A Thoughtful Guide to Writing

Most of us lead wildly busy lives, and we’re constantly in motion. We are conditioned to be productive every waking minute. When you’re a writer, you’re expected to churn out words at a steady pace—so how do you handle this expectation when deadlines are looming, but inspiration has withered? (And what writer hasn’t experienced this curse at some point?) I recently asked an author who I admire how he handles this. His response? “Use a different part of your brain.” Sometimes the key is to define “productivity” differently: any time that you spend thinking about your project or organizing your ideas still counts as progress, even if you aren’t actually adding to your word count. If you find yourself at the point where the words aren’t flowing, try one of the following tactics:

  • Inspired reading. Knock a few articles off your reading list or revisit those brilliant writers who first drew you into your field. Reading other peoples’ ideas often yields unexpected connections and generates new ideas of your own.
  • Revisit your own work. Take a step back in time to read through your notes or early drafts, or maybe build a reverse outline from your current draft (pull the main idea out of each paragraph and compile a list). This will show you whether your ideas are organized, build naturally on each other, and have a logical flow. Knowing where you’ve been will also help you figure out where to go next.
  • Scribble. One of my favorite quotes comes from writer James Thurber: “Don’t get it right, get it written.” Scribble down every idea that floats across your mind, no matter how jumbled or irrelevant it might seem. You can worry about making sense of it later. 

Even if you only have one fancy footnote to show for all of this at the end of the day, huzzah! You’ve made progress!

These tactics are useful starting points, but none of them are enough to fully lift the curse of writer’s block. When facing this particular problem, I tend to escape to my “thotful” spot. Disney’s Winnie the Pooh found a special place in the Hundred Acre Wood that inspired him. A simple log near a tree, marked by a wooden sign with the words “Pooh’s thotful spot” carved into it, was the location where he did his best thinking.

I’ve come to realize that Pooh’s wisdom was spot on. If you’re anything like me, you’re always thinking about your project even when you’re not actively writing, and a change of scenery is often the key to kindling that lost spark. Try finding your own thotful spot; give your project some space and see what happens. There are plenty of ways to puzzle through problems that don’t involve languishing in front of a computer screen. My thotful spot is a walk in the woods with a favorite podcast, but maybe yours is a local bookshop or a poolside lounge chair. Make time to dig in the soil if gardening is your jam. Thinking showers are a real thing, too—sometimes ten minutes of relaxing in hot water is all it takes to achieve a breakthrough. Choose an activity that lets your mind wander, and you might find your best ideas emerging. 

When you escape to your thotful spot, get in the habit of bringing a notebook and pen (or voice recorder, or sticky notes, or whatever you fancy) with you and scribble ideas down the moment they hit you. While you’re at it, capture those random middle-of-the-night flashbulb ideas in a bedside notebook, too. I mean it; write them down because no matter what you think at 3 a.m., you absolutely will not remember your genius idea the moment you wake up. (I learned this the hard way—who hasn’t?)

Sometimes I feel guilty about spending time in my thotful spot when I’m supposed to be churning out words, but then I remind myself of another favorite quote:

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
―Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince.

When progress seems impossible and anxiety seeps in, remember that stepping away from writing to seek inspiration or glean wisdom from other writers is still forward motion—none of this is wasted time. You are still creating and composing, and your rose will be more beautiful for it in the end.

Written by Jo MacGugan and edited by Jenny Stout, two fabulous members of our editing team.

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