Getting Unstuck

Grant proposals, book manuscripts, job application materials—so many academic writing projects feel high stakes. If you’ve stalled out on a project, sometimes it helps to find ways to just “generate ingredients” for a later draft. Here are a few ways to get your ideas down (or generate ideas in the first place) that might feel lower stakes and less paralyzing.

  1. Talk it out.

    If you have some questions you’re wrestling with, you might talk through them using speech recognition software (or recording yourself and then transcribing your thoughts). Sometimes it’s easier to get ideas out in a conversational mode, especially in a private setting where you don’t feel any need to perform. If you’re not sure yet what questions you need to think about, try starting with the journalist’s basic “who, what, when, where, why, and how” to get yourself talking about your material. You might add in the all-important “So what?” to get yourself thinking about the stakes of your project.

  2. Write a letter to an imagined reader.

    This is an idea I love from Gillie Bolton. Visualize a specific person who doesn’t know your research well. If you’re writing a journal article, you might visualize somebody in your field—but for book manuscripts (and many other writing projects), try picturing a reader who’s not a specialist. Ask your imagined reader what it is that they want from your writing. Write out your reader’s response, and then write a reply. Or you can skip past the first steps and simply try writing a letter to your specific imagined reader explaining your research, making sure you don’t skip past any important conceptual links.

  3. Freewrite. Let it be raw, let it be disjointed, let it all pour out.

    "Let your early writing be raw," says Peter Elbow—the man who coined the term “freewriting”—in his classic Writing With Power. Elbow wants us to harness our early energy, for he sees this energy as giving power to our later work. He urges us to engage fully with the meaning we are trying to convey, letting go of external worries (like how our prose sounds).

    Set a timer, or aim for a particular word count, and just see what comes.

  4. Cycle back and forth between analog and digital.

    If you need a break from your Word document, get out a notebook or some butcher paper and do some mindmapping. How exactly do the concepts you’re grappling with relate to each other? Or print out a hard copy of your past freewriting sessions and highlight everything useful, scribbling notes to yourself in the margins. You can engage a different part of your brain by writing longhand.

  5. After you've put in a deep-focus writing sessiongo for a walk.

    Or do the dishes, or knit, or do something else that’s mindless and physical and gives your brain some space to continue to work things over. Jocelyn Glei explains the value of having some “white space” in the work day.