When writing, we all get stuck occasionally. Finding a way to explain a confusing concept. Solving a plot problem. Coming up with a topic to write about for a newsletter article when you’d rather be outside playing (cough cough).
Each writer has their own preferred ways of getting unstuck, to solve problems and develop new ideas. But there seems to be consensus around the benefit of giving your brain some direction and then allowing it time and space to work.
Here are seven methods to try.
Tip 1: Be quiet.
Most of us are constantly taking in information—reading the news, watching videos, listening to podcasts, checking social media. All that “noise” effectively keeps our brains in intake mode rather than integration mode.
Shut off your devices. Stop stuffing info into your head. Let your brain process what is already there. Do the dishes in quiet. Work in the garden without listening to an audiobook. Do your morning run without music. Don’t pick up your phone first thing in the morning as you lie in bed. Just lie there in quiet—see what bubbles up.
Tip 2: Freewrite.
One of my favorite problem-solving and idea-generation tools is freewriting. Define the question you have, the problem you need to solve, or the topic around which you want to develop idea, and start writing. Let yourself scribble with no filter.
Fans of The Artist’s Way will recognize “morning pages” as a variation of freewriting that consists of three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness writing first thing in the morning. It shakes the cobwebs out, clears the junk, so you can get going with the day. But—shock!—you can do morning pages at any time. I wrote three pages of longhand at 4 o’clock in the afternoon in order to figure out what article to write for this month’s newsletter. (Oh so meta…)
Tip 3: Sleep on it.
Take your freewriting one step further: do it right before bed so your brain can work on the problem overnight.
“My variation on this hat trick never fails,” says Clear Sight Books editor Rita Lewis.
“At some point during the day, I realize that the concept I’ve been wrestling with has pinned me to the mat. I jot down the issue on a sheet of paper and refine it throughout the day. By bedtime, I usually have a single, clearly worded question for my puny, overwhelmed brain: Does this section really belong in the book? What is the central theme of this piece? How do I organize this unwieldy mess? I keep pen and paper next to the bed, ready to capture the morning’s brilliant solutions.”
Tip 4: Shake things up.
Go to the office, sit at the computer, type type type. Take a coffee break at 10 and 3 and lunch at noon. It’s easy to get in a rut.
Shake things up by using a “pattern interrupt.” Work outside. Go for a walk. Change your schedule—lunch at 10:30 a.m. (am I the only one who does that?). Have second breakfast! Call a friend for a chat. Do something physical instead of mental.
Any “splinter” that interrupts your normal pattern can help jar something loose in the old noggin. (See the bonus poem below!)
Tip 5: Read.
Writers are frequently told one of the best ways to become a better writer is to read (to the point of its being almost a cliche). Depending on the type of problem you’re trying to solve, you might want to stay with the genre you’re writing in or intentionally peruse a different genre.
One editor I read about says before he begins editing, say, a business book, he reads a chapter or two from another business book so that his mind is primed for working in that genre.
Conversely, you may wish to stay away from books too similar to what you are writing, in order to “protect” your thinking and your voice from the influence of other authors. But if you’re writing a memoir, it might be worth picking up a novel in order to observe narrative structure. If you’re writing a self-help book, pick up a book of poems to see how concise the language can be.
Tip 6: Explore AI.
ChatGPT and other AI tools have been getting a lot of press lately. Alas, this slow adopter has yet to play with them. Will AI tools replace writers and editors? Some tasks, probably yes, but since Grammarly can’t even get complex grammar right, I’m not especially worried.
However, from what I’ve read so far, the most interesting and effective use of AI with writing seems to be for generating ideas. In this interview with Elisa Lorello, author of The AI Author Assistant, she describes how ChatGPT generates crap ideas, but it generates a bunch of crap ideas—quickly. Those ideas end up being a springboard for her own (cleverer, of course) ideas.
Tip 7: Ask for help.
Last but certainly not least, when you’re stuck in a mudhole, ask for someone’s hand to help pull you out. Whether you consult a writing group, beta readers, or a writing coach, having feedback can help you pull your metaphorical foot loose and regain momentum with your writing.
It’s natural to get stuck sometimes. The trick is getting unstuck. Find what works for you—and of course these techniques can be used for more than just writing!
Need help solving problems and generating ideas? Here we are. Get in touch at email@example.com.