For some writers, there comes a point where it can seem like there’s nothing to write about, or at least nothing worth writing about. At that point, one option is to simply stop writing. But, of course, that might not be a good option. Another option is to skip the big picture and reduce the process to a matter of small steps and to trust that a process of engagement will help you open some paths of development.
Trusting a process is difficult, especially when a deadline looms. It can be hard to accept that you might benefit from engaging in some apparently trivial task, especially if you feel a lack of basic ideas worth writing about. But again, if the issue is a choice between being blocked—stuck feeling that there is nothing that you can write or that you want to write about—and trusting the process, then trust the process!
You won’t find something worth writing about by avoiding your project. And you won’t find much satisfaction in just stopping. Just stopping leads to the certainty that your project will not be accepted. Trying to get published? You need a manuscript. Trying to get a degree? You need a manuscript.
Trusting a process can be annoying. You might ask, “If I can’t find a big issue to write about, what’s the point in engaging with some small tangential task?” Or you might say “that suggestion is so trivial, it won’t help.” Such complaints have some validity. There is no question that there is better efficiency found in working on something when you have a clear vision of what you’re going to do. But, again, the context needs emphasis: saying that it would be better to have a clear vision of your goal doesn’t help if you have no obvious route to gain such a vision. If you are feeling stuck, and feeling lost, trusting the process may be the only alternative that leads to productive activity.
There are usually a large number of minor tasks that a writer can pick up to start engaging with the process. There is always value in trying to make a one-sentence statement of purpose for a project. A writer who has lost a sense of direction can particularly benefit from taking the step of writing a one-sentence statement of purpose, and even better if that task is engaged repeatedly: write that one-sentence statement. And then write another one-sentence statement. And another.
A similar task is to write an outline for the work you want to write—this is, in a way, an inversion of the previous task: writing a one-sentence statement of purpose focuses on the over-arching structure. Writing an outline focuses on the pieces that make up the structure. It’s certainly possible to write an outline without having a clear sense of what your final argument will be—perhaps you have a few examples that you want to discuss, or a few issues—even if you don’t know exactly how they are related, you can put them into some outline.
If tasks like doing a statement of purpose or an outline seem intimidating, there are also tasks that are more granular. Pick one sentence from an old draft and focus on that one sentence. What is good about it? What is bad about it? What could you do differently? Pick one idea from an old draft and write about what you hoped for with that idea and what problems you have faced.
Or pick some publication in your field to which you can contrast your own work. Why is it like yours? To what extent are you interested in the same issues? And where do your interests differ? If you don’t know what you want to write about, you might find some subject of interest by looking at what others have written and thinking about how you want your work to compare.
Or, if you have empirical data that you have gathered, go back to that data and ask yourself again what the data shows. If you have empirical data, you should be focused on writing what is there in the data.
I’m a big fan of having a clear vision of where you want to go—an overarching sense of purpose and sense of direction are powerful guides for a writer. But it’s possible to lose sight of those goals in the midst of a project. If you are wandering around the conceptual landscape wondering where to situate your writing, don’t scorn taking small steps. Small steps may seem meaningless or worthless—there’s little clear direction in writing about an idea you’ve rejected, or about an author whose work you don’t think you can use—but the process of engaging them earnestly can at least give you more information to figure out where you stand in the conceptual landscape, and where you might want to go.
Taking small steps that seem pointless may involve taking steps that are almost no help whatsoever. Maybe some of the small steps you take lead directly to dead-ends. Those steps don’t directly contribute to the draft you’re trying to create. But such steps do contribute to the process—they may not help a draft directly, but a series of such small steps helps delineate the project: every step you take that leads to a dead-end also helps set limits of the project, and seeing limits on the project can be useful in understanding what is and is not part of the project. And the more such small steps you take, the more likely it is that you will hit upon some idea that is valuable and interesting.
Engaging in a process of taking small steps can be frustrating, but if you’re paralyzed or confused, it’s a very useful process for getting out of paralysis and at least limiting confusion. Stuff is complex, so I’m not going to claim that you will ever be able to eliminate confusion. But the more that you engage, the greater the chance that you will find something that you do feel confident about.
Of course, you need to engage with some energy. It’s not enough to look at an article or passage from an old draft and just say to yourself that you don’t want to use it—you won’t learn much that way. You have to try to explicate in writing why you don’t want to use it.
If you’re feeling lost or paralyzed and you have stopped working, don’t put pressure on yourself to find the big answer. Big answers are really, really hard to find. Instead, try to take tiny steps: work over old material and ask whether you like it and how to adapt it. Pick something to read and to write about. Make a quick, simple outline. Write one sentence about something. Trust the process of working on your project because a process can help guide your actions in moments when you are having trouble seeing a larger sense of purpose.