For people who have writing projects to complete, a regular practice of writing is valuable and effective. But keeping a regular practice means that sometimes it’s necessary to write even if you have nothing in particular to say.
For people who don’t write regularly, it can be pretty common to slip into the feeling of not being ready to write, or of needing some sort of inspiration or focus.
I’m writing this today partly because I don’t have any particular inspiration, but want to write something to post on my blog. And not writing, and not practicing writing, are big pitfalls that many people struggle with when engaged in a writing project.
If you’re not producing enough writing, or if you’re struggling with writer’s block, starting to write—writing anything—can feel like an almost insurmountable hurdle—one that can be overcome with inspiration. But inspiration is elusive.
For me, at least, it’s especially elusive when I sit down to actually write. If I’m waiting in line at the grocery, or out for a run, or otherwise occupied, I may feel some momentary inspiration—but such inspiration often fades as soon as I sit down to write about it.
I have three suggestions for people who have writing projects to complete and who are struggling with resistance:
- Do something small and simple
- Write about one thing and one thing only
- Make mistakes
1. If you’re having trouble getting engaged with your project, do something small and simple. Fix a citation. Fix one typo. One little thing at a time, pick up the small and simple tasks that don’t require heavy thinking. Consider such activities as a form of “warm up” exercise: start thinking about the project without having to worry about the large-scale difficulties. Fix one thing; Celebrate fixing that thing; Feel good for having accomplished something. Repeat frequently.
2. I strongly believe that one of the biggest problems that many or most writers face is that they have too much to say. Having a lot of ideas can often start to feel like having nothing to say at all: A variety of ideas compete for attention, and every time you try to focus on one, the others draw your attention away, suggesting that you’re not writing about the most important issue. It's a pretty short series of steps from "this isn't the most important thing I have to say" to "this isn't very important" to "this isn't worth writing about; no one will care." You don’t have to write about the most important issue—just write about one issue. Get into detail. Tighten your focus. Don’t get stuck because you have five equally good things to say, and all are imperfect: pick one, say something about it, and try to discuss the concerns that you have about that one idea. Write about whether that idea was worth the effort you put into writing about it. You’re never going to write out all your ideas—make a focused presentation about one thing. And then move on to others later.
3. Ideas that seem great at a distance, look more problematic when you put them down on paper and examine them. If you write something and it looks wrong to you, don’t cross it out, unless you have a better alternative. Instead, try to write about why it looks wrong to you—what is the weakness of the claim? What is the strength? Where do you agree and disagree with what you just wrote? Write with a willingness to be wrong, and then you can explore possibilities to see if you find something you like. Researchers will often go through mountains of material looking for the few pieces that matter for their research, and at the same time, as writers, they will expect to get their writing correct on the first try, when they would benefit from a similar willingness to spend time on something that might be worthless in hopes of finding that one elusive thing of value.
It doesn’t take much to have a lot to say and a lot to write. Writing it all down, however, is difficult and frustrating, and can often make a person feel incapable. The feeling of inspiration can be elusive—chased away by the difficulties of the task. But inspiration isn’t always necessary. Engage in the practice of writing in some small and simple way—free writing, fixing grammar or citations, etc.—and keep at the practice until you come across some issue that you do feel motivated to write about. Inspiration blooms more easily when supported by a practice. Rather than looking for inspiration that will enable you to write, practice writing as a method of finding ideas worth examining.