. Early automobiles needed someone to manually crank the engine to get it started. Sometimes remembering what you hope your writing can be like will crank up your literary engine.
Change the time of your writing.
A productive writing session requires discipline and focus. If you survey the best writers, you will find they set aside specific time to write each day. Many find the first hours of the day most productive and conducive to progress. But there’s a catch.
For most writers (and people in general), life is fluid. Seasons bring winds of change, and what used to be the best time to write becomes the worst time to write. The writer who found morning time best last year, must now tutor children displaced from school by the pandemic. A new writing time is needed.
Could it be the time you have scheduled for writing no longer provides you the focus you need? Maybe you feel stuck because you lack fresh energy or your most productive time to write has changed. Find a new time and stick to it for an extended time so you can see if it works. Avoid the temptation to give up early, and then change your scheduled again. Settling into a new routine takes time, so be sure to give it.
Follow the Pomodoro Technique.
For that last five years, a 25-minute timer has been to me a faithful companion. Francesco Cirillo devised the Pomodoro Technique in the 1980s, and millions of people have followed it. You can learn more Cirillo’s website. To summarize, the technique directs me to set a timer for 25 minutes (Cirillo used a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato—which is called a pomodoro in Italian), and focus on a task until the timer dings (or honks an old car horn, or makes tweet noises, or whatever sound your phone makes). Then take a 5-minute break. Grab a cup of coffee, stretch your legs, do something idle. Then reset the timer for 25-minutes and return to your project. Once you’ve completed four periods of focused work, take a 10-minute break. This is the Pomodoro Technique.
I use this technique for work, writing, sermon prep, Bible reading, chores, and almost everything I do. Why? The benefit of the plan is simple. The five-minute rest increases my ability to focus across the day. It’s like running a long distance. If I run 10 miles non-stop, I become tired and can’t run with the same intensity throughout. But if I take a short break at each mile, my endurance and composure remains high all the way to the end. Increased focus across a writing session can prevent (though not eradicate) writer’s block. But when I practice Cirillo’s technique, I notice increased focus, productivity, and endurance in writing. Try this technique for 30 days and see if times of stuckness decrease. I think they will!
Make a list of topic pictures.
Many writers use word or topic exercises to develop their writing projects. They start by listing key words, strong verbs, and bright pictures which will shine light on their subject. Such exercises prove useful not only to get a project started, but also to keep a project moving.
When the words stop flowing, brainstorm pictures to help jog your creativity. Let’s imagine you’re writing on the topic of “God’s Grace in Suffering,” and hit a wall. Pull out your writing journal or even a scrap piece of paper and complete the statement, “God’s grace in suffering is like __________.” An oasis in the desert. A cool rain on a hot summer day. Soothing aloe on an enflamed sunburn. When your list reaches five or ten (or more if you’re an over-achiever), look for common themes within your topic pictures. You can see in the three answers I came up with about God’s grace, the theme of relief from the oppressive heat of the sun comes up over and over. These images, and the central theme within them, often will break loose the offending clot of writer’s block. Such an exercise may give you an engaging path to follow.
Another take on the same exercise includes listing key verbs, adjectives, and nouns. When the word well runs dry, sometimes digging down into key words bringing a fresh supply of water. What strong verbs, intriguing adjectives, and imaginative nouns come to mind when you think of “God’s Grace in Suffering?”
This approach runs parallel to your exercise of listing topic pictures, but further helps to pull out some good words to work with. Even gaining just a few words, a fresh idea, or a new picture can get your writing on the tracks and rolling forward.
Move to an entirely different part of your project.
When we feel stuck in life, a change of scenery can brighten our horizons. The same is true in writing. No rule prohibits a writer from developing a writing project out of the normal order of things. While it seems logical, there can be value in not writing in linear fashion. Some days you don’t feel like writing a particular chapter or section of your project. Jumping over to another section—the middle or end or a section on which you’re not currently working—may shift your gears enough to keep progressing.
Prolific author J.K. Rowling became known for writing the last chapter of her best-selling book series at the start. She stashed away the chapter in a locked box. Writing a latter section ahead of time can not only give your writing a direction to flow, but can also break you free from the chains of writer’s block. Are you stuck? Pick a chapter or section of your project which captures your attention. Is there a part of your project you’ve been looking forward to writing? Go ahead and get to it, and you might find that latter section leads you to a fresh take on that stubborn part which previously blocked your path.
Loosen up and just write.
Your inner editor can be your greatest strength or your most dreaded enemy. Writers find their own creative process; a method to match their madness. Some write wildly and edit later, others edit carefully along the way, and still others obsess over every word. But whatever the method, each writer must contend with the inner editor; a critical voice whispering in your ear as you write. Sometimes the voice becomes picky and pedantic, complaining about every sentence. Hyper-critical wrenches lock up the gears and your writing grinds to a halt.
Writing gridlock can be broken up by silencing your inner editor, as hard as that may be. Forgive the unsavory metaphor, but vomiting words on the page often works to clear the system and get back to your regular method. That is, unless your normal method is to word vomit first and clean up later (again, sorry for that image). If you’ve tried everything else to no avail, perhaps you need to just lay down words—any words. Sometimes just getting ink to paper pulls us out of yourselves and back to our regular rhythm of writing. And you don’t even have to word vomit onto your current project. Try writing in the stream of your consciousness about anything. Pick a writing prompt for yourself, or ask a friend. Set your Pomodoro timer and flush out as many words as you can. Then return to your project and try again.
Have you hit a wall? Are you stuck? I hope one of these eight tips for breaking the blockage loose will put you back on the path of writing, joyful and free. You might have your own tips not listed here. Let us know what opens your veins and keep the list growing!