How to start writing when you're stuck

This is, by far, the struggle I hear most frequently from clients and from readers of the blog:

I can't get started.

Why is this so hard? Well, it depends on what's at the root of the inertia. Are you short on time? Short on confidence? Feeling totally overwhelmed by what's ahead of you? There are plenty of reasons to feel stuck. The trick is to dig a little into your stuck-ness and figure out what it's about. You need to diagnose your stuck-ness before you can do something about it.

Let's start with three of the most common reasons you might be stuck:


I don't have time

Are you stuck because you just don't have the time to write? Do you have a bazillion other things on your plate and there just isn't time to get the writing done?

Okay: don't be mad. It's time for some tough love.

You need to MAKE the time. You just do. If writing needs to happen, you need to make writing happen.

BUT. And this is a big one: it's not as hard as you think.

If the idea of blocking off an entire afternoon seems impossible, I have some good news for you:

DON'T DO IT. Seriously. Don't.

Instead, start by blocking off 20 minutes. Close the door, turn off your phone, and set a timer. Then take a dump.

Write like sh*t for 20 minutes. Let it be bad. Let it be the worst thing you've ever written.

When your 20 minutes are up, take a break. Do something else. If that's all the time you have that day, carry on. If you have another 20 minutes to spare, dump again.

BOOM. You just got unstuck.

These little writing sprints will help you gain some serious momentum.

Of course, you're going to have to take many, many dumps to get a full draft—but lower the barrier so that you're writing only for 20 minutes. It's okay that you don't have a full afternoon.

Same goes for editing: tackle small bits at a time. Steal moments where you can. If you wait until all the conditions are perfect, you'll never get anywhere.


I'm overwhelmed

When you're feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with your writing, it's easy to forget why you're sitting there in the first place. And it's really easy to let that feeling wash over you and stop you in your tracks.

This is another block that can benefit from lowering your standards. If you start hyperventilating at the thought of writing a WHOLE dissertation or a WHOLE book or a WHOLE journal article, take some of the pressure off by making your project seem smaller.

In other words: take it down a notch.

You're not writing a dissertation: you're writing Chapter One. You're not writing a journal article: you're writing the methods section.

Ask yourself what the next action is to move your project forward, and do that. Set the bar as low as possible so that it's almost too easy for you to accomplish the next step. For example: the next action might be to review your notes and jot down a few points in preparation for your next writing dump. Think of the next really easy, super low-barrier action you can take, and do it.

Bit by bit, you'll get it done.

But be careful: make sure that your next action is tied to writing, and not to more procrastination. For example: does your next action always involve more reading or organizing? If it does, you need to get your butt in a chair and write.

You might also want to check in with your energy levels: are you overwhelmed because you're freaking exhausted? If so, maybe you need to schedule an actual break, where you let yourself off the hook for not writing (instead of not writing but spending the whole time worrying about not writing). If you need a break, take one. A REAL ONE.


It will never be good enough

Here's what you're thinking: no matter what you say or how you say it, it's all been said before. And it's been said better than you're ever going to say it.

That, my friend, is the insidious little impostor goblin.

What can I say? Everyone feels like that at some point.

So how do you move on from the impostor syndrome and how do you gain some confidence?

Beyond the suggestions from that post (1. Acknowledge the fear; 2. Recognize that it's normal; 3. Find allies to talk with; 4. Do it anyway), here are a few other things you can try:

1. Think about the literature in your field as a big cocktail party in a hotel ballroom. There are hundreds of conversations happening. Some of them will be of absolutely no interest to you. Some of them you might have a few short quips to add here and there. But in a couple of those conversations, you'll have something really interesting to add: a different angle, some new evidence, or a new approach to an old concept. Figure out which conversation you want to be a part of, and figure out what you can add to that conversation. While wearing a party dress, of course.

2. My friend and colleague Jane at Up In Consulting suggests keeping a dissertation diary (if you're not working on a dissertation, it can just be a regular ol' writing diary). Nobody will ever see it but you. It's a place to keep all of your vile, horrible thoughts and your foul complaints about your writing. And if you're thinking to yourself, "MORE WRITING?" Jane says that her diary ended up turning into a place where she could work through critiques of her work and debrief some of her process, which ultimately helped her finish her dissertation. It ended up being like a workshop on the page. So try buying yourself a shiny new journal and filling it with as much bitching and moaning as you can!

3. Think about why you wanted to write in the first place. What got you interested in your topic? Why were you excited about it? It's so easy to get bogged down by self-doubt and worn out by the daily slog of your giant, interminable writing project. Ask yourself what are you writing for?

Want help getting unstuck? Join Spark!

Spark is an online membership group that helps you find the motivation, focus, and discipline you need to finish your dissertation. Learn more and sign up by clicking the button below:



Two questions for you this week: 1) What's the source of your stuck-ness? and 2) What are you writing for?

Tell me in the comments!