Wednesday, October 3, 2018
We all get "stuck" sometimes. Whether you call it writer's block, perfection paralysis, or another name, you're in the grip of it when you've spent hours or days on a project with precious little to show for it --except, perhaps, some record-setting times in online games. 1Ls get bogged down with legal writing assignments and outlines; upper-division students get stuck on moot court briefs or law review articles; lawyers and faculty can grind to a halt on briefs, memos, papers, or any of the myriad of projects we tackle.
How do you get unstuck? Everyone must find their own approach, but these ideas can help:
- Recognize that you are stuck. Be honest, but gentle, with yourself. "Hmm, I don't seem to be getting anywhere; I must be stuck again" acknowledges your paralysis as a fact without any negative judgment. On the other hand, "What's wrong with me? I always sabotage myself. I'm a failure" can slow you down even further as your writer's block becomes an occasion for beating yourself up over anything you've ever done less than perfectly. Practice being as nice to yourself as you are to others.
- Stop digging. The saying "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging" is attributed to everyone from Will Rogers to Warren Buffett, but whatever the source it contains a lot of wisdom. Once you recognize you're stuck, change what you're doing. Whether it's checking Instagram or playing FreeCell or merely staring blankly at a screen, stop! Close the tab or the app; shut down your computer/tablet/phone if that's what it takes. Don't succumb to "just a minute more" thinking.
- Break the cycle by doing something physical for a few minutes. Walk upstairs or around the block. Do some crunches, jumps, power poses -- whatever makes you feel good and gets some oxygenated blood flowing back into your system.
- Try tackling your project in a more physical way. Drafting your writing in longhand can help.
- Try freewriting. Set your timer for five to ten minutes and write without stopping, even if at first all you can put on the page is "I have absolutely no idea what to say." Don't edit, correct, or ponder -- just write. The actual physical act of writing without stopping somehow breaks the cycle of self-criticism that gets in the way of generating ideas and flow. Although 95% of what you produce during this period will be end up on the cutting room floor, freewriting not only unblocks barriers but often results in choice insights that you can use in your finished product.
- When you are back in the flow, write first and revise only afterwards. The curse of computers and their progeny is they encourage us to proof, edit, and revise from the start, which gets in the way of creating a coherent draft incorporating all our ideas. Try writing out your entire piece in rough form first to get your ideas out on paper, then revise for spelling, grammar, flow, and sense.
- Create something and let it go. Learn when you need perfection (rarely) and when you are best served by producing something that is merely good.
- Did I mention being gentle with yourself? Getting stuck is part of the human condition. Resolving the problem calmly is part of the lawyer's toolbox. (Nancy Luebbert)