Tricks to Writing When You’re Too Close Already

I was talking with a friend recently about how she was stuck on an article she’s writing, and the deadline’s looming. We both acknowledged that normally, we’d advise shelving the piece, working on some other stuff, and coming back to it a few days later.

Only she didn’t have days. She had hours.

We talked, and I’ll share with you the tips I did with her. (I’m sure they aren’t the only ones, so please comment with your own!)

Blank Page, Round Two

Sometimes, I will start over. I’ll shelve the document I have, and then rewrite it from memory.

What this accomplishes is revealing what I think I’m talking about versus what I actually did. And because I’ve written the draft already, I know the beats I’m working with — narrative, argumentative, or illustrative — and where I’m headed.

Then I’ll compare with what I had before, and see which ones had strengths that I want to use. I essentially merge those strengths together into one near-final version. After that comes making sure it’s coherent and the necessary copyediting.

I know people used to do this all the time, but I’ve also seen this technique get a bit lost thanks to our ability to easily edit everything we make.

Twist the Layout

When I made a little ashcan game back in 2007, I was putting text I had worked over into layout. Suddenly, it looked new — the fonts were different, the orientation caused the line breaks to be in different places, the shape of the text on the page was different. Within moments, I caught typos, missed words, unclear language, the sort of stuff I was trying to work over the day before.

Since then, when I get to that point in a document & I’m using Word (or anything that lets me fiddle with layout), I’ll get crazy with it, switching from portrait to landscape, changing the font family & size, making it a two-column layout, all that stuff. Because I’m using Word at this stage, and not layout software like InDesign, I’m comfortable with those layout tweaks. They aren’t tweaks I’m planning on keeping; it’s just a took to have the text look fresh.


So, when you’re in this situation, what do you do?

– Ryan



9 Responses to Tricks to Writing When You’re Too Close Already

  1. When I’m writing a blog post, I always do a last edit in preview – it’s incredible what I find when I’m looking at it in a different format.

    I really like the rewriting idea, although until I’m faster at writing (something that I know comes with practice) that seemed like it would more time than I had. Nevertheless, I see the value in doing that.

    I ended up going to sleep and looking at it in the morning which luckily provided just enough distance. I hope. :) At any rate, it’s handed in!

  2. Eddy Webb says:

    I print it out (part of the “twist the layout” tweak). I also read it out loud — if I find I’m bored with my own words or have trouble following along, clearly I need to work on that section.

    • This is interesting. I’ve heard it said that some words are written to be read, and others are written to be spoken aloud. I wouldn’t have thought to do that.

      I suppose it should go without saying, but there’s always the old stand-by: get someone else to read over it quickly (if time allows).

    • John Taber says:

      This is what I do. Printing out material helps me spot errors. ;)

  3. Codrus says:

    I also use your technique of starting with a blank page. Or, at a minimum, if I’ve tried to fix a paragraph or a sentence in the middle of a section, I’ll just start a brand new paragraph, do the rewrite, and then compare the two. But sometimes you simply need to hide the text that’s giving you grief.

    I don’t have a huge number of additional examples, but a couple of things I’ve picked up recently:

    * If I need a document or part of a document to have a different tone or style than I normally write, I’ll write an initial draft that takes that different tone to ’11’, and then revise/edit it back to something closer to what’s actually needed.

    * I’ll first write a description of all the things I need to write, without actually writing it. Essentially, I write a document that is an extended/detailed outline of what needs to be said and in what order, but without constraining the writing to any rules, tone, or conventions that the final document needs to be subjected to. It usually helps organize my thoughts and primes the pump for writing the actual document. Sometimes that priming document serves another useful purpose — for technical writing, I often write detailed art specs for any figures that need to appear in the final doc. That gives the artists good context for how their art is to be used, and it gives me a doc to practice writing the doc I need to produce.

  4. Ben Woerner says:

    As far as editing goes a great trick I learned that really helped me is to read the document backwards one sentence at a time. This breaks up the flow of the document and allows you to really focus on what each sentence is saying.

    • Marshall says:

      In line with your suggestion, my trick is to print the document and then shuffle the pages. I accomplishes a similar effect at the paragraph level.

  5. Leonard Balsera says:

    So I’m really big on outlines. In fact, I’m almost co-dependent on them – if I have a new project to start and I don’t have an outline, I stare at the blank screen for way longer than I should figuring out how the hell to start.

    When I’m writing, I usually don’t go back and reference my outline very much. I see it more as a tool to get my brain moving than it is a structure I feel beholden to.

    However, it also has a function in the eleventh hour crunch, or any other time I feel stuck. I’ll step away from the writing, change my scenery a bit, and just look at the outline for a little while, comparing what I’ve done (from memory) with what I outlined.

    Usually, I find that this’ll unstick something in my brain which lets me continue. Something I overlooked, something I didn’t structure quite the same which offers me an opportunity to revise and reevaluate, something.

    Also, this may seem obvious, but nothing beats taking a damn break. Even an hour of wholly focusing on something else, rather than trying to force words out, can do wonders. Do some push-ups, go for a walk, play a few rounds of Freecell – whatever takes your mind totally out of that space. For me, it’s like hitting the reset button on my mind.

  6. Stoney Breyer says:

    Cut. My most usual vices are a)trying to get too many subtle distinctions b) trying to push a clever conceit too far. Cutting my (current) wordcount in half gets back to the spine.