Craft plateaus: How to Break Past Them

What do I do when I feel my writing is stuck?

A reader asks:

I feel like my craft has plateaued. How do I level up when I feel stuck?

Pushing past a craft plateau can be extremely hard. It’s also easy to start feeling insecurity about one’s own writing when trying, because trying something new and different inevitably means stumbling a bit. Once you’re a working writer feeling the urge to produce and sell, it can be terrifying for the public to see those stumbles, or to take longer to produce when you’re trying to push past where you were. At least, it is for me!

It can be really worth it, though. Here are some of the things I try to do when I’m pushing to improve my craft.

Try to identify what you want to improve.

One of the hardest things about pushing past a craft plateau can be the first step of identifying what direction you want to level up in. Do you want to write work with more deep meaning in it? Stories that bring stronger emotion? Maybe you want to try to push page-turner level pacing. Or you’ve never figured out a particular form, like writing a short story, and you want to. Perhaps you feel like romance is a weakness of yours, or maybe it’s action.

If there’s nothing in particular you feel you want to work on but you just want to shake things up, one thing I try to do regularly is switch up genre, form, point of view, or other structural elements. For instance, to push myself, I’ve deliberately written stories in omniscient and second person. I’ve tried my hand at kishōtenketsu and worked to develop skills at different lengths shorter than a novel (flash, short, novelette, novella), since my natural length is long form. I also like collaboration as a way to push myself to improve, as it helps tease out things I could be doing better. Extremely different forms like poetry or screenplays can also absolutely help shape your prose writing in a whole new way.

Pick a direction to go, and remember — if you fall on your face with it, it’s okay! You don’t have to publish or show it to anyone until you’re feeling good about what you’re doing.

Read people who are doing it well.

I can’t recommend this enough. Once you figure out where you’re aiming, read people who are doing that thing extremely well. Read a lot of people who are doing it well. Read them with awareness, so that you can try to take note of what they’re doing that makes them succeed.

You’re not trying to copy them, but to get the idea in your head of what leveling up in that direction looks like, and have touchstones in your head so your brain knows the shape of what you’re trying to do.

Don’t expect yourself to match their level your first time out. Take your time, read a lot and read some more, and use that as research.

Go back to the basics.

Remember when you first started writing? Yeah, I hate the idea of going backwards too. But it’s like learning a new physical skill — even if you’re an expert martial artist, for instance, if you start taking dance, you’re going to feel frustratingly novice at some of it.

The good news is, just like that martial artist will probably pick up a new physical skill faster than someone who doesn’t do anything athletic, you being a writer already will make this faster. But it’s possible you may still have to step back a bit and try techniques and practice that worked for you when you first started writing. Things like craft books specific to what you’re trying to do, or classes and workshops. Maybe try writing exercises aimed at your goal, or perhaps go the route of sending your drafts through more levels of beta and critique than you’re now used to. If you’re doing something like switching genres, you can also specifically beta or critique people yourself who are doing something similar, as critiquing might help your own lens of evaluation come into focus.

You don’t have to do everything, and some level-ups happen more smoothly than others! But if you’re having difficulty climbing forward or you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, reach back and try something that worked for you in the past, when you were first getting your prose feet under you. Only this time, work in the new direction you’re looking to achieve.

It’s also okay to give yourself a break.

Expect some knocking about as you do all this, and some retracing of steps if you end up not being able to hit where you’re aiming your first try out of the gate. I don’t think I know anyone who’s specifically tried a big level up without a few growing pains!

And also remember — when it gets hard, it’s okay to go back to writing in a place that’s comfortable to you for a while. Or, heck, forever — plenty of writers find a niche they’re good at and stay there. Personally, though, I sympathize with the desire to be pushing forward and challenging myself, and these are some of the ways I try to do it. But it can be hard — it really can — so do try to be a little easy on yourself if the going gets rough.