There are few things in life that I enjoy more than writing, and this has been the case since I was a child. I have fond memories of being in grade school and filling up endless notebooks with stories. I also loathed when the school year ended, because it meant my writing assignments would also cease for the hot, annoying summer months. As a result, I'd beg my parents (who kindly complied) to assign me topics I could write about using my beloved encyclopedia. I have always been happiest with a pen in my hand or
seated at a keyboard, writing away. This
doesn't mean, however, that it is always easy. I've had more than my fair share of nights staring at my projects, wondering if they will ever be finished or wanting to throw them out the window. Difficulty comes for all of us, but for me, my overwhelming love of writing continued to be a driver.
Nowadays, my relationship to writing has broadened significantly. I continually work on my own projects, but I also help others begin, edit, and/or complete their projects. Through this, I've learned a great deal about the things that can cause writers trouble at all phases of the process. Below, I give you, dear Readers, some of my favorite tips to give struggling writers:
Be prepared for what you intended to write to be different from what you end up writing. All writing begins with some sort of intention regarding the final product. However, regardless of how determined you are, there are likely to be changes in the work from idea to completion. The shifts could be caused by inspiration/discovery, outside forces (like source availability), editing, or any number of other things. The point is, if you accept that there will be changes along the way, you'll have an easier time implementing them. It is also why, whenever possible, I write my abstract last. I may know what I want a project to be, but I have to wait until I see how it manifests before I can properly describe it.
Build your bibliography first (if one is necessary). It always surprises me how many researchers save creating their bibliographies (/Reference/Works Cited pages) for their last task. Compiling one at the start of the project can be a phenomenal starting point. Having all your current sources listed makes it easier to cite as you go AND it gives you an instant feeling of accomplishment. Further, I've found that the act of creating the bibliography reminds me of exactly what sources I have to work with...including the ones I may have forgotten I wanted to focus on until I consult my source pile and have to type up the appropriate information. As you write, you will find reasons to add and subtract from this initial list, but beginning with all your figurative ducks in a row will make your writing life so much easier.
Go with your interests. This is probably the simplest piece of advice on the list. You may not always get to write about something you love (especially if you're dealing with a class assignment), but you can always emphasize the angles that interest you. Writing is so much easier when you are invested in whatever it is you're discussing. There's nothing wrong with leaning in to the aspects of the topic that interest you the most. In fact, when an author is invested in their writing, it usually makes reading the piece more engaging for the audience. One word of caution, though: make sure that you don't focus on your own interests so much that you lose the assigned objective, if you have one.
Approach writing (and editing) in pieces. Sometimes I'll meet writers who have a huge lists of things that they need to incorporate into their current project and they find it overwhelming. I get it, I get overwhelmed all the time. One of the ways I tell people to deal with this is to look at it in small pieces. If you are in the writing phase, consider whatever outlines or ideas you have and work on them one at a time. You don't even have to do them in order. I usually begin with the area at the forefront of my mind and as I work on that, I get the ideas for the rest of it. When you're editing, don't try to edit everything at once. Read the whole piece to get a sense of it, then do an editing pass for content (ask: am I saying all the things I want to say and am I saying them clearly?), and finish with another pass for grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure. Sometimes multiple passes for each step will be needed, but trying to do everything at once is a recipe for confusion and anger.
Change your method. If you hit a block while writing on your computer, stop. Take a notebook and a pen or pencil and see what happens if you step away from the screen (and the distractions it can easily provide). I know some people severely dislike writing by hand these days, but this is my favorite way to get my brain going. I have a notebook expressly for this purpose. Whenever I get stuck while I am working on my computer, I close the file, grab my notebook, and sit on my bed. Then I write down whatever ideas I have about any aspect of the project. Sometimes it's jumping ahead to a new section, others it is rewriting something I already thought was done. On rare occasions it means simply jotting down ideas for new sources to consider. What doesn't seem to want to work while I'm using one method of writing often comes flowing out when I change it up, then I go back and type up whatever I wrote by hand later. If this doesn't appeal, check out my next idea.
