Getting unstuck

You’re typing along, and suddenly you’re not typing along. You’re stuck. Nothing is falling out of your fingers into the keys. How can you unjam yourself?

It helps to know where you’re stuck in the writing process: Idea, Gathering, Organizing, Drafting, Revising. Let’s say you’re in the Gathering stage, what journalists call “reporting.” And you’re typing notes, but they don’t add up, no patterns. What’s wrong? You don’t know what you’re after. You need to back up to the Idea stage and ask developing questions, such as “What is this likely to be about?” or “Who are the players?”

Or you’re in the Organizing stage, but you can’t type an outline or a point statement or even a list of important things. What’s wrong? You can’t organize because you don’t have the right materials. You haven’t Gathered enough, or you don’t understand what you do have.

Or you’re Drafting, and the next sentence won’t come. What’s wrong? You don’t know what you want to say. So you back up to the Organizing stage and ask focusing questions: “What’s this about? What are my main points? What do I need to tell my readers?”

Or you’re Revising, and you keep retyping a sentence that just won’t land. What’s wrong? You’re trying to say something you don’t believe or can’t prove. In this case, you back up two stages and reorganize with focusing questions. You may need a little more Gathering. Then ask, “What do I really want to say?”

The writing process shows you not to look for the problem where you are, but in an earlier stage.

Asking yourself why you’re stuck tends not to work, because now you’re thinking about yourself instead of what you want to say. And that’s often the problem. Your Internal Critic offers up a whole repertoire of distractions:

Why can’t you type the next sentence?
Your editor will hate this.
If you submit this crap, everybody will know you’re a fraud.
Maybe your 10th-grade teacher was right about your being too stupid to become a writer.

Here’s a basic principle for staying unstuck:
Wait a minute, how do you NOT think about something? By thinking something else, something more productive, like “What do I want to say here?” or “It’s the content, dope.”

You can always take a break, as long as you don’t turn it into one more distraction. For example, don’t read email, but you might look up your Amazon rankings.

My friend Russ Parsons, star food writer at the LA Times, has a method for getting back underway. He says, “When I get stuck, I mean really stuck, sometimes I’ll jump ahead to the next section, one I know I have a good plan for, and start from there. That kind of unlocks the gears.” Some writers jump out of a jam into an easy part. And a few writers just type whatever falls out of their fingers until it turns into sentences.

[How do you unstick yourself?]

Published in: on May 29, 2009 at 10:25 am  Leave a Comment  

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