Three ways to start writing when you’re totally stuck, and then three more…

Andrea ChesterUncategorizedLeave a Comment

This post comes from a newsletter I subscribe to on positive psychology coaching by Ben Dean  I wonder what strategies you use and share with others.

As an undergraduate, I had great trouble writing fluently and finishing my papers.
In graduate school, I began to study the issue and gradually found a series of
strategies that worked.  Believe it or not, in my 30’s, I went around the country
leading all-day workshops on Strategies for Overcoming Writer’s Block.  In this
series, I’ll share seven strategies for writing fluency.  Here are the first three.

Last fall, I ran into a colleague who was utterly blocked on writing a proposal for a
major consulting contract. She was a brilliant woman, a great writer, and the owner of a small, highly regarded consulting practice. But she was moving up to a new level of competition with this proposal and was certain that the established national firms would be fighting for it, too.

She “knew” she wasn’t going to get it. Yet she’d never forgive herself for not trying. She was painfully stuck. And the deadline was just three days away. What could she do–right away–to start writing?

We had only a few minutes to talk before her ride to the airport came, so I quickly
offered her three ideas for getting started. Then later that night, I e-mailed her
four more.

#1. Give Up.
Cut your losses and enjoy the weekend! You don’t have to do it! Winning this
contract has no intrinsic meaning except that which you invest in it. You don’t
have to write this proposal. If you do write it, you don’t have to win the contract.
You don’t even have to be a consultant.  None of these is necessary for you to
have a wonderful life.

See the paradox? If she can truly give herself permission to consider giving up,
she will have begun to detach from the outcome–and this, alone, can release her.

If she will let go of the factors she can’t control (the result, who will win the contract),
she’ll be freer — either to walk away or to swing for the fences…to write a bold, killer

Does this apply to you?


Let’s say you’re a graduate student.

No matter who you are, no matter how much you want it, no matter how desperately
you dream of stardom at a major university, you can have a good life without a Ph.D.

If you deeply realize this, you’ll feel less performance anxiety than most new faculty
feel (no matter what they tell you).

The more you detach from worry about the destination, the more you’ll be fully
present for the journey.

And full, detached awareness is a hallmark of the road to mastery.

#2. Reframe it.
Reframe the overwhelming task. Simply list 10 – 20 small steps that will move you
forward.  Each step must take less than 15 minutes. It’s OK if they’re small steps
(e.g., locate Department of Energy report; find contact person’s phone number;
decide when to call the contact person; address envelope; buy stamps). Once you’ve
done that, rank them in the order they would be done.

At this point, without doing anything more, you’ve begun to reframe the task from
“overwhelming” to “manageable on a step-by-step basis.” At this point, believe it or
not, you’ve made serious progress.

Now, one at a time, do them. If you have to, just work for 15 minutes at a time, then

Big tasks can be intimidating and often immobilizing. If you can identify the component
parts of the overwhelming task and work on each part, one at a time, it won’t be so
intimidating and will get done.

3. Procrastinate Constructively.
Commit to a set amount of time (e.g., 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). Make a list that has two
columns–one for high-priority “to-do’s” and another for low-priority ones. Do the high
priority ones (e.g., revise draft) if you can.

When you need a break from the heavy-duty work, start on your low-priority items
(simple, clerical tasks that still advance the process, such as organizing documents
and checking references).

When you “procrastinate constructively” you use the time slot you’ve allocated in an
efficient way. Even when you’re not doing high-priority tasks, you’re still using your
time in a way that will move you closer to your goal.


#4. Force A Raw Draft
Think you just can’t get anything on paper? You can with this method. First, schedule
a time to write. Sit down. Take a deep breath. Review your notes for 15 minutes. Then,
freewrite that section for 30 minutes. (The key, here, is to let *nothing* break your
momentum. You cannot reread your writing. You cannot edit it. You must keep forging
ahead. If, halfway through, you remember that you’ve forgotten to pay your rent,
write yourself a note in the body of the draft… but don’t stop writing. If you become
overwhelmed with shame over your writing, write about *that*, but don’t stop writing.
Let NOTHING break your flow.)

Finally, review what you’ve written for 15 minutes, underlining only the parts you liked.
Congratulations. You now have a raw draft. You will always be better off with a raw
draft (and at  least some of the ingredients for a more formal, linear first draft) than
with nothing at all.

For a nice description of this approach, read the first chapter of John Trimble’s classic,
Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing.

#5. Write It To a Friend
Here’s a method that I found enormously helpful in writing my dissertation.

Find a friend willing to help, perhaps for a trade of services.  Write your drafts to her.

As you write, whenever you want to, shift into all caps to ask your friendly reader
specific questions for feedback (“WHAT SHOULD I DO HERE?”), or to complain about

Then, while you’re at the movies, your friend will give you margin comments. Which
you can then take or leave.

With minimal effort you can improve your writing by doing nothing more than revising
based on her comments.

#6. The Answer: Boice, Boice, Boice
The Question: “Who are the top three people to read on overcoming writer’s
I told my friend that for a long-term solution to her problems, she must read Robert
Boice, a Professor Emeritus of psychology at SUNY Stony Brook, who has written a
number of superb books on the scholarly writing process. In How Writers Journey to
Comfort and Fluency
(Westport, CT: Praeger; 1994), you’ll find a superb integration
of theory, research, and, most important, practical advice. I particularly recommend
his 34 Rules for Comfort and Fluency (pp. 235-246).

Want to know what my friend decided to do on that proposal? She did her best to write
it passionately with no regard for outcome and emailed it in by the deadline. She later
told me that learning to work with detachment was a huge insight which alone was
worth the long weekend.

Then sometime last month she heard the news. She won the entire contract. And now she’s joyfully–lucratively–doing the work.

An important secret of successful writing is to know many ways to begin–again and
again–no matter how stuck you are. In the next issue of Coaching Toward Happiness,
I’ll describe the seventh technique I offered my friend.

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