When Your Writing Jams Up, Try Using Less Effort

There's nothing more frustrating than sitting down to write and finding that the ideas just won't come, no matter how hard you bang your head against the keyboard. 

If you're like me (i.e., stubborn), you then brew another cup of coffee and plan how to push through. The solution, you feel, must be more effort – stricter word count goals, more hours spent in front of the computer, more haranguing yourself about your lack of progress.

But wait. Here’s the thing. That feeling of “stuckness”? It’s not just a feeling. It’s a message that something is not working with your writing.

So, don’t keep pushing ahead blindly, praying that somehow you'll reach a breakthrough.


Instead, you should:

1.     Stop. Take a step back.

You can’t gain perspective on an issue when you’re all up on it like that kid pushing against the "Pull" door. Step back far enough so you can see past your own frustration.

This may mean taking a day or two off from writing – a strategy I often resist because it feels like "slacking" or "giving up." However, that time off is crucial and, let's face it, unavoidable. You sure aren't making any progress doing what you're doing. And only crazy people keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, right?

2.     Take care of yourself.

One of the most common reasons writers can’t focus on creating work is because they are jammed up in some other area of their lives: work, relationships, health, etc.

Think of it in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Notice how "creative activities" sits right there at the top of the pyramid? 

Image courtesy of  Teach-nology.com

Image courtesy of Teach-nology.com


Maslow theorized that creativity only arrives after our basic (and some not-so-basic) needs have been met. So, if you're sleep-deprived, stressed, or gutted by a recent breakup, it's no surprise you're not exactly cranking out pages of beauteous prose. 

Take steps to address areas in your personal life that are getting you down. Yes, I'm aware this is not a simple and easy step.

Maybe it involves some major shifts in your work responsibilities, or confronting some negative habits around sleeping/eating/drinking, or even seeking out a therapist. 

The bottom line is that major upsets in your well-being are going to get in the way of your creativity. 

Does everything in the pyramid have to be working perfectly in order for you to create good work? Obviously, no – otherwise Hunter S. Thompson would’ve never written a word, and most of us would never have completed even a short story. But the pyramid is a good place to start in your quest to create a better (not perfect) inner environment for creativity.

3.     Re-assess your goals.

Now, it could be that your goal itself is the problem. (Don't shoot me – I'm just the messenger.)

Let's look at the example of Kim. Kim is a yoga teacher who runs her own business and is also working on a self-help book. She knows she needs to be blogging in order to give her website a boost, but every time she sits down to churn out a post, she starts to feel like this: 

What if Kim admitted that she really doesn't want to create blog posts for her company? She really wants to focus on the parts of her job that she's good at, like writing her book and teaching yoga. This could be a great time for Kim to delegate the blog-writing to someone else (say, Fresh Ink, where we love to take these important yet annoying tasks off your plate) and get back to kicking butt at her chosen passion.

As a writer, you need to acknowledge when your goals have become unrealistic, unpleasant, or just plain unimportant. Once you do this, you can focus your energies on more essential areas of your creative life. 

4.     Re-assess your strategies. 

What if your goals aren't the problem? Well, perhaps it's your strategies for reaching those goals that are sabotaging you. 

Let's say you're trying to write a novel, and your current strategy to achieve this is waking up at 5am to write before work. Except you never really get much done during that time because you're tired as hell and grumpy to boot. 

If your writing strategies are too punishing or ineffective, you need to switch things up. 

Remember that the quality of writing time is far more important than the quantity. I used to try to squeeze in the most possible hours of writing per week. But a lot of that time ended up being wasted in feeling stuck. I found that it was much more effective to set aside just two hours at a time when I knew I'd feel good (say, at my favorite coffee shop, with a cappuccino and a butter cookie nearby). 

When writing became joyful and something I looked forward to, I wrote far more (and far better).

Want to discover more joyful and effective writing strategies? Stay tuned for more Fresh Ink posts this week, including one brilliant piece of advice from John Cleese that may change your writing routine forever. 

Jaime deBlanc-Knowles is the founder of Fresh Ink Consulting, an Austin-based company offering personalized editing and writing services to authors and small businesses.