For many professional writers, it starts with a cup of coffee. Perhaps that’s because, schedule permitting, writers like to take advantage of morning energy to produce. They get up, go through a routine that includes making coffee, and sit down to write.
The problem arises when the coffee doesn’t jump start whatever thinking process you need to begin populating your laptop screen with salable prose. Sometimes you don’t have an idea for an article; or you’re in the middle of a project and can’t pick up where you left off; or what you type doesn’t amount to much in your own estimation. Sometimes your mind is full of distractions, and sometimes you’re just plain stuck.
You’re not alone. Every writer muddles through bad times. No one can produce engaging, creative and/or informative prose day after day without suffering dry spells. The good news is there are things you can do to get going, hit reset, locate the thread you’ve lost, or find a new direction.
Move Your Butt
If nothing good happens for half an hour or more, walk away. Decide how long a break you’re going to take and find an activity that will require your attention for that amount of time. Do something that prevents you from thinking about writing. For example, take 15 minutes to sort through the laundry and start a load of whatever you’ll need soon. When the water in the machine starts to run, go back to writing. No matter what. Don’t do any other chores, regardless of how tempting it is to take out the trash. You have to keep your word: 15 minutes is 15 minutes.
Make a Plan for Today
As soon as you sit down to write, make a detailed list of what you’d like to accomplish today. Your list should be challenging but plausible. A novelist’s plan might read: have Daryl to ask Sheree for a date; describe Daryl’s study; and get inside Daryl’s mind re: Sheree. An article writer might say: research X’s biography and make notes; decide what to use from bio; write bio. Someone working on a brochure for a media communications company
might make this list: call X to discuss how they get started with a client; distill notes into 50 word summary; work “getting started” into the rest.
When your “today list” is done, tackle the first item, focusing on that piece only. Remember that your goal is to finish the pieces one by one, and don’t give in to the temptation to skip around as your mind leaps ahead of where you are in the process.
Use Stream of Consciousness
Sometimes you have a good plan but you still get stuck when you tackle step one. In that case think about whether step one can be broken into even smaller pieces. For example, our article writer might make a sub-list that says: Google X; review her bio on company website; review interview notes.
A caveat: do not get stuck planning in an attempt to get the big picture moving. Once a list and/or sub-list looks doable, get to work. Do not make more lists!
If you have a good list and still feel uninspired, try moving your butt then try again. As a last resort, open a new document and start writing in stream of consciousness mode about the first item on your list or sub-list. Write whatever comes to mind regarding that item regardless of logic, spelling, or quality. The caveat here is that your stream of consciousness should limit itself to the first item on your list. If “walk the dog” comes to mind don’t include it.
Take about 5 minutes to complete a paragraph about item one, then sort through it for usable thoughts. Try translating one or more usable thoughts into prose that can be incorporated into the item. For example if our article writer has something about X on her screen from her Google search, she can open a new screen/doc and start stream of consciousness writing about that. Then she can sort through the mishmash to look for a starting point.
If none of the above works and you have a deadline, think about whether you can still make the deadline if you don’t write today. If the answer is yes, give it up and do whatever has been distracting you. If the answer is no, call your client and renegotiate the deadline.