Friday, August 3, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Writing When You're Stuck In The Mud

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a series devoted to bringing your writing and communication skills to the next level.

What do you do when you're stumped?  When you need to launch a writing project, but the winds of inspiration have totally left your sails?    When people are looking to you to produce a decisive piece of communication, but your very emotional state is making it impossible to do so?  When frustration, worry, anger, depression, and/or apathy is draining you dry?

It's easy to panic in a situation like that.  You feel simultaneously hyper and helpless.  The weight of the project is threatening to sink you, and your impulse is to flee, but instead, you're immobilized by your own sense of alarm.  The fear makes it even more difficult to lift yourself out of your uninspired state.

"This is ridiculous," you say.  "I shouldn't be feeling this way." You grit your teeth and force yourself to focus.  "I. will. get. this. done," you vow to yourself as you face your blank computer monitor.  But now you've added ANOTHER layer of energy-sapping emotion to the mix - denial - and it's sucking you down even more.

How can you get unstuck?

The first thing to remember is that this state is temporary.  Low tide doesn't last long.  It's smelly and muddy right now, but a fresh wave is coming.  So get ready to ride it.  Here are a few tips to get you going.

When your creativity craters, you need help to pull yourself out of the mud.  I've been there. I've gotten out.  So now, I'm throwing you my rope.  Here it is:

R = Reset your expectations.  I find that as a writer, I often get overwhelmed merely because I expect too much of myself.   "I'll dash off this article before lunch,"  says that breezy and annoying character inside my psyche who also believes that it will only take me five minutes to get ready for work in the morning, or that I should be able to do 60 minutes on the elliptical at the gym.  Do you have a similarly over-confident voice inside your head?  If so, it's time to sit yourself down for a sympathetic heart-to-heart.  Change your self-talk to make it more realistic.  Remind yourself that there's a reason they call work work, and this writing
assignment is going to be work.  You're going to need to dig in.  It may take you longer than you want it to take, or be harder than you wished it to be.  But it is what it is.  So just breathe.  Something will happen. Life will go on, and you'll get it done.

During this self-talk, acknowledge your emotional state, and explain to yourself that there are elements about life that you can't control right now, but you still have to get your work done.  Schedule a meeting with yourself for sometime in the future to unpack the emotional side of your situation further.  Then go on to the next step, which is --

O = Organize your objectives.  On a piece of paper -- NOT on your computer -- start writing down the "why's" behind your writing project.  What do you want to accomplish?  What is important?  Pencil in everything you want the final product to achieve.  Then put your pencil down and survey the list.  Is it all achievable?  Or is it too much?  If so, which parts are most vital?  What's a need-to-have, and what's a nice-to-have?  Pick up your pencil again and rank the objectives in priority order.  Then, on a new piece of paper, write them out again, this time putting them in order of importance and bucketing them into groups.

Note that during this exercise you should NOT be trying to write.  You are merely organizing.  Don't get caught up in how you phrase things.

Once you have your project goals clearly prioritized, you can step back and survey the landscape with fresh eyes.  Objectives empower objectivity.  Clear your head, browse down your list, and some patterns may emerge.
  • Things may seem less murky. Answers and structure may start to come to you, just because you have the project in better focus now.  If that's true, start writing down key words and ideas, randomly jotting down any inspiration that comes to mind.  Don't get into the meat of the writing process yet -- just make quick notes that will serve as guideposts later on.
  • You may discover that the goals for this communication were too ambitious, or just too numerous.  Sometimes a piece is hard to write because it's got too many pieces.  Are you trying to load too much into this one communication?  If so, simplify your approach.  Eliminate some of your objectives, or choose to handle them through a different vehicle.  
  • You may uncover big issues that aren't related to the writing itself , such as missing information, mixed messages, half-baked logic, or lack of other project support processes.  I've had some writing assignments that were doomed from the start because they were based on faulty premises.  Others failed because there were not enough other resources -- time, tools, etc. -- to get the message out effectively or support its execution.  If any of that is the case, you need to rethink the whole endeavor.  Make a list of the possible deal-breakers and bring it to someone's attention.  Or re-scale the project to turn it into something that can be effective.
P = Plan your approach.  Your objectives have given you good answers to the "why" question.  Now, start asking yourself "how."  Planning a piece of writing is like planning a trip.  Where is the audience's mindset now?  Where do you need to bring them?  What do you need to say in order to get them there?  What's the best route to take?  Visualize what success will look like.  Then, make a list of action steps to help you get there.

E = Engage your creativity.  By now you're looking at a collection of outlines, lists, ideas and notes.  These are like dots that are waiting to be connected.  Stare at them long enough, and a couple of concepts will start to suggest themselves.  When they do, record them.  Don't worry about sequence. The tide has started to come back in.  Just jump into the water and start swimming.

Eventually,  you'll feel all the mud slide away as you enter the current of a cohesive idea and go with the flow.   Let go of the rope now. You'll be fine, as long as you avoid the paralysis of perfectionist thinking and just keep moving.

Remember that with communication, as with everything else in life, there are a million different ways to do something.  Just pick a way that seems workable, and go with it.  As you do, you'll say goodbye to the mud flats, and head toward the open sea.  It's amazing how wonderful productivity feels.  Go after it, and get it done.

Then, as you wrap up your writing, watch the sun set on your tranquil ocean of expertise, and smile.


  1. Thanks for the useful pointers here, Beth. It's certainly quite a good structured approach.

    I've also find it useful to just go out. Get out of the house. Get out of the office. Go out and get myself "angry" at something enough to write about it, or go out and get myself "insanely happy" about something enough to write about it. This happens often when I go to a nice bookstore and skim over various material.

    At other times, I just start drawing my own plight, like this:

    Thanks again, and have a great and creative weekend!


    1. Welcome back Ronian! I love the idea of a getting a change of scenery. The streets of Manhattan are great for that. And I agree about bookstore browsing... there's certain to be some idea-starters on every shelf. As for doodles, they are my secret outlet, too. Whatever gets you out of the mud!