Out of the Loop: How to Keep Writing When You Get Stuck

Sometimes you look like this when you're writing. You've found the  flow and you're so happy, you don't even mind (much) when someone interrupts you. You might even smile at them.

And then there are those times
when you've hit that metaphorical wall and you're so frustrated you're coming out of your skin. The words won't come and the brilliant idea you jotted down in the middle of night looks dumber than a bag of rocks in the light of day.

So what do you do? You could put your fist through a wall or trash a small city, but I don't recommend that. You could delete all the work you did and move on to something else in that hope that you're not completely delusional in your desire to write something worth reading, but I wouldn't recommend that, either.

You need, instead, to get in the loop.

Loop writing is a technique I learned from a writer-teacher friend who learned it when she was in grad school and teaching her first freshman composition classes. It's a version of freewriting, and I admit I was skeptical about it when I first tried it, but it actually worked for me, and has worked well for many people. So before you go smashing that sleepy small town, give it a go. Here's how.

1. First, just write. Make yourself write, nonstop for five, ten, fifteen minutes if you can stand it, even if what you write is utter nonsense, put it on paper or screen. You can just start writing gibberish about a scene you need to work out, or the opening paragraph of your opus or notes on what to do next or how to flesh out a character.

For example, my friend was stuck on what to do with a character that she felt was getting a little too cliche, a little too much a stock character, the conniving, clueless Hollywood wannabe, in this case. So she got out a fresh piece of paper (she's kind of old-fashioned that way. I should introduce her to Cap). For about five minutes, she made herself write about everything that came into her head abut this character, even if the ideas made her cringe - or go "What the crap?", as you'll see below - just to see what happened. It looked something like this:
 always wanted to be famous worked
hard at it dance lessons @3, pageants, contests
local kids show in Texas wins national American
Idol type context show eats a tapeworm

2. After she reached her allotted freewrite time, she went back and circled everything that jumped out at her as possibly interesting or just plain weird ("eats a tapeworm?" what is that?) If you're writing on a laptop, highlight or change font color on any intriguing words or phrases, anything you think you can work with or might be worth thinking about more.

3. Start writing about the word or phrase for the next five minutes. Musicians call this "riffing" - you've got the basic notes, the melody, and now you're playing with it, exploring it, seeing where it can take you.

My friend was kind of freaked out by the "eats a tapeworm" idea so she highlighted that phrase and then just started writing about what that could mean:
wants to lose weight, pressure to look a certain way 
buys a tapeworm of the internet ???? find out how to
get a tape worm because she's on tour and has to maintain
her weight people are tweeting mean things wants to be loved

She kept writing and while eating a tapeworm is certainly a weird idea (and one that no physician would recommend), she realized that there was a level of pain and sadness to this character that she had always thought of as just vain and shallow. She saw the potential for pathos here in a young woman who wants so much to be famous, to be loved,  that she'll eat a parasite to stay thin if that will make people want her more.

4. Repeat as necessary. My friend highlighted the last part of her second freewrite - "wants to be loved" - and wrote about that and as she wrote she got to know and care for in that way that writers do as they come to see their characters as real people. She realizes that she has a more three-dimensional character now who will continue to grow and not just a stock antagonist for her main characters.

And as she fleshes out this character, my friend will Google whether or not people can buy and eat tapeworms on purpose. She figures she must have heard about it somewhere and it certainly underscores the character's desperation to be thin.

So that's loop writing. Some writers feel too self-conscious to do it, and if you're one of them, I have one more suggestion: If you're writing on a computer, turn off the monitor or tape a piece of paper to cover your screen so you can't second-guess and edit yourself. Just write and see what you came up with when you're done. There's bound to be one word, one image, you can explore.

Let us know where your exploration takes you, friends. I've kind of isolated myself from people for awhile, so I appreciate the emails and comments here. 

Whatever you do, keep writing.


  1. This is a really cool idea! And now I'm interested/freaked out about that tapeworm, too.

    ~Katie Nichols

  2. Excellent post. I've heard of the idea, but I didn't give much thought to it at the time. But now I think it could definitely be helpful to me. This technique doesn't always lead to the eating of tapeworms, does it?