Sometimes what your project needs to move forward is to be left alone so the ideas can mull, ferment, or percolate in the back of your mind. This stage will feel painful, unproductive, and like you are procrastinating.
Strategies for the mulling phase
Physical work is a good option. Our brains work better when we are moving. Even though it doesn’t look like writing, taking long walks, doing physical labour (raking leaves, gardening, cleaning the house), or other activity that keeps you busy but doesn’t use the same brain space as your writing project is actually a good idea.
You may want to keep some means of recording insights with you: a small notebook and pen, or your smart phone. (You could also get an app like Dragon Dictation that will transcribe your speech into text, making it easier to do things with it when you are back at your desk.)
Or, allow this project to lie fallow for a while. Coming back to it with fresh eyes can be remarkably productive even though it feels like doing nothing. Define the fallow period. Schedule a time to come back to this project in a few weeks. You might also consider whether it is developed enough that giving it to someone else (e.g. a colleague, an editor) during that time would be useful.
You can maintain your writing practice during this fallow period by switching your main focus to another project. You aren’t stopping writing altogether; you are putting this project on a back burner.
This is not procrastination.
Your gremlin might pop up to tell you that this strategy is procrastination. Here’s a quick way to check:
Ask yourself “Will doing this move my project forward?”
If the answer is “Yes.” Tell your gremlin to go have a coffee while you do this thing.
If the answer is “No.” then ask yourself “What would move my project forward?” and do that.
At some point you will have a Eureka! moment in which the way forward is suddenly clear. That may come while you are idly pondering your project while shovelling snow. Or it may come when you return to the project and reread it. You will have a surge of energy to write. Or, more accurately, to rewrite, revise, restructure and otherwise create a new draft from your current draft. Use that energy.
If a gremlin chastises you for not realizing this earlier, give them a cookie. Your gremlin’s faith in you is admirable but you really couldn’t have seen it without that fallow phase in the middle.
(The)Power (of) Walking by Fiona Noble
Focusing: The Muse and the Mundane by Janet Salmons
A version of this post was first published in my Special Client Newsletter, and as a blog post Nov. 20, 2012. Edited May 3, 2016.