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Getting unstuck when your writing stalls out

Let’s acknowledge immediately that there are innumerable reasons why a writing project can get stalled: Maybe you took a break and lost momentum? Got irrevocably bored with the topic? Received critical feedback that you can’t get out of your mind? Therefore, we aren’t going to focus on the “why” part. Instead, regardless of why a project got cold, there are some common steps that help us get any project moving again. Today we will focus on steps addressing the underlying emotional and motivational issues. If we can clear those up, the rest will likely go smoothly.

1) Consideration. The first step is to get fiercely honest and determine if and why you are committed to this project.  Some questions to consider:

  • What were my reasons/values for my commitment to this project? 
  • Do these reasons still hold true? 
  • What are the current benefits of finishing this project? And the costs? 
  • Could I be operating with a sunk cost fallacy here (i.e., not abandoning a poor choice because you’ve already invested heavily into it)?
  • What makes the most sense for me at this time?

Beyond simply pondering the answers, it would be highly beneficial to write them out so you can reread them. After writing and rereading, it is time to make a decision – to drop the project or go forward. Please do not postpone the decision as it is heavy to carry around unresolved projects and decisions.

2) Commitment. Commitments must now be made – in either direction. For example, if, after the above gut check, you decide that it is time to call off this project – Congratulations on the decision! Calling an official end to a project is an important decision and commitment to yourself.Or, if after your consideration, you decided that it is important to go ahead with it, then congratulations, too! It is time to recommit, in writing, to the project fully.  I would recommend writing a commitment on top of your file and including the date. A simple template can be: I commit to finishing the project entitled _______.  It is a valuable project for these reasons: _______.  (Note that a commitment does not include any hedging language like “maybe” nor conditional language like “if”.)

3) Curiosity. The next step is to get curious and figure out what is making this project challenging. Now 99% of the time, my writing coaching clients will immediately explain “lack of time” as to why the desired project didn’t move forward. While not untrue, however, other tasks certainly got accomplished in the same time period in which this project stalled, so I would argue that there is something uniquely challenging about the stalled project. We need to understand what that challenge is before we can address it. For this step, I would recommend Expressive Writing. Expressive writing allows us to capture our emotions which gives us important information that our cognitive brain, alone, does not. Expressive writing is a judgment-free, stream-of-consciousness type of writing. Much can be accomplished in as little as 5 minutes, although I’d recommend allowing yourself 15 minutes to allow yourself to go deeper into your thoughts and feelings.Finally, it is important to acknowledge that a stalled writing project can often be associated with challenging and negative emotions (e.g., frustration, fear, anger, and shame). Until we can label and address these emotions, they can act as energy sinks or sources of avoidance. Some prompts to help us reach the emotions (both positive and negative) are:

  • What are the emotions associated with this project?
  • What about restarting this project makes me the most nervous?
  • Where do I fear failure?
  • Where do I fear success?
  • What about this project makes me excited?
  • Who am I when I am writing this project?
  • In what ways is this project aligned with my core values?
  • What would success in this project look and feel like?

4) Cognizance. Look at your writing now and notice what trends you see there. What are the biggest obstacles? Once you can identify them, you can address them. Perhaps you feel unprepared to write the analysis section. Now is the time to consult the analytic and strategic cognitive brain to find a pathway forward. For example, is there a model paper you can use as a template? Is there someone you can consult for feedback on that section? Could that section be outsourced to a co-author?

In summary, don’t jump immediately into the work when approaching a stalled writing project. Use the 4 Cs: Consideration, Commitment, Curiosity, and Cognizance! Take some time to reflect on the emotional aspect of that project before proceeding forward.

Erin McTigueAfter being a tenured professor at Texas A&M University, Erin McTigue started her own coaching business, The Positive Academic, through which she coaches academics in writing and productivity, as well as runs workshops. While at Texas A&M, she co-directed a university-wide writing support program (POWER) and developed an academic writing course for international students. Erin is widely published, has won teaching and mentoring awards, and continually aims to bring a lightness of spirit to the weight of academia.