The majesty and mystery of writing are matched only by the misery of the writer’s roadblocks. I’m consistently energized by the magic of writing, but constantly humbled by the inexpressible difficulty of the craft.
I recently gathered with a small group of young professors with the goal of pushing each other forward in the writing process. We discussed three pointed questions that I hoped would stir the pot and point a way forward. I hope they’ll do the same for you.
1. What’s your project?
What’s your idea? What are you working on? What are you wanting to write? You might be thinking about a new medium (like a blog), a short argument (like an article), or a larger-scale thesis (like a book or series). Your “project” might mean any number of things. But until you identify it, clarify it, and begin testing it by outlining it for yourself or bouncing it off others, you’re unlikely to gain much traction in the actual process of purposeful writing.
But don’t be discouraged if you can’t answer this question with clarity. Clarity with our writing ideas often comes less like snapping a quick photo and more like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. We slowly assemble our thoughts, usually in the process of outlining and drafting and discussing and reading, and clarity develops like a halting but unstoppable sunrise. So if you don’t yet have clarity on your project, make that your first priority, and keep drafting or researching your idea until the fog begins to clear.
2. What’s your problem?
Let’s say that you do have an actionable degree of clarity about your writing project. What’s keeping you from being productive or moving forward? There are many internal or external obstacles that might be hanging you up. The reasons we don’t make progress can be ridiculously simple or absolutely mysterious. In The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Steven Pressfield anthropomorphizes our creative blocks with the term “Resistance” and then unleashes a ruthless exposé against all the specific ways that Resistance marshals its formidable arsenal against us.
You might be a perfectionist or a sluggard, or some vicious combination of the two. You might fear that you’re unqualified to say what you want to say in a way that would gain a hearing. You might lack (or feel like you lack) the materials and resources you need to do the job well. You might not have access to or connections with those you believe would best spread your work. You might be overcommitted, stepping on your own air hose with every reactionary “yes” you utter to those who ask for your time. Or this might just be the wrong season to prioritize this particular project, but since you haven’t acknowledged that yet, you live with a nagging sense of perceived guilt over your lack of progress.
Regardless of the particular size and shape of your challenges, answering the question “What’s your problem?” can help you craft a roadmap that gets you past your roadblocks. Phrasing the question this way also cuts through those daily lies whispering that we’re helpless in our fight for productivity. We need regular reminders that precisely the opposite is true: Through God’s grace we can awake each day reinvigorated to repent of our laziness, renew our minds, restore our stewardships, recalibrate our aims, reenergize our efforts, and rejoin the rugged trail of God-honoring creative work.
3. What’s your plan?
Once you’ve clarified your project and identified your key problem(s), you can begin crafting a concrete plan that fits the nature of your project while addressing the problems that typically keep you from making progress. You might start by downloading book proposal forms from relevant publishers. You might start by emailing someone in your industry or your field and asking your burning questions. You might start by reviewing a few proven blogs that reflect the kind of content you’d like to contribute yourself. You might start by blocking out committed writing time on your schedule each week. Or you might start by committing to write 250 or 500 words per day on your chosen topic, throwing your ideas into the blender of writing and trusting that the process itself will grind your jagged thoughts into a clear and smooth concoction on the back end.
Regardless, as you seek to write, you’ll consistently need to be answering these kinds of questions: What small, concrete action steps will you take to get moving? What clear, reasonable path can you follow so that you keep moving? What commitments can you make that are specific and sustainable? What’s your plan?
You can throw up a tweet in ten seconds, but it takes much more thought and planning and discipline to dig the deepest wells that bring up the freshest water. Many of us dream of devoting our lives to this endeavor, but the challenges can be as mysterious as they are immense. So when you’re stuck and you’re not sure what to do next, ask yourself these three clarifying questions:
- What’s your project?
- What’s your problem?
- What’s your plan?
Big dreams, small steps, write on!