Blocked? Try these suggestions

A few strategies for getting those ideas flowing again

If  you’re still relatively new to writing, you may not yet have developed strategies for getting past those temporary blocks. If you’re an editor, you’ll want to have a store of suggestions such as these to help your novice writers unblock. You might even find that similar approaches can help you in your role, most particularly with a deep and heavy edit. 

Take a break

First of all, consider whether you need a break. And then, if you’re able to do so, take it. Getting away from the writing task — particularly when it is a long or complex one — enables you to return refreshed and with new perspective. You’ll spot errors you wouldn’t have otherwise seen; connections you might have been struggling with before will suddenly seem effortless; development of ideas will unfurl and conclusions may seem to write themselves.

Even if you cannot afford a lengthy break, try to get away for twenty or thirty minutes to do something which takes your mind entirely off the writing task (and, if possible, work in general). A quick walk, a cup of tea, a chat in the hall — anything to allow your mind to relax for a few minutes.

Step back: take another look

Have you assessed audience and purpose fully? Perhaps you should carefully consider the set of questions (whatever they might be) you’ve used to pull out all the relevant details. Have you asked all the questions you ought? Have you fully explored the answers? 

Return too to your notes. Have you incorporated and developed everything worthwhile? Sometimes rereading notes you’d made earlier in the process reminds you of connections you may have seen at the time, but neglected to explore once you began.

Get a second (or third) opinion

Having another set of eyes on your work, particularly in the early stages, can be enormously useful. Choose your would-be reviewer carefully: explain clearly the type of feedback you’re looking for. You don’t want someone marking errant commas when you’re really looking for a structural review. (Or, conversely, someone informing you that your purpose is all wrong the morning of your afternoon deadline.)

Remember, too, that if you select someone who knows the subject matter well, you’re likely to receive valuable comments on subject matter, whether you’ve left out important details, for instance, or phrased material incorrectly. While if you select someone who has little subject matter knowledge, you’re likely to catch any glitches in transition, lapses of logic, and other potentially confusing aspects of your presentation or explanations.

Good “usability” testing involves both types of feedback. If you’ve the time and the resources available, take advantage of this high-return investment of effort. And be prepared to offer the same service to others.

Naturally, adjust to the nature of the task the lengths you’ll go to to get feedback, and the amount of time you’ll allow to receive it. A one-page summary might require only twenty minutes or so of a willing coworker’s time; a first draft of a ten-page report could well consume several days (along with other work). Don’t overwork the simple writing task, nor underestimate the complex.

Switch tasks

Switching tasks is another means of giving your mind a rest, especially when you’ve too much to do to break away altogether. If you’re laboring over a difficult writing task, switch to something easy and mechanical. If your writing task is mind-numbingly routine, switch to something more challenging, something that demands more of you. 

In this way, you’ll engage different parts of your brain, enter into a different mode of thought, and, even though still working, the change of pace can be refreshing. (And if you’ve gone past being refreshed by change, then you really do need a break.) Another bonus of switching tasks is that it enables you to return to former work with perspective and distance — absolutely vital to productive evaluation and revision.

Vary or alter your approach

Sometimes after stepping back to take another look at your original assumptions or seeking a second opinion, you will naturally vary or even alter altogether the approach you have taken.

But in this case, you haven’t necessarily done either of those things. You might want to alter how you’re treating a particular subject, that is, to play around with topics, tone, phrasing, or arrangement just to see where it leads you. Adopting a different approach to the material can revitalize your interest or give you fresh ideas for continuing.

Remember: sometimes you’re “writing” even when you’re not writing

Realize that for a lengthy or a complex writing task, you will require downtime to think about it. In this way, ideas gather and percolate. This is particularly true when you’ve busy unraveling and exploring ideas as you write.


Developing an editing process
UCSC Extension
First taught October 1996