where the writers are
What to Do When You've Reached a Writing Plateau

Writing Plateaus

I have an odd hobby. I study Chinese characters. I once studied a lot of Mandarin (the most widely spoken of the Chinese languages), but a few years ago, I realized I couldn’t remember most of my Chinese characters. I dug up my old flash cards (kept in a box since 1983!). On one side of each flashcard, I had written a character; on the other, its meaning and pronunciation. I would look at the meaning/pronunciation side and try to write the characters correctly. And so began my habit of studying them for 20 minutes every day, over my morning coffee.

My first goal was to relearn the 1,000 most common characters. Know those, and you can read about 90% of what is written in Chinese. Let me clarify one thing: learning Chinese characters does not require analytic skill or high-level conceptualization. It is strictly rote memorization. It is an enormous tax on your memory. I can’t explain why I want to learn them. I just do. I find it fun.

For a long time, I made great progress with my characters. After a few months, I got to the point where I could go through the 1,000 characters and write about 80% of them correctly.

Then something happened: My progress came to a standstill. One week, I’d miss about 20% of the characters. I’d set them aside and practice them until I had them down. Then I’d go through the 1,000 characters again and miss a different 20%. And this went on week after week after week. I was stuck at 80%.

I soon realized I was experiencing something familiar to anyone who has tried to gain a skill, whether it’s perfecting a jump shot, learning to tango, or hitting that high C on the trumpet. I had reached a learning plateau.

Writers hit plateaus as well. We realize we’re in one when we’re writing similar material again and again, stuck at a certain level or type of publication, or reaching the same roadblocks in our attempts to grow and improve as writers. When we realize that the same problems keep cropping up in our style or plotting. When we get the same negative comments from editors. When we just can’t break into the literary journal of our dreams.


The Dangers of Plateaus

Plateaus come with 2 seemingly opposite dangers:

1.  They are discouraging. If we let them get to us, they can dampen our creativity, leave us drained, and even make us give up. 

2.  They are seductive. Sometimes we start feeling comfortable on a plateau. We think we’ve found a niche, a place where we know we’ll be fine if we just keep writing the same stuff and submitting to the same journals.

Both lead to the same thing: A loss of creativity and growth.


What to Do When You've Reached a Plateau

Fortunately, there are some clear, concrete steps you can take when you reach a plateau in your writing—or in any facet of your life:

1. Recognize and acknowledge your plateau. Accept the fact that plateaus are a normal and acceptable part of the learning process.

2. Realize that learning is taking place. Reaching a plateau does not mean you aren’t growing. Much learning takes place without showing immediate results. Babies don’t appear to be learning language—then suddenly they say their first word. Eggs don’t appear to be changing—but under the shell, a chick is forming. 

3. Avoid the temptation to struggle or fight. It doesn’t work

4. Avoid lethargy—and, above all, avoid the temptation to give up.

5.Try something new. Experiment with a new technique. Take a class. Write differently. Try a new genre or style. 

6. Most importantly, keep writing. The only way across a plateau is to keep walking. The only way I’m going to learn all 1,000 of those Chinese characters is to keep practicing them. The only way you’re going to get off that plateau is to cross it, step by tenacious step.

Some day, I will get all of my 1,000 Chinese character cards right. In the meantime, I get up each morning, make my coffee, and go through them. I don’t expect a perfect score—yet. I’m not looking for immediate improvement. I’m just walking across that plateau to get to the other side.