Mix It Up: What to Do When You’re Stuck

Writers, like long-distance runners, tend to hit the wall at some point of the composing process, that point where the writing threatens to shut down, when we feel totally disengaged from our material, and the words are wooden, or won’t come at all. In my own case, this has led to hours of staring out windows and to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. We all know that feeling of wanting to write and not being able to. Norman Mailer once said, “Writer’s block is only a failure of the ego.” Here are some tricks we can try to get the writing started again.


  1. “Let’s Pretend”: Try being bold. Do whatever you have to do to convince yourself you’re the greatest writer who’s ever lived. Take a passage from what you’re writing and rewrite it with confidence and style, or create a new passage in this manner. Let yourself be a big personality on the page. You can always go back and cut out the arrogance, the grandstanding, the panache. This is a game to get words down on the page. Who knows what you might find out about what you’re writing in the process? Let it be a game of discovery.


  1. “Ask Yourself”: Where are you in what you’re writing? Challenge yourself to articulate why this material matters to you. If you’re writing nonfiction, do a freewrite that begins with the words, “I have to write this because. . . .” Let that freewrite lead you to your personal stakes in the writing. If you’re writing poetry or fiction, start a freewrite that begins, “When I think of this story/novel/poem, I remember. . . .” Make a list of anything from your own experience that may connect to the material you’re working with. Make yourself more present in the fiction or the poetry.


  1. “Criss-Cross”: Maybe it’s time to try a different genre. If you’re trying to write fiction or creative nonfiction, try taking something of your material and using it in a poem. Poets, try expanding your subject matter into prose. Or try writing only in dialogue. No matter what genre you’re working in, challenge yourself to reduce it to only what people say to one another.


  1. “Make It Small”: 750 words. If you’re a prose writer, give yourself that many words and no more. Make it tight. See what gem emerges from that pressure. Poets, try reducing your poem to a haiku. You prose writers could try this, too. Sometimes making it small leads you to the pulsing heart.


  1. “Stop, Go!”: Wherever you are in your draft, stop! Then go directly to the end and write it. The last scene, the last line, the last image, the last whatever. Force yourself to write the last thing of the piece. You’ll have something to write toward as the work continues. Even if this last thing ends up not being the last thing, at least you’ll be moving forward.


And that’s what it’s all about in those early drafts—keep moving. You can come up with your own games to prime the pump and keep the words coming. Sometimes we need to remember that writing can be fun. A slightly unusual approach can free something in our creativity that will return us to our work with renewed energy and connection. In the process, perhaps we’ll open something up in the material that would otherwise remain closed.




  1. Eileen LaCanne on April 18, 2016 at 9:18 am

    Your suggestions are very helpful. Always appreciate your posts. Thank you.

    • Lee Martin on April 24, 2016 at 5:43 pm

      Thanks, Eileen!

  2. Ellen Cassidy on April 18, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    Thank you. I’ve been stuck a few times in my novel and it’s so hard to keep the motivation strong. I keep asking myself, is this really going to be interesting to anyone but me?? Will anyone care about the characters? Is there anything fascinating enough about the plot to make a publisher say yes? And my current answer seems to be NO to all. 🙁 I guess up to now I would think, “don’t worry about that yet. just get the words down.” we’ll, I’m finding “getting the words down” is a hell of a lot of work!

    • Lee Martin on April 18, 2016 at 9:10 pm

      Oh, you’re so right! Getting the words down can be hard work indeed. Try your best not to assume that no one will be interested in what you’re writing. Just tell the story with no concern about how people will react to it.

  3. Billy on April 19, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    Thanks! This is super helpful. Tried a few exercises today and it really opened up my writing.

    • Lee Martin on April 19, 2016 at 1:22 pm

      I’m really glad to hear that, Billy! Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. Keep doing the good work!

  4. Alison Ernst on April 20, 2016 at 10:11 pm

    Timely, helpful, and do-able. Thanks Lee!

    • Lee Martin on April 24, 2016 at 5:44 pm

      Thanks, Alison!

  5. Melissa Cronin on April 28, 2016 at 11:30 pm

    Thank you, Lee. This is perfect! I’m going to print it out and keep it close by on my desk.

    • Lee Martin on May 1, 2016 at 2:35 pm

      I hope it proves helpful, Melissa!

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