The Born Storyteller
Writer | Editor | Writing Coach
What to Do When You're Stuck
© 2020 Isabella Bailey
All rights reserved.
Let’s face it: writing is hard. It takes time, fortitude, and mental bandwidth. The truth is that, although you may be inspired, sometimes you just hit a wall when it comes to putting pen to paper. Maybe you can’t see a way around a plot point that you’ve created, or you can’t figure out how to make your characters react to an event in a believable way. This goes for nonfiction, too—perhaps you’ve lost sight of your argument, or you're having trouble putting your ideas together in a way that makes sense and lands elegantly. These are all common roadblocks, but the good news is that there are ways to get around them.
With that in mind, here are five tricks for jumpstarting your creative engine:
Write something. Anything. Sometimes, the simple act of writing—without an agenda or a deadline—can be what launches you out of your creative rut. This is why journaling is such a useful habit, and something I highly recommend taking up if you can. The biggest barrier to success is often just getting the pencil moving, so grab a notebook and something to write with. Free yourself from distractions and set a timer for five, ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes—however much time you can spare.
As soon as the timer starts, write, and don't stop until it goes off. Don't think too much. The goal is just to keep the pencil moving the entire time. If you're working on a fiction project, try improvising a scene featuring your protagonist, writing a dialog between two of your supporting characters, or even starting a completely new story. If your project is nonfiction, jot down as many outstanding issues, to-dos, and lines of inquiry as you can think of, and write out your thoughts about each one. Follow your inspiration. As you build momentum, you will naturally find yourself generating new ideas.
Research, research, research. Curiosity breeds creativity. A lot of writers shy away from doing research ("Who wants to spend time taking notes instead of drafting?"), but the truth is that the more you learn, the more ideas you'll have. Set aside some time to look for resources related to your topic—news articles, encyclopedia entries, books, case studies, stories, etc.—and do a deep dive. Even if you're writing fiction, research can still be a useful tool for envisioning new conflicts, informing your characters' actions, and grounding your story in reality. The more you dig, the more you'll uncover.
What’s your “why”? In writing, the “why” is often just as important—if not more important—than the how, the when, and the where. It's a huge component of compelling storytelling, in both fiction and nonfiction, and yet it so often goes overlooked.
If you’re facing writer’s block, take a step back and consider your why. What’s behind the work that you’re creating? If you’re writing fiction, ask yourself why your main character does what they do. What motivates them? What do they want and need? (I’ve touched on this in my article about protagonists, which you can find here.) If you’re writing nonfiction, ask yourself why your piece is important to your target audience. What do you want them to get out of it? What’s your argument, and why are you making it? Returning to the big picture after being in the weeds for a while can often unlock fresh inspiration.
Jump forward. Sometimes the natural inclination to write something from beginning to end can get in the way of making progress. If you've been stuck on one section of a story or article for a long time, consider skipping ahead. Find a chapter, section, or scene that you're particularly excited about writing and pick up from there, earmarking the place where you’re having trouble to return to later. You’ll likely rediscover your enthusiasm for your project.
Taking away the pressure to write chronologically will inevitably free up more creative cycles and help you build momentum. Once you've gotten your creative gears turning again, you can go back to where you were stuck before and bridge the gap. Odds are, it will be easier the second time around.
Team up. Just like you consult your colleagues when you encounter a challenge at work, you can consult others when you encounter a challenge in your writing. Approach a few people you know and trust, whose opinions you value, and ask them to discuss your piece with you. They don’t have to be writers. You don’t even have to let them read what you’ve written (although you certainly can!). By bouncing your ideas off others, you’re not only verbalizing the problem (which may be enough to give you clarity on its own), but you’re also opening the door to new perspectives. You may find yourself uncovering a path you hadn’t even considered before.
Getting stuck when you're writing is a natural part of the process, so don’t be too hard on yourself the next time you experience writer’s block. A few simple adjustments to the way you’re approaching the process are often all it takes to reignite your inspiration, propel you forward, and give you what you need to overcome the hurdle.
© 2020 Isabella Bailey
All rights reserved.