Busting Your Writing Rut

(Reprinted from Writer’s Digest)
by Linda Formichelli

The business article came out great, but I was stuck for an ending. Finally, I hit upon the conclusion: “Follow these tips and boost your bottom line.” Perfect! Snappy, fun, alliterative. Just one problem — I had used that same phrase to end my last five business articles.

My sense of wordplay wasn’t the only thing stuck in a rut — even my article ideas were getting frayed from overuse. I was querying the same business and career ideas over and over: how to succeed at a trade show, how to find a job online, how to market on a budget. My ideas for health and women’s magazines were getting pretty stale, too: 10 Ways to Do X, 15 Reasons to Do Y. I’d written on those topics so many times that I could do them without cracking a book or even revving up my modem. Heck, I realized, I could pound out one of those articles using only 10 percent of my brain capacity, while the other 90 percent is busy watching Iron Chef.

Not that reusing ideas is inherently bad. As a professional writer for these last five years, I’ve come to realize that it’s wise, economically, to make the most bucks from the fewest ideas. And because I’ve developed a few specialties in the writing world — business, career, women’s interest, and health — it’s a Good Thing to be able to whip out articles on trade shows or fad diets or timesaving cleaning tips with a minimum of brainpower.

But what’s good for the pocketbook isn’t necessarily good for the soul. When I’m churning out my fourth article on how to ace a job interview, freelancing starts to feel less like an adventure and more like a tedious 9-to-5 job. The freedom of having a five-second commute to my office at 11 a.m. is overshadowed by the drudgery of interviewing the same people, asking the same questions, writing the same words every day. And my writing suffers when I fall into the groove of starting every article with an anecdote, ending every article with a lame cliché, and lacing every article with alliterative subheads.

Hoping to leap out of my writer’s rut, I started checking around for advice. And talk about overused ideas — every article on the topic advises the writer to “take a walk” or “brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand” (a sure recipe for cavities, not creativity). These musty tips just weren’t doing it for me, so I had to discover my own ways of keeping my writing from becoming as stale as yesterday’s bagels.

Play a Game

Two other writers and I came up with a game to rev up the idea generating process. One of us would throw out a word, and then we’d all try to think up ideas related to that word. “Green,” Diana challenged at our last session. “An inside look at how money is made,” Eric offered. “Tips from golf course owners on how to care for your lawn,” I suggested. “How to deal with friends who are green with envy over your successes,” said Diana. The word “tea” inspired such ideas as ten things to do with tea (such as antiquing linens or adding shine to dark hair), how to brew the perfect pot, and a look at teapots and the people who collect them.

Reading Outside the Box

Another way I break out of writing ruts is to check out magazines that I wouldn’t normally read. Browsing through Aeronautics Monthly or Modern Ferret not only helps me find fresh ideas that I can reslant for other markets, but it also introduces me to a whole new world of writers and writing styles. And I can do this anytime I want, gratis, by going to my local bookstore/café, gathering up armloads of magazines from sections I rarely peruse, and reading them over a cup of java.

A Kick in the Pants

I’m a freelance writer. That means I get up at 11, sit in front of a computer all day, and spend my spare time in bookstores and cafes with other writers who get up at 11 and sit in front of computers all day. The problem is, a humdrum life leads to humdrum writing.

So one day, I surprised myself — and gave my writing a shot of adrenaline — by signing up for karate classes. Soon I was spending four evenings a week kicking, punching, and yelling, which is pretty much the opposite of researching, interviewing, and stringing nouns and verbs. What a wake-up call! I’ve met kindergarten teachers, sound system engineers, and people who work with gibbons at the zoo — all with fascinating stories to tell. And one of the most blessed benefits is having four hours per week where I’m too absorbed in something to worry about my looming deadlines.

On top of all that, my new diversion got the idea wheels churning, and I ended up selling an article on the benefits of martial arts to a women’s fitness mag.

For me karate was the answer, but for other writers it may be bowling, in-line skating, the local softball league — anything that gets the heart pumping and the mind off of writing. Or, come to think of it, any class, from flower arranging to American history, can shake up a writer’s life.

Take Off

Sometimes you have to empty your mind of all the junk that’s bouncing around in there to make room for new, fresh ideas to come in — and what better way than to take a break? Last year, I was hit with a writer’s block the size of Montana; everything I wrote was stale, boring, lame. So I cleared a couple of days on my schedule, packed my bags, and headed up to New Hampshire for some R&R at a B&B. Soaking in a hot tub and drinking port in front of a roaring fire certainly helped me forget about writing for a little while — and when I got back to the office, my writing once again had that spark of originality.

Taking a break doesn’t always require a lot of free time and cash. Even one day of reading on the couch instead of staring frustrated at a computer screen can bring on an infusion of creativity. I used to work through the weekends in a fit of Type-A pique, but I realized that I can face Mondays with much more creative energy if I give myself the weekend to read, explore the town, and hang out with my friends.

Enjoy!

If I let writing turn into a burdensome, repetitive task, I pay for it in stilted prose. That’s why the tactics I use to climb out of a writing rut — playing games, doing karate, reading, taking time off — are all about having fun. A relaxed mind is an open mind, and an open mind is prepared to accept new and creative ideas.

I’m tempted to tell you that these tips will “boost your bottom line” — so that’s my cue to stop writing and call a friend for a few laughs.

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16 comments… add one
  • Hi! This is great advice. I almost always never turn on my laptop on Sundays to give my mind, body and especially fingers, a rest.

    I have a question and can’t figure out how to post it to you. Sorry!
    I keep hearing about branding myself as a writer. I’m not sure what that means.
    Is branding the same as specializing in a certain area, such as health? I’m interested in different topics like religion, travel, profiles, history, I don’t think I can/should/want to “brand” myself in one or two areas. Any thoughts on this would be appreciated. Thanks!

  • Linda-

    I read this in Writer’s Digest and loved it then, but I must say that reading it again was even more inspirational. Thanks!

    Lisa

  • Mary Drew

    Linda, I really enjoyed and appreciated this piece. Even though I’m just starting out, I know how it feels to bore myself silly with my own prose. Thanks for the fresh ideas and the realization that even experienced freelancers experience this syndrome.
    Mary

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