Last week I wrote about how common it is for writers to experience, at one point or another, a sense of getting “stuck” in one’s writing. This week I share some strategies that emerged from my earlier research with doctoral students. If you’re stuck, I hope that something here spurs you onward! Don’t give up!
I imagine that you, reader, are a bit like me—surely, we’d both rather find our words and ideas are fluid, forthcoming, plentiful, as well as easily accessed and channelled into our writing. Yet perhaps you, like me, still find that there are moments when quite the opposite is true. We get stuck. The word “writing” becomes a misnomer (more like “muddling”, am I right?!). The good news is that it is more often the case that “stuckness” is temporary. Still, it can be handy to have some suggestions on standby for those times when we really can’t seem…to… make… any… headway(!). So, without further adieu, here are some suggestions from the doctoral students who participated in my small research project. I hope that you, dear stuck reader, might find something useful here.
Strategy 1: Take a break!
Some participants swear by taking a break from writing to do something else. These can be other things that you are good at, and things that make you feel better about yourself. One participant (Public Affairs, YR 5) suggested healthy activities like yoga or exercise, while another (Arts & Social Sciences, YR 3) suggested moving to a different paragraph or section. You might work on collecting your references, for instance, or even moving to a different task altogether.
If that fails, there’s always “soul food nourishment” and “one’s choice of binge-entertainment” (Arts & Social Sciences, YR 1). This student in particular swears by “mac and cheese…and Downton Abbey” as a way to “take one’s mind away from the ‘stump’ for a while” (Arts & Social Sciences, YR 1). They even go so far as to assert that “mac and cheese tastes so much better on a doily”!
Now there’s a research idea…
Strategy 2: Treat yo’self
Other participants suggest self-bribery as a method—which I can get behind. One participant (Science, YR 3) suggests we create short-term immediate rewards like “write a page, get a chocolate” rather than vague long-term rewards (“write a paper, maybe get published”).
Personally, I like the idea of minimal effort, maximum gains— “write a page, get a Ferrari”—but seeing as (a) I am a student on a limited income and (b) minimal effort has rarely (and only by a fluke) resulted in maximum gains, I think this student is on to something.
You could also be flexible with the sorts of rewards you imagine for yourself, as one fifth-year Arts and Social Sciences student does. For them, “rewards” might come in the form of attending fun social events and spending time with friends.
Whether you choose to attend a concert or enjoy a nice meal, participants find it useful to set clear, small, and achievable goals, as well as clear, accessible, and desirable rewards. This makes complete sense to me: if you make the goal achievable, you’ll be much more likely to reap the sweet reward!
Strategy 3: Put a ring(er) on it*
And by ringer, I mean the sweet tinny sound of your timer. (No, I will not apologize for my Dad jokes!)
Some participants swear by working in timed units. One student (Arts & Social Sciences, YR 4) suggests that working in units (“set chunks with a timer… sometimes as short as 10 minutes”) is very helpful, especially if you commit to “staying on task”.
You might find units can be an effective method for tackling larger projects. First, take the large project and divide it into smaller tasks. Next, estimate the time you think each task will take. Then, assign the smaller tasks to “discrete, easily-handled units” (Public Affairs, YR 4). Don’t be afraid to set your timer for 10 minutes if you think that is all you can handle.
Sometimes, when I have trouble staying focused, I take a sticky-note and write down the specific task I want to work on for the unit. I keep that note in an obvious place and only remove it when the timer is over, and/or I am finished. And if I have multiple tasks I need to focus on, I’ll write one per sticky-note and use them to help me stay organized as I move through my units.
Strategy 4: Create a map or outline
Feeling lost? Make a map! Some participants rely on “drawing out a mind map of ideas to attempt to isolate areas of uncertainty that may be the cause of the problem” (Public Affairs, YR 3). Others will use freewriting and drawing to map their “way out of feeling stuck” (Education, YR 8). Don’t draw? Try creating a collage of interesting words, phrases, or images.
You could also try freewriting on your plan for your piece or create an outline as one Engineering student (YR 4) does. And if you have several previous drafts, you could try creating a reverse outline Arts & Social Sciences, YR 3).
Strategy 5: Persevere
I had a good, knowing chuckle at this suggestion from a participant: “Stare at the screen until the words are sweated out” (Arts & Social Sciences, YR 4). It’s a strategy that is rarely my favourite, but probably my most effective—that being the fact that a large portion of my writing happens when my bum is in my seat. That being said, there is something to say for those of us who can reframe how we are thinking about our writing, as one sixth-year Science student notes. They suggest we focus on writing “as much as possible…get anything down, without thinking of quality” because we can always “refine and reorganize later”.
Bonus Strategy: “Just write casually and hope something happens”
I tried not to play favourites with the suggestions that participants put forward in my study, but one student—a first-year in Arts and Social Sciences—gave one that sounded so much like a meme that I had to make one, and end with it. I hope you find it as hilarious as I do! And hey, if you have any suggestions, shoot me an email or Tweet me (@balloonleap)! I’d love to hear what you do to get “unstuck”.