Reimagined: Writing when you’re stuck
Five ideas to reconnect you to your message
Invisible Grail’s Louise Clifton draws on our own approach to facilitating original writing and suggests five ways to overcome writer’s block.
[writing] permeates decision-making…helps us form alliances, and when we get it right it moves us to act.”
Writing is essential to how we connect with one another: it permeates decision-making, shapes how we feel and think about the subject in question, it can make us smile, help us form alliances and when we get it right it moves us to act.
From a simple email, to writing to attract students, drafting research proposals or funding bids, or creating strategies that need to be understood and championed, the responsibility of our messages to inspire and motivate our readers is profound.
And yet writing doesn’t often come easily. You start with knowing what you want to say but after trying to find space for your seventeenth Very Important Point (one that’s integral to your original message), it’s easy to end up with a sizeable chunk of something, and your original point lost.
Especially now, when writing as a way to connect has become so powerful, the ability to be clear, kind and compelling, is essential.
When you’re stuck in a sea of text, or before you even start, explore these five short prompts to find creativity in getting what you need to say, said.
Distil and distil again
Distillation gives your idea clarity.”
Something I learned from Twitter is the power of distilling an idea to a just a few words. A great example of this recently saw researchers summarise their work into one syllable words: “How drugs get in, round and out of you.” Distillation gives your idea clarity. You weigh each word for its worth.
If you’d like something a bit more generous than one syllable, try writing your key message in 12 words. Pause, and reflect. Should your words be more complex, or simpler? Could the same thing be said with one word rather than five?
This isn’t about making your message as short as possible. This is about making sure that the very essence of what you need to say is present. When you have your 12 words, you can expand or contract the idea as you need, but consider this pared-back sentence your foundation stone.
If you need a place to start, start here.
The point is to free your mind and your words from the grasps of boredom, repetitiveness and perceived boundaries”
Pick a key word from what you’re writing about. Once you have your word, simply write. Write whatever comes to mind. Let your pen or cursor go in whichever round-about, leaping, lunging direction it pleases. The only rule is to keep your pen on paper, or your fingers on the keyboard. Keep going for five minutes (you’ll be surprised at how quickly this goes.)
The point is to free your mind and your words from the grasps of boredom, repetitiveness and perceived boundaries about what you need to say and how you need to say it. This is your chance to let go, so enjoy it!
At the end, you might find something worth using. And if not, at least you’ve started.
Inertia is a disquieting problem. It can be hard to get started (or keep going) especially if you’re writing to a specific brief, purpose or deadline.
A good way out is disruption. Take 10 minutes and read something, anything, that takes you to a different place, away from what you’re trying to write about. A blog, an article, a travel guide, a poem.
When you come back to your own writing, is there something you can borrow? A sense of movement from poetry? A fist-thumping viewpoint like you find in the news? More emotive language, inspired by a blog? A cue to describe more deeply the landscape you’re writing about, borrowed from travel?
Give yourself permission to find distance and a different tone of voice, a different way of expressing ideas. Use this to shake yourself out the language you reach out to most, and stale thinking that can loom over you when you’re writing.
Don’t start at Go
The hardest place to start is at the beginning.”
The hardest place to start is at the beginning, so much hinges on those first few words. So begin elsewhere. Start with exactly what you want to say, and build your message from here, layering upwards and digging downwards.
When you have the filling, you can be more playful with how you want to top and tail your writing. It’s time to stop looking at the water and jump straight in.
Rather than thinking of constraints as something that limits you, constraints can give you a different, but solid, framework to hang your ideas on. Try these constraints on for size:
Use sentences that are no longer than 12 words long
Write in 20 minute bursts, with 5 minute breaks
Use a Dictaphone or an app like Ottr to say what you want to write, and see what you can use from the transcript
Find a book/magazine/dictionary and open it up randomly. Choose a word and find a way to use it in your writing
Choose a letter that your first word must start with, and your final word must end with.
The point of constraints is that they will force you to think about using different structures and words to express your idea. You don’t have to use what you write or say, but you might find more creativity in your writing, as you reach for shorter, longer, or more unusual words than you might normally use.
Keep it true to you, keep it human.”
Ultimately, use the techniques that work best for you. It may be a combination of the above, or just one or two prompts alone. If you’re looking for even more ideas, our colleague and writing expert John Simmons is re-writing a chapter from his book (and our namesake) The Invisible Grail. This is brim full of ideas, and worth looking at.
Every time we put pen to paper or mouse to cursor, we’re creating something that will connect with another person. At the end of all this, the best advice I can give is that you’re always writing to a person (or people). Keep it true to you, keep it human.