A Simple Writing Trick When Spinning Your Wheels

So you’re cruising along in your work-in-progress (WIP). The muse is singing. Ideas are popping. Words are flowing. Until …

Suddenly you hit a bump. Or maybe a roadblock. Or a cement abutment.

You try to persevere; but the muse has gone silent, inspiration has ceased, and you just don’t know where to go next.

The technical term for this experience is SYW (“spinning your wheels”). It happens to all of us, and it’s especially common in the middle of a thing—manuscript, chapter, article.

But at some point early in my many years of writing and publishing, I stumbled on a simple writing trick that has served me well at such times. So I thought I’d share it in the hope that it might help others (and that, when it does, those folks would send me money and donuts).

I call it BO (“backward outlining”).

Please don’t stop reading. I hate outlining as much as anyone. And I do it—usually. Sometimes my outline is more detailed and sometimes less so. Sometimes it’s so much “less so” as to be nonexistent. It’s there, more or less. In my head. I thought. Until …

So, when I hit a bump, roadblock, or abutment in a piece of writing, I’ll print out what I’d written already and then, on a sheet of notebook paper (I go old school for some tasks, and this is one example), I’ll “backward outline.” That is, I’ll read the first few paragraphs and then list the main points. I’ll do this repeatedly, until I reach the point where I got stuck.

Almost always, this simple exercise reveals that either I hadn’t been following my outline—or that I wasn’t even working from an outline, and therefore the sequence of my thoughts got OOW (“out of whack”). Once I (belatedly) do the work of rearranging the progression of thoughts into some sort of cohesive order, I TMTBML (“tuck my tail between my legs”) and get back to the WM (“writing machine”).

Sure, there may have been times when the backward outlining didn’t solve the problem, but I can’t recall any. Maybe that’s because the mere action of taking a break from the screen, changing media, and getting a BEV (“birds’ eye view”) of the WIP was what I needed. But I figure, IDMATM (“it doesn’t matter all that much”). It got me back on the right track, regardless.

21 Responses to A Simple Writing Trick When Spinning Your Wheels

  1. Shirlee Abbott September 9, 2021 at 4:33 am #

    “Old school” – yes, Bob!

    My fingers fly across the keyboard — high speed. The switch to paper and pen is low speed. I get off the Interstate highway and take the winding road through scenic vistas. And there on a distant hillside, I find my muse.

  2. Jeannie Delahunt September 9, 2021 at 5:41 am #

    Always open to ideas – thanks, Bob!!!

  3. Connie September 9, 2021 at 5:54 am #

    TFTAB (Thanks for the advice Bob) 🙂

  4. Carol Buchanan September 9, 2021 at 6:46 am #

    So happy you avoided the use of acronyms in this article.
    Seriously, perhaps, your sense of humor is manifest, and I’m sure I’ll remember the post about sadrawkcab outlining. Thank you!
    (When I left my job with an aerospace giant, I had my acronyms surgically removed,)

  5. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser September 9, 2021 at 6:53 am #

    Fingers fly across the keys
    and then I hit a rut
    that drives me straight unto my knees
    and kicks me in the butt
    and right into a writing limbo
    I thought passed and long forgot
    as characters stand arms akimbo
    and denigrate the plot
    that eddies now in stagnancy
    in a word-fetid swamp
    made of my timidity
    and willingness to clomp
    ’round “think I’ll fix the plothole later”
    while I’m up to here in alligators.

  6. Sherry Carter September 9, 2021 at 7:07 am #

    I was going to make a comment about the acronyms, but Carol BMTT (beat me to it.) I worked for an aerospace giant too, but my mind still falls into the pit of initials.

    I’ve used your suggestion of summarizing each paragraph in a point or two, but I’ve always done it after a chapter is done. As a nonfiction writer, when I read the summaries, the logic should flow. If not, I need to rearrange, reword, or delete paragraphs. I haven’t thought of using this to jog my mind back into writing mode. Thanks for the idea.

  7. Diana Derringer September 9, 2021 at 7:52 am #

    This idea’s a keeper. Thanks.

  8. Kay DiBianca September 9, 2021 at 8:43 am #

    Backward Outlining. I never heard this idea before, but it makes perfect sense. I’m grabbing my notebook paper as I type this.


  9. Eileen Copeland September 9, 2021 at 9:59 am #

    I have done this before when I r can’t remember all the story threads (yes, I forget my own story or lose track of where each one is going). Maybe I have too many ST’s (story threads) and need to eliminate or work them out somehow. But I totally get this, and it may be necessary, especially for us pantsers.

  10. OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU September 9, 2021 at 10:51 am #

    Thanks Bob! God bless you.

  11. Pam Halter September 9, 2021 at 11:51 am #

    My first thought on backward outlining was to start at the ending (where I want the story to end up) and think back as to how I would get there.

    But I like your idea, too! Thanks!

  12. Kristen Joy Wilks September 9, 2021 at 12:00 pm #

    What a great idea! I’ll have to try it. Something that has been helpful to me is to simply open a blank Word document and start the scene where I left off. Somehow this helps my brain think of fresh ideas.

  13. Carol Ashby September 9, 2021 at 3:00 pm #

    I try to track what I’ve written scene-by-scene as I go in a spread sheet with location, time, POV (color coded so at a glance I can tell when it’s time for a POV switch in my multi-POV adventures), and what happens in detail for each scene. Since important things happen in different locations at the same time, it’s key to keeping the timeline right. When I run aground, I reread the spread sheet entries and complete any I haven’t done yet. (I do get a chapter or three behind in the spreadsheet at times.)

    I find that lets me start planning the details of some future scenes. Maybe it’s not the next scene. Maybe it’s one near the next crisis point in the plot. But I find having everything outlined at my fingertips works as well as you say to keep me moving forward.

    It also helps me keep everything consistent since it takes me many weeks to write a novel, and details can slither out of my mind.

  14. Jennifer Haynie September 9, 2021 at 5:46 pm #

    LOL! I love the acronyms. Yes, that’s what happens when I work for state government. But seriously. Good idea on why outlines can be so important.

  15. Chris Whitlock September 10, 2021 at 1:51 pm #

    Just changing from a screen to paper helps remix my brain, and adding this trick is a great next stepping stone backwards.

  16. Kathleen Freeman September 13, 2021 at 2:13 pm #

    One to keep close by. Thank you, Bob! SSH!
    So stinkin;helpful.;)

  17. Kelly Goshorn September 14, 2021 at 9:02 am #

    You seriously almost lost me at “BO,” but I’m glad I read on. Backward Outlining actually makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the tip!

  18. Kathy September 18, 2021 at 11:34 am #

    What a great idea!

  19. Catherine Jacobs September 30, 2021 at 4:12 pm #

    Great idea to try and share. TYFS (Thank you for sharing).

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