Negotiating a Writing Rut: Some Runner’s Wisdom, Repurposed

As graduate students, we are expected to write. A lot. We write papers for courses, revise and rewrite them for conferences, write abstracts of those papers, and sometimes revise them again for another conference or for publication; we write essays and articles; we write lectures for courses we’re teaching; we write teaching statements, CVs, application letters, grant application project descriptions, and dissertation abstracts; and of course, we write countless drafts of a Master’s Thesis or a Dissertation.

Sometimes, all that writing becomes so mechanical to us, such a matter of habit, that we end up in a writing rut. A writing rut can look different for different people, but includes, for example, any of the following:

An inability or reluctance to write more or less than a certain number of words per day, because “that’s your goal word count.”

A feeling of not wanting to write at all, or a degree of lethargy towards  your current project not in keeping with your initial enthusiasm for it.

Actively avoiding writing because you feel stuck or uncertain as to how to proceed on a project that had heretofore been going fairly well.

Feeling as though you don’t have anything else important or significant to say, but the project seems unfinished.

Feeling as though all of your writing sounds the same and you’re not able to vary your style for different genres.

Feeling as though your writing isn’t progressing.

Feeling as though you have nothing new to write about and can’t think of a new project/paper/chapter subject.

Feeling as though you are sitting down on schedule and putting in your hours, but not getting anywhere with your project.

I know, right? All of the above! At some point during the degree, most of us are going to have experienced all of these conditions, sometimes several at once. It’s discouraging, occasionally demoralizing, and ultimately stressful, to find yourself stuck in a rut.

Before I continue, let me disclose that I am a runner. I ran track in high school, and caught the bug. I’m not the fastest, or the best, runner on the roads and trails, but I have faithfully logged my 10-30 miles per week for most of my adult life, and run and even won a number of 5Ks and 10ks; my half-marathon PR so far is 2:07.

Why bother telling you that? Well, because I first realized the power of the rut to silently derail me from attaining my goals not as a writer, but as a runner.

This was a recent discovery. I was looking through my Runkeeper stats and noticed that I have, indeed, faithfully run between three and six times per week, 2-5+ miles per run, since 2013. Yay, me! Look at that consistent training!

But then, I started considering the times for those runs. And I found that despite all that running, I have not improved my pace at all. I’m still logging 8:53-9:46 miles, regardless of the distance of my run, regardless of the weather, regardless of pretty much anything. I am running consistently, 3-5 miles per run, at a pace I’ve maintained since 2013. And THAT, my friends, is a runner’s rut.

Well, to be honest, that kind of pissed me off. I mean–all that work, all those hours, and no payoff? WTH?

So, I did what any researcher does, and went off looking for professional answers. (Which is to say, I pulled the giant stack of Runner’s World magazines off the back of the toilet and Googled “how to break out of your runner’s rut.”) The answers were not surprising and, really, I knew some (most) of them before I started researching the matter–but have you ever noticed how sometimes, it is easier to accept advice from someone else than it is to trust what you already know? What DID surprise me, however, was how much the advice to snap out of a runner’s rut could be applied to breaking out of a writer’s rut. So here are the six ways most advertised as highly effective means of breaking out of a runner’s rut, and how you can use them to help break out of your writing rut:

1. Cross-train. Oh my GOSH, y’all. Honestly, I was so mad at myself for not even thinking of this, but really–running 3-5 times a week, 3-5 miles a run, for three years, without adding any other kind of training to the mix? DUH, of course I was in a rut! My body was totally comfortable with that workout. It was auto-pilot; therefore, it was not effective anymore. After a visit with my sister–who has been strength-training as well as running and looks AMAZING!–and consulting with my husband, I plunked down ten dollars at Planet Fitness the next day. I spent two hours doing things I hadn’t done in two or more years–elliptical, ab machines, arm machines. I came out of there fired up and raring to go! Now, I knew all of these things were good for my body, but I had no idea how much I had missed them once I transitioned mindlessly into the running-only pattern. Do I NEED Planet Fitness to cross-train? Maybe not, but it has worked for me–I feel excited, enthusiastic, and energized about working out, and hopefully that will translate to a shift in how I’m approaching my runs as well. How can this help us out of our writer’s rut? Well, cross-train the writing as well! Have a short-term writing project (like a conference abstract for a paper you hope to give), a mid-term writing project (like an application you want to submit for a grant or fellowship or summer seminar; or a shorter publication), and a long-term writing project like the term paper, the thesis, or the dissertation. If possible, have the different writing projects be about different topics. When you feel bogged down in the longer-term project, turn to the shorter ones for a bit. I think this might be particularly effective for someone who has been dissertating for a while and feels a bit bogged down in the project–something like writing an abstract for a possible conference paper gives you something else to look forward to and be excited about. And completing a shorter project will get your mind thinking in a different way and give you the satisfied feeling of having accomplished something that you don’t get when you are in the middle of a seemingly endless long-term project like the dissertation. This blog is one way that I cross-train my writing.

