You’re sitting there looking at a blank computer screen. And … silence. The words won’t come. It’s like opening your mouth and nothing comes out. Or when you’re in a dream, frozen, and can’t run away from the bear that’s chasing you. You have no control.
You had a great idea just a few minutes ago and now it’s gone … and your deadline is three days away. Some of the thoughts that run through your head at a time like this are … What am I going to do? … How can I get through this hopefully temporary delay? … What am I going to tell my client? … I’m ruined!
Ever feel like this? The truth is, it happens to most writers at some time in their writing career. You reach a point where you’re not able to move forward.
Whether it is fear holding you back or a temporary lapse of focus, one thing is universal. It’s frustrating! And if you don’t know how to get past the point where you get stuck, it can be downright scary.
So let’s work on how to get unstuck.
That “deer in the headlights” feeling usually stems from several different sources. Here are nine of the most common, which might ring a bell for you. Once you’ve identified the cause of your dilemma, getting unstuck becomes much easier.
- You’re working on a totally new topic and you’re uncomfortable about stretching yourself to this new subject. You fear getting it wrong.
- You’re undertaking a new type of writing. Maybe you’ve been asked to write a white paper and you’ve never done one before. You’re not sure where to start.
- Your deadline is very short. You’d prefer having more time to research, plan, and write.
- Your life is demanding your attention. You have a lot of distractions and it’s hard to concentrate on work.
- You’re working with a new client. Someone you’ve never written for before and they are unfamiliar with your style. Will they like it?
- Your client wasn’t happy with your last project. They criticized your writing and bled all over your last copy. Still, they came back in spite of that. How will they react this time?
- You’re new at this! It’s early in your career and you don’t have a lot of confidence in your writing. Thoughts are racing through your head; “Am I ready? Am I good enough? Should I take one more class?”
- You’re writing for an audience that is new to you and you’re not sure you understand their emotions or what’s going to resonate with them.
- You’re uncertain about the assignment. There’s a lack of clarity and you’re worried about getting it right.
Any of these sound familiar? Don’t worry if they are. There are a number of ways to get past these issues. I’ve come up with 10 and I’ll bet you can think of more. Here they are:
- Switch gears. Get up and walk around. Rejuvenate your energy, go for a bike ride, play with your dog, meditate, watch a movie … do something to take your mind completely off of the topic for a while. Or if you have other active writing projects, work on one of those for a while.
- Don’t face an empty page. Put something down on it. Maybe it’s a header with your name, the name of the project, and date. Put a working title on it that can be changed later. Avoid staring at a blank screen.
- Do some more research on the topic. If you read more about it, you might get a spark that leads to an idea you can run with.
- Talk to someone about it. It could be a coach, mentor, or Accountability Partner. Bounce some ideas off of her. Maybe she will suggest a different approach.
- Better define your target audience. Visualize yourself having a one-on-one conversation with one member of that group. Write as if speaking directly to that person.
- If you’ve already started the project, take a look at what you’ve already written. It could be that what you’ve written is the source of the hesitation and there’s nowhere to go. As Stephen King says in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Go back and rewrite it, allowing a different path all together.
- Write down a list of whatever comes to mind. Work with a friend or partner that can help, ask him to brainstorm with you.
- Talk to your client. Ask questions. Run your Big Idea past them. It may be that you just need that little push from the person you’re working with to get the ball rolling.
- If possible, skip the part of the project that has you stuck and move on to another section. Then come back and start working on it again with a fresh perspective.
There are many reasons for getting stuck. Maybe you can determine the cause or maybe not. Either way, if you get stuck and can’t think of what to write next or how to move on, the important thing is to know you’re not alone. This is normal and a part of being a writer.
Look for ways to relax your mind. Always keep a pen and pad handy because you never know when you’ll get inspiration on what to do next. It often happens when your mind is totally away from the project. It could be in bed in the middle of the night, in the shower, while having lunch with a friend, or reading a book on something completely different. Be prepared for when it does hit you. Capture these thoughts when they occur.
Lastly, don’t panic. Take a deep breath and take some kind of action. Don’t just sit there and fret about it. This will only cause deeper frustration. Taking that first step will start things moving forward. Then you’ll look back and wonder why you were ever stuck in the first place.