Dislodging stuck writing


Do you have a bit of writing that is stuck? I don’t mean you can’t get any words down on the page. I mean you have some writing where you just can’t work out what to do next. You think. You put the writing away for a bit. You go for a walk. You do some reading about the topic. You come back to the text and…. Gah, still stuck.

Sometimes writing gets stuck like wheels in mud. Doing more of the same simply leads to you spinning your wheels and getting in deeper. Going nowhere. Sometimes writing gets stuck like a stone wedged in the sole of your shoe. You can keep walking but is very uncomfortable. And you probably aren’t going to make it all the way walking like this. You need a very pointy stick to dislodge the obdurate object.

What stuck writing needs is its own version of the sharp pointy stick. Its own version of the hessian bag you lay under the stuck wheels so you get traction.

Of course, if you have stuck writing, you might decide not to bother with it any longer. The writing is too stubborn. You’re out of time. It just seems better to ditch it, even though it took some effort to get it to this point. So you give up. There’s another piece of writing to get done and it doesn’t look nearly so hard.

And sometimes giving up on chunk of writing paradoxically works to dislodge stuckness. You wake up knowing what to do. You have the why-not-try-this thought in the shower.

But if the aha moment doesn’t happen and if you have some time, and if you have decided to definitely keep hold of this writing, and you don’t want to give up on it just yet, then finding your own sharp pointy stick might be possible. There are lots of pointy stick writing equivalents around, but here’s two to begin with.

Play with the text

The idea of playing may sound pretty silly when we are talking about serious academic writing. But the point of play is to create a bit of space and time that might allow you to see a new possibility. Playing takes the heat out of the need to fix the text you’re working on. Playing is a way of giving yourself permission to tinker with the words to see what happens. So:

  • Find a roughly appropriate place in the writing, you might even just close your eyes and point to a spot. Now write a new sentence beginning with – For example. Or add more context or more description or an anecdote or a little bit of the data that you decided you wouldn’t use or invent and insert a metaphor.
  • Annotate the text. Add a column to one side and use it to explain what you are doing, why you are doing and where the doing takes the argument or narrative. Now read the annotations to see if they offer a clue about what else you might add.
  • Find the difficult and tricky concepts in the text and explain them.
  • Find some new literatures that speak to a section of the text and work them in.
  • Write a new beginning for the vexatious writing – it doesn’t matter what it is, just a different beginning to what there is now. Write a new ending for the text. Try not to look too much at the old text while you are doing this.

Perhaps while you were doing these things you created a new insight or perhaps a new bit of writing. Working these new bits into your old text might change where you were going. It may even be enough to get the energy to tackle the tricky text again.

Write in parallel

The idea of writing yet another version of your troublesome text may sound silly. Why do another version of the same thing that’s going nowhere? Well, sometimes working in parallel allows you to develop your ideas. It doesn’t automatically do so, any more than playing. But writing in parallel does offer the possibility for seeing your topic afresh. So put the enervating extract to one side, open up a new doc and free write for a few minutes:

  • Explain what came before the “stuff” you were writing about. Speculate about what might happen “after” the stuff you were writing about. Write it down.
  • Write a letter to the pesky prose telling it what it is and isn’t doing and what it should be doing instead. Or just write about what is bothering or frustrating you about the text and what you had originally hoped it might do.
  • Write about the tangential idea you cut out of the text
  • Write the paper again but very small – write it as a tiny text, as an abstract, as a blog post.
  • Turn the argument or narrative into another form – a letter, a diary entry, a series of cartoon frames, a poster.

Now there are no guarantees that any of the playing or writing in parallel that you do will get you unstuck. But because the writing isn’t going to fix itself you may just decide it’s worth giving it another shot before putting it away in the cupboard for a rest. And each of the strategies I’ve listed is reasonably quick. You might be able to find a half an hour here and there to try a few of them out.


This post was inspired by Meredith Sue Willis’ (1993) book Deep revision, A guide for teachers, students and other writers. My copy is a well-worn relic of creative writing with kids in schools.