At my son’s school, fourth grade is the start of a serious focus on writing—“organization, voice, ideas, conventions (spelling and grammar), word choice, and sentence fluency.” Wow.
His first assignment, creating a character and writing a chapter about him or her, proved daunting, despite the “help” of this professional writer.
He told me he had “too much going on in his head” and didn’t know where to start. My advice to “just put something down on paper” only made it worse.
He had it. Writer’s block.
So I took a step back, put all my writing and editing experience aside, and thought back to the basics. How do you get yourself unstuck? Here’s what I came up with.
Take a break
The first thing I told my son was to stop what he was doing and go outside and play for an hour. He was stressed about not knowing where to start, and my attempts to have him focus and “start somewhere” were making it worse. He needed to clear his mind and do something else. When he came back, he was ready to try again.
As writers and editors, we all know the value of putting an assignment aside and coming back to it another time. Unfortunately, we can’t all go outside and play, but we can go to the break room for coffee, take an early lunch, or chat with a cube mate for 10 minutes.
Change of scenery
Another trick that has often helped me is to move to a different room. If you’re stuck and all you can do is stare at your monitor and then stare out the window, move somewhere else. Having different scenery to gaze at may help you out of your rut.
At work, I sometimes move from my office to a conference room to write. With my son, we moved from the living room to the kitchen.
Do something other than writing
My son was having trouble thinking creatively, because he was focusing on finding the right words to describe his new character. So I told him to draw the character instead. This helped him describe the character without using words. Once the character was drawn, we then moved to the words. His character was a boy with dark hair and blue eyes. He was short and wore Vans.
At work, we may not always have a character to draw, but we can create an outline or pull out the thesaurus and start listing words for our concept. Think about your topic visually or graphically. Create a flow chart or a mind map
Take it slowly
I stressed to my son that we did not have to complete the entire assignment in one sitting. I told him to write five sentences, and then we would work on it again later. Those five sentences came easily, because he knew there was a stopping point.
Though not always be possible, breaking up an assignment up and giving yourself a stopping point (even an artificial one) will help you write more efficiently. Most of the time, I have so much momentum upon getting to my stopping point that I just keep writing.
Write first; edit later
The advice I gave to my son—and that I have given to other writers—is to write first and then go back and make corrections once your draft has been completed. Stopping to make corrections can interrupt your flow, and then you’ll be stuck again. Do what you can to get the words on paper (or on the screen), and go back to perfect it another time.
My son is still working on his writing assignment, but with our new “back to the basics” approach, he is making steady progress. Who says there’s no problem solving in writing ?
readers, what advice do you have for getting “unstuck”?
Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor. Read more of her work at Impertinent Remarks.