Get back on track: 4 types of writing stalls and how to recover

Stopping dominoes from fallingHave one or more of your writing projects seemed to stall? Do you have a project that needs finishing, but continues to be pushed aside? The good news is you’re not alone. The even better news is there are ways to identify what is keeping the project unfinished and to either move it forward or out of the way.

In her recent TAA webinar, Get Your Stalled Writing Project Back on Track, Joli Jensen, author of Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics, suggested that we “shift our attitude” regarding stalls and “acknowledge that stalls happen and are a natural part of the writing process.” By doing so, we can better identify the type of stall we are facing and apply structured techniques to overcome the stall. To help with this process, Jensen identified four types of writing stalls and methods for overcoming each.

Stall #1: Lull

A lull occurs when you take time away from a project and have lost momentum, but you genuinely want to return to the project. In this type of stall, the loss of momentum does not equate to a loss of interest, so it is sometimes easy to recover and get back on track when facing a lull.

The first strategy to try in recovering from a lull, as suggested by Jensen, is to “commit to ‘taming techniques’”. She suggests three taming techniques to be used with all types of stalls: committing 10-15 minutes a day to working on your project; maintaining an organized project box; and keeping a ventilation file readily available.

The ventilation file can be used to write about how you can’t write on your project, how hopeless the project feels, or other things that need to be recognized and addressed to allow for reconnection with the project itself.

Jensen said that the taming techniques “keep the project ‘write sized’ and allow you to connect with it without a lot of drama.”

Further, Jensen suggested “matching ABC energy to ABC time” when organizing your projects to overcome a lull. Clarifying this strategy, she added, “Choose to write when you have the most to offer to your writing.” In other words, write in your A time.

Finally, she advised refreshing your writing space in a way that doesn’t seem cluttered by your project, but rather to act “as a stage for it to move ahead and shine.”

If these techniques are unsuccessful, you may be facing a more substantial stall, such as resistance.

Stall #2: Resistance

When dealing with a resistance stall, you may have tried to return to the writing project, but always feel uneasy, unmotivated, and therefore re-stall. In this case, there is nothing inherently wrong with the project, but other things may be receiving greater priority.

Jensen described her “stall-busting strategies” as sequential, therefore many of the techniques that work for overcoming a lull work with resistance stalls but may require additional support. Jensen therefore advised that for resistance type stalls you should “use reconnection techniques plus extra ventilation and an accountability system.”

Specifically, to deal with resistance stalls, she suggested a “counting and accounting” approach. Calendaring and counting the number of writing sessions available for a project prior to the deadline provides visual accountability to whether you use or “give away” your writing time. Additional accountability through faculty writing groups can also serve to overcome resistance.

If counting and accounting still doesn’t relieve your stall, there may be a structural issue with your writing project that needs addressing to move forward.

Stall #3: Structural

In structural stalls, the project feels “off” – in content, organization or proportion. If you recognize the stall is more than a lull or resistance, a structural issue may be to blame.

As with the previously discussed stalls, taming techniques, ABC time evaluation, counting, and accountability may be necessary steps in overcoming a structural stall, however Jensen suggested that with true structural stalls, reframing or repurposing the project is necessary.

She suggested three reframing techniques for overcoming a structural stall. First, “follow the lilt” to find the energetic thread. She noted that this is easier to identify when talking about the project with someone else. If the project needs to shift to become a better project, don’t feel stuck, even if associated with a grant or contractual agreement. This may involve one of the other two reframing techniques: reconnecting with the old or new “project heart” or reorganizing to make the project “right” for you.

If specific content within the project doesn’t fit the new vision, or is the cause of the structural stall, Jensen advised imagining “alternative venues for any ‘not-right’ portions”, adding that “everything can be repurposed!” Some ways the content can be repurposed include conference papers, articles, essays, lectures, and new courses. Regardless, don’t let the wrong content continue to stall the entire project.

If you have now tamed, evaluated, counted and accounted, reframed, and repurposed your content, but are still stalled, you may be facing the fourth and final type of writing project stall – a toxic stall.

Stall #4: Toxic

Toxic stalls are categorized by dread and avoidance, fear and loathing of your project. If you suspect that you are in a toxic stall, Jensen suggested that you retry and, if necessary, relinquish the project.

Following the strategies above, Jensen advised the following approach: 1) spend at least 1 week on reconnection techniques, 2) “count and account” for at least 1 week, 3) reframe/repurpose as needed for 1-2 weeks, and if you’re still resistant, 4) PACK IT UP with notes for a ‘someday’ return, and 5) choose a new writing project that you can truly enjoy.

When dealing with toxic stalls, Jensen said that you should be careful to honor your project and let yourself off the hook when relinquishing the project.

Although stalls can be challenging, Jensen suggested that we approach all writing (including stalls) with curiosity and compassion. Understand that “stalls happen to all writers…what matters is how you respond to them.”


Eric SchmiederEric Schmieder is the Membership Marketing Manager for TAA. He has taught computer technology concepts to curriculum, continuing education, and corporate training students since 2001. A lifelong learner, teacher, and textbook author, Eric seeks to use technology in ways that improve results in his daily processes and in the lives of those he serves. His latest textbook, Web, Database, and Programming: A foundational approach to data-driven application development using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, MySQL, and PHP, First Edition, is available now through Sentia Publishing.

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