Record yourself. I've met with a lot of writers whose main problem is getting the words down on the paper and/or screen. I've looked at many papers where what is written has drastic issues with clarity, but when I ask the author what it is about, they can explain it to me perfectly. When this happens, I give them the tip of recording themselves. To do this, you open up any recording app you can find (most smart phones have one built in), then consider what it is you are supposed to be writing, and record yourself explaining it exactly as you would to a friend or colleague. This works for essay prompts, fiction pieces, literally anything. If you can explain it by speaking it, you can explain it when writing it. Recording it allows you to get your thoughts out without the pressure of writing, and more often than you'd think, you will be able to play it back and type exactly what you hear for a great result. Sometimes removing the physical act of writing while you're thinking can open up the entire process.
Drink water and stretch. I have more experience with eye strain than I'd like to admit. I must say, I don't recommend it. You won't be useful for anything, including your writing project, if you're in pain. Make it a goal to stand up or move around at regular intervals, and keep a glass (or a travel cup to avoid spillage) of water on your desk where you can see it. People harp on about hydration for a reason: it truly does help you be a high-functioning human. Don't let the pressure of a writing deadline or difficult project lead to physical issues. Trust me, I know, I've done it, and the pain of being unable to look at a screen but also having to meet a deadline is not something you want to experience.
Take a break. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will help you push through any form of writing block like stepping away from the piece for a period of time. Go for a walk. Take a shower. Let it rest over night. Do pretty much anything except work on your writing for a bit. And, while you're at it, try not to think about it too much during this time either. Your brain deserves a reset. Giving it space to exist without the constant focus on the page will allow it to come around to the solutions you were trying to hard to reach by force. If I had a dollar for every time I've had a breakthrough while in the shower or getting ready for bed, I would be rich. Give your brain space and it'll surprise you.
When in doubt, read more. If taking a break doesn't work, or even if you want to do this first, turn to the sources. Read them again. Read a new one. Read something totally unrelated. Just engage with written words other than your own. You may discover the citation you didn't know you needed in one of the sources, or reading something completely outside of the scope of the paper might trick your brain into inspiration in the same way that taking a break does. Reading more will almost always have some benefit. If nothing else, the more you read, the better writer you will become through identifying what you think works and doesn't work in another writer's prose.
Read your work aloud. Reading something in your head over and over can numb you to what you've written. When you've finished a draft (or a section) of your current project, read it aloud to yourself. Some things will sound off, those are the ones you need to work on. If you can't do this for yourself, ask someone you trust to read it to you. A lot of writers I help just need me to read their work aloud. Doing this helps them recognize the wording issues or places where clarity is missing. It is a good way to break out of your own head and identify issues you might have missed otherwise.
Keep a 'cuts' file. I have yet to have a writing project that didn't involve making cuts and changes at some point(s) in the process. I always used to pause before cutting something because once it was gone, what would I do if I realized I wanted that old bit back? In addition to keeping a separate file for each full draft (I can't tell you how many so-called FINAL versions of pieces I have), I keep a file labeled CUTS. Then, as I edit, any time I take out a chunk of text, I plop it in there. It gives me major peace of mind because if I want to remember how I said something in a past draft it's an easy place to find the cut quickly and I can draw from it for future related pieces. I may not be able to include a sidebar about something that entertains me in one project, but who is to say that it cannot be the starting point for something else? Or, I may think I need to cut something, but then pages later I'll discover that it was just in the wrong place. My CUTS file comes to the rescue and I am ready to paste it right back in.
Ask someone else to read your draft. I always know it is time to show my work to someone else when I can't stand the idea of looking at it anymore. Asking a friend or colleague (or mentor or tutor!) to read something and provide constructive feedback also serves to help your brain: tell yourself you simply cannot play with the piece at all while you are waiting for your reader's response. It's a forced break and it will help you have a clear-minded perspective when you receive feedback.
Accept being slightly short of perfect. Whatever you write, you should dedicate yourself to making it the best you can. This may require many phases of editing and having beta readers and critique partners. It may also include throwing parts out and writing them a second or third (or fourth or fifth) time, but eventually you must submit your work. Knowing when to let go can be hard, but knowing you have to do it will often guide you to feel when the time is right. Don't let it pass. Submit that piece...and when you inevitably find a typo after you've submitted it, realize that this is also a universal experience. Do the work. Submit the piece. Try to forgive yourself for any missed errors. We've all been there, and we know how it feels.
Now, go forth, dear Readers, and write something wonderful.