Jenny sat on the couch staring out the window at the falling snow, her fingers resting idly on the keyboard of her laptop, which was warm and humming slightly. Jenny shook her head and turned to gaze at the document on her screen. She sighed. Never had a piece of writing been quite this stubborn. It had all seemed so straightforward–and exciting!–in her head before she sat down to write. She yawned. Could she possibly justify calling it quits without doing a single thing on this article?
There’s almost nothing as quietly mortifying as hitting that big, fat blank wall inside your head while writing something that had sounded like a great idea–right before you started writing it.
There are some good reasons why you, like Jenny, might be staring at the blank page. For one thing, while you initial idea may be a good one, there’s a chance you haven’t thought it all the way through. What point are you intending to make? What do you want your reader to feel or do after reading our piece?
Second, you may be falling prey to a common pitfall: Trying to write a finished piece your first time through. The reason this doesn’t work is these are two different kinds of writing. Get-it-down writing quickly sketches your ideas–maybe in the wrong order, maybe not clearly described, and quite possibly misspelled. The task here is to capture the ideas.
Constructing writing is where you actually build your piece. You look at the order in which you want to present your ideas, the metaphors or teaching stories you want to use, the voice and tone, the point of view. This is where you decide which tools to use to present your ideas. And these may have spelling errors, too.
If you confuse the two, you will be searching for the exact right phrase or metaphor before you’ve gotten down the whole idea and made decisions about tone and language. Part of you will know it’s too early to commit to a certain wording, but part of you wants to cut down on errors. Once you learn to trust the get-it-down stage, and stop worrying about mistakes at this point, you will find yourself doing much less staring at a stubborn piece of writing.
Here are some quick tips to get you out of your writing rut, and, depending on your style of creating, the order can vary.
6 Tips For Getting Unstuck While Writing Your First Draft
- Write the most obvious thing first. Just put it down. You know how it is: You’re thinking this one thought or phrase, and you keep pushing it aside because you know or think you know, there’s a much better way to say it, a brilliant way…. Stop pushing it away and writing it down.
2. Ask questions on the page. As you’re going along, if you get to a stuck place where you don’t know what to say, ask a question. “How do people in Antartica celebrate Christmas, Jenny?” “What happened next?” “What do you think about that, Jenny?”
3. Don’t get caught up in transitional sentences, introductory sentences, summation sentences and all of that stuff. Don’t worry about the order or what goes with what at this stage. Just get it down.
4. Use an outline or a mind map if your piece is bigger, or you’re having trouble making it cohesive. This can also be useful if you’re stuck for how to make parts of it make sense, or if you’re wavering on your main idea. Switch over to sticky notes and a big piece of cardboard or a whiteboard, and jot down your main ideas, then play around with them spatially and see how they relate to each other. Keep playing around with them until you see something you didn’t see before, or until your original idea is validated.
5. Talk out loud or tell a friend about your piece. Sometimes you find yourself saying things in words that you couldn’t access through the pen or fingers alone. And if you tell a friend, you let a little bit of air and light into your topic. This can help you understand it in a broader context than the space between your ears (where all your ideas make perfect sense!)
Takeaway: It’s much easier to edit than it is to write a perfect first draft. The most important thing is to get something down on paper.
Personally, I like to plan my pieces. If I can’t answer the question, “What is my main point or message?” then I won’t be able to wrap up my piece or have direction in stuck places. Most of the time when I’m stuck, it’s either this or I’m trying to be fancy when plain will do.
Action Step: Take a piece of writing you are stuck on, and ask yourself, what are my main points? What do I want the reader to walk away with? What do I have to do, say, show, tell to get them there?
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