2. Find a new route. If you run the same two or three running courses every time you run, again you are finding yourself far too comfortable to feel challenged, and your body isn’t working as hard as it does when you’re in a new or unfamiliar place. There’s a whole cottage tourist industry for runners to travel to distant places…. just to run. I’m lucky to live in a place where there are a hundred choices for exciting runs–greenways, hiking trails in the mountains, and lots of safe neighborhoods. But, I tend to go with convenience and stick to the runs nearest home, the ones I don’t have to drive to. It’s not doing me any favors because I’m not excited about the runs. I’ve resolved to try to go somewhere I don’t usually run at least once every two weeks, and I’m already excited about those possibilities. How can we use this to get out of our writer’s rut? If you’re used to working in the same space but find yourself having trouble staying focused or thinking of how to continue with a passage you’re stalled in, consider going somewhere else–a nearby library, a different building on campus, a coffeeshop or other cafe, or even the patio outside the dining hall. Sometimes the human brain just needs some different stimulation, and being in a different place can help you think differently–something I noticed when I was working at the Folger last spring.

3. Run with someone else. When motivation is flagging, sometimes you need the boost you get from being accountable to someone else. Now honestly, I don’t mind running with someone else, but really, I’m a solitary runner. Instead, I choose to make my Runkeeper activity public, and post my runs to Facebook. This has kept me running consistently because I have runner friends who will remark “haven’t seen you running lately” to keep me on-track. This accomplishes essentially the same goal of making sure I owe an update to someone else, so I do the work. translated into graduate student terms, if you are stuck in a writing rut in which you find yourself NOT writing, consider scheduling a writing date with someone else who is also working on a project, or form a writing group. I have a colleague that I meet with every couple of months, when we’ve got some substantial chapter material and feel like we need someone else’s eyes on it; knowing that he’ll be expecting a chapter keeps me accountable when I don’t feel like writing.

4. Trick yourself into a run. If you’re having trouble motivating yourself even to get started, some runners trick themselves by saying, “you just have to do [x number of] minutes and then you can quit.” Usually, by the time you’re actually out there and reaching the time limit you set yourself, you go ahead and log a little more time, another mile or two. I think this fits nicely with the “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes A Day” approach–if you’re just not motivated to do it AT ALL, tell yourself, “I only have to write for fifteen minutes.” Then, write. Almost always, you’ll be involved enough to keep going by the time fifteen minutes are up, and if not, at least you logged that time. I have looked up from my “fifteen minutes” to realize that it’s been two or three hours!

5. Revamp your workout. If you’ve been doing the same thing, at the same time and the same pace and in the same place, you’re not going to feel like you’re progressing. Runners who find themselves repeating the same workouts get bored (I should know–that’s what brought me to this insight in the first place!) In addition to cross-training as noted in #1, we can also vary our workouts–doing a tempo-run one day, or running intervals, or running negative splits (each mile a little faster than the one before). This keeps us mentally engaged, so we don’t just zone out. the human brain LIKES games, so play mental games with yourself from time to time. If you find yourself consistently hitting your daily word count but feeling uninspired or bored with your project, consider changing up your writing sessions–challenge yourself to Pomodoro your way through five or ten pages, or set a timer to see how many words you can get in thirty minutes, or up your word count, for example.

6. Make a new playlist. There are a lot of people out there who run without music. I am SO not one of those people. But, I have a couple of favorite playlists, and so I tend to listen to the same things over and over and over. This can help you feel too comfortable in a run–okay, here comes the fast song, now the other fast song, now a slow song–so you’re anticipating your effort based on the music tempo you know is coming. Two ways to snap out of this rut are to set some stations in Pandora or Spotify and then shuffle them, or create a playlist and then randomize it. This got me to thinking: what about when we feel like we have nothing else to say, or when we don’t think we have any ideas for a paper/essay/other writing project? I think we can try randomizing and shuffling our knowledge to help us out of this particular writing rut. For instance, you can make a list of the texts you are using, and then choose two or three of them and put them in conversation with each other based on the argument you’re making, or brainstorm the subjects you are interested in thinking and writing about and then randomize that list and go with the top one as the basis for a new project. Again, I think it’s mainly about getting your brain working in an unexpected direction, which then gets it acting creatively instead of reacting habitually.

So, there you have it–six ways in which running ruts and writer’s ruts intersect, and six ways to try to bust those ruts. I hope this is helpful to anyone who is out there struggling to get through a writing project!

What about you–what are your particular tricks for snapping out of a writer’s rut?


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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