The Two Things Holding Back Your Writing

Confession time: raise your hand if you’re stuck in your writing. I don’t mean writer’s block, though not having ideas for what to write certainly counts.

I mean that you feel stuck in where you’re going with this writing thing.

You write and write and write, but aren’t sure if it is adding up to anything.

Or, you talk yourself out of writing and then feel guilty.

Whatever this kind of stuck looks like to you, it is really screwing with your head, isn’t it? You like writing, you have big dreams for your writing, and yet your relationship with writing feels messy and weird instead of inspired and creative. You’ve got The Dread and The Blues and Imposter Syndrome all rolled into one.

It doesn’t have to feel this way. Chances are that what’s holding you back is one of the two main issues I see with my students on a daily basis. These also happen to be the two issues I have suffered from, too, so I know them well.

You ready for it? The two biggest writing issues are overthinking and failure to revise.

The good news is that once you know your issue, you can work to combat it. The less thrilling news is that I (or any other teacher or coach) can guide you, but you have to put in the work. And it will be work. There’s a reason why so many people have daily mantras that they repeat in the mirror or why the habit of making a gratitude list is so useful; repetition is both necessary and effective.

Let’s dig into this lesson to determine what’s holding you back in your writing.

Note: there’s a reason why I didn’t say grammar or punctuation as one of the main writing issues I see. Trust me, I see every variety of grammatical error in my job. Those issues can be easily taught, though. Sentence fragments and correct comma usage can be learned which means I don’t think of it as an issue. Every time a student says that they aren’t a good writer because they don’t know punctuation, I am quick to shut that idea down. We’ve got bigger fish to fry than commas.

Writing issue 1: Overthinking

I often joke that I should have a T-shirt or at least a mug that says, “You’re overthinking it.” I say this to students (and friends, if I’m being honest) so much. And you know what? Each time I say, “I think you may be overthinking X,” the other person nods.

“Oh yes,” they say. “I’m an overthinker from way back.”

Many of us already know that we overanalyze things and get in our own heads more often than seems healthy. I don’t want to tell you how much I used to replay something a boy said to me in passing before math class. I would write no less than thirteen notes to my best friend analyzing the scene and let myself get so twisted up over an interaction that I couldn’t focus on anything else.

I’ve been known to do this as an adult, too. Now instead of a crush on a boy, I overthink disagreements with coworkers or choices I make for my family.

I can’t help you with this issue in your personal life, but in your writing, I’ve got you covered. Sometimes you just need a friend to look over your shoulder and say, “Looks good for now. Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t stop.”

Since you don’t have access to my voice in your ear every morning, you are going to have to talk to yourself. You are going to talk to yourself before you start writing and you are likely going to have to repeat yourself while you’re writing, too.

You need to train, or retrain, the way you think so that you can get out of your own way.

Try any (or all) of the following sayings and commit it to memory:

It doesn’t have to be perfect yet.Done is better than perfect.I can figure this out later.I don’t know if this works, but I’m going with it anyway.This idea is a placeholder and I can work on it more next time.

Come up with your own anti-overthinking statement and tape it over your workspace. Make it the background on your phone or computer. Most importantly, think about what you would tell a friend if they came to you with their wheels spinning over something that was holding them back?

Love your writing enough to tell yourself the same things.

Writing issue 2: failure to revise

I’m going to be honest with you here and you may not like it. That thing you wrote, that line, that bit of dialogue, that clever description, that witty banter — it isn’t working. It isn’t that it’s poorly written; the issue is that it is holding up the rest of your paragraph or scene. You aren’t making bigger changes because you know that you might have to revise (or lose) the little parts that you really like.

It’s a problem.

Revision means to re-envision. Think about that for a moment. To truly revise, you have to be willing to see your writing in a completely different way. You sometimes need to work through dozens of variations until you get it right. A whole lot of people (including myself at times) can’t really see the project in a new way once it’s been written. Or they don’t want to.

There are so many reasons and excuses for why a writer doesn’t want to revise a certain part of her work.

Maybe she worked really hard on it and it sickens her to cut it.

Maybe this section is personal to her and she is committed to leaving it in.

Maybe she doesn’t see the problem, that X is in the way of Y.

Maybe she thinks she is revising, but is really proofreading without making big, necessary changes.

Here’s my own personal example. In the novel I’m currently writing, I have revised so many parts. Characters and plot points have changed, as well as the setting and the verb tense. But up until recently, I had never changed the first chapter. I liked that chapter. It made sense to me as an introduction and I was pleased with my writing there.

And then another reader suggested a different opening. I was so resistant to the idea that I barely registered it as advice. One day, as I felt like I was beating my head against the computer screen without making any progress, I remembered my friend’s suggestion.

What if I started in a new place? What if I moved this chapter or broke it up into different sections?

I opened a new document and tried it out. I’m sure you can guess the result. The new opening was a game changer. By being willing to rethink the beginning, I suddenly understood another problem with the pacing of my project. It was a lot of work and I’m still working on it, but my vision is much clearer now.

“What if” is the most powerful way I know to revise. When I write “what if” at the top of a new document or a blank sheet of paper, I feel free to really brainstorm new possibilities. “What if” isn’t too committal. Those two words are like a skeleton key that opens up all the doors.

What is true is that all writers have strengths and weaknesses. There is nothing to be ashamed about when we talk about our own particular challenges. The next time you feel stuck in your writing, I challenge you to ask if your issue falls into the category of overthinking or failing to revise your project.

Sometimes diagnosing the problem is the hardest part.

If you’re a writer like me, I would love to keep in touch. I have so many writing resources and tips, the kind of thing I’ve learned from experience (as both a writer and teacher), and I don’t want you to miss out.

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