I stared at my blank screen for an hour last night.
The cursor, blinking on and off, urged me to start. “Go on,” it beckoned, “just write.”
I thought of the WordPress admin panel and its helpful little prompt, “Just write.”
The cursor blinked again–one too many times. Frustrated, I slammed my MacBook Pro shut and joined my wife in the living room.
Writer’s block? Or just a lack of motivation?
Who cares–whatever I was feeling, the words didn’t get written last night. I used every possible excuse I could find to not write. Mailing packages, playing with the dogs, cooking dinner, etc.
Why, as “writers,” do we do this?
Before I ever used to call myself a “writer,” I could bang out 2,000 words in a sitting like nobody’s business. I would write blog posts, long articles, and entire chapters of my novel, all without thinking twice.
But now, close to finishing a book on blogging, a second fiction novel, and maintaining my guest-posting “tour,” I’m havaing a heck of a time “just writing.”
This post isn’t about writer’s block, because I’m not sure I believe in it. Also, this post isn’t necessarily about overcoming a lack of motivation either.
Instead, it’s somewhere in-between, when we don’t really know what the deal is; we just can’t seem to write.
At these times, I’ve been trying to analyze the things that have worked to get me over “the hump,” and the things have not. So, without vascillating any longer, here are some steps I’ve taken to get over myself and just write:
First, What doesn’t work:
1. Waiting for The Muse.
The muse is a mythical creature who likes to zap us with creative energy, intense focus, and magical powers that let us write entire epics in one sitting.
Oh wait–that’s right. The Muse doesn’t exist. What we writers traditionally mistake as The Muse is really just our unhindered left brain, allowed to roam free and create.
Still, though, personifying our creative streak as a little wizard called The Muse is fun, so I’ll stick with that:
“If you wait for The Muse, you’re allowing the world to pass you by.”
Rather than wait for the moment to strike, write something else–forget that blog post you just have to write for your adoring fans and readers who will no doubt abandon your blog forever if you don’t deliver a delectable morsel of bloggy goodness by 9 am.
Forget about that chapter that just has to be penned before bed. Your editor can wait, and so can your publisher.
Or forget about writing altogether. You’ve got a business to run–go do the mundane, mindless tasks that don’t take creative energy instead.
The reason it’s okay to just not write when you’re feeling this way is simple:
If you force yourself to write, you’re most likely going to need to rewrite it all anyway. Sometimes that’s a good thing (link to Lifehack.org post), but sometimes it’s lame.
2. Saying you’ll “catch up later.”
What I mean is that you shouldn’t waste the time you’ve allotted to writing (you have allotted work time, right?). Don’t say to yourself that you’re going to get up early and get the rest of your 1,000 words done.
Because you need to honor your schedule. Period.
If you write at night, but can’t seem to write anything–use that time for other business-related projects and tasks. Finished everything on your to-do list for the day?
Great. Tackle tomorrow’s tasks now and get ahead.
But I’ve found that abandoning my daily schedule can very quickly derail my habits. Some people are different, but it’s important to me to have a clearly-defined work schedule every evening, as much as possible.
I’m going to expand this definition to cover drugs, medication, or any other mind- or state-altering chemicals that affect our thought-process.
I’ve never tried to drink just for the “benefits” that may or may not present themselves, but I have had a glass of wine or a Rum and Coke (mmm) and then tried to write.
Usually this isn’t a problem–at small dosages, alcoholic beverages don’t have any outward or inward effect on me.
However, one too many drinks and I can start to “feel” the alcohol’s effects. It’s certainly not “drunk,” but it’s not a completely sober-minded state, either (you know what I’m talking about!)
And I want to state one thing very clearly:
Alcohol has a negative effect on my writing ability.
I find I need to delete words and sentences much more often, rethink passages and phrases a few times, and generally just don’t write as quickly.
So, while I admit that everyone’s different, I will never condone the use of alcohol, drugs, and/or other products that fall into a similar category to boost my productivity.
What does work.
Okay, now that those things are cleared up, I was left with a problem: what the heck does actually work for helping hit my daily word count goals? Here are a few things:
1. Working on something else.
Like I mentioned above, a simple “redirect” in focus–channeling my energy toward another project–can often make me want to go back and work on the writing project that needs to be done.
This is basically saying I’m ADD, but with the positive benefit of at least getting something done…
I usually enjoy the writing projects I have–blog posts, fiction chapters, book projects, etc.–but when push comes to shove, I’ll do just about anything else to prevent myself from writing.
So I use a distraction–rather than doing something completely unrelated (outside the realm of what I deem “work”), I’ll work on a task that needs to get done but isn’t inspiring, creative, or fun.
Checking stats, sales, Analytics, responding to emails, etc. fall into this category, and they all fall under the “Work” umbrella, so they’re fair game.
Mowing the lawn, doing the dishes, watching TV–these do not fall under the “Work” umbrella, so they’re out.
Focus on doing something else that still counts as work, and you’ll still be honoring your time-commitment you’ve made to your craft and your art.
And when I do this, I often have the urge to go back and finish the writing project that had me stuck in the first place!
2. Using the Pomodoro technique.
If you haven’t heard of the “Pomodoro technique,” it’s basically a method of using a kitchen timer to segment your work schedule.
You work for 20 minutes, take a 5-minute no work at all break, then repeat the process a few more times. After the fourth “Pomodoro,” you take an extended 15- or 20-minute break.
There’s more detail than that in the “actual” method, but mainly because it’s a product that needs a business model.
Honestly, you can make up your “chunks” however you want, but the method is sound. By splitting your work hour into these smaller chunks of work-break-work-etc., your mind naturally is hungry to keep going, and the break period just adds fuel to the fire.
I like Pomodoro technique for its simplicity and the “zen” of a ticking timer in my ears.
3. Plan your writing ahead of time.
A similar method to the Pomodoro technique is planning your entire writing day earlier.
If you write before bed, plan out what you’re going to be working on that night in the morning or at work during the day.
I keep a small Moleskine notebook (actually, I think it’s an offbrand copy…) and a Zebra 301 (I’m kind of becoming a pencil geek) with me at all times. During the day, I’ll bust out the notebook and write down some killer post headlines and ebook ideas, just to “get the juices flowing.”
As I go through my day, these ideas will fester and grow, giving me time to dissect and piece together the ideas, and giving me the motivation (“I have to write this!”) to get it written later that night.
Without fail, if I don’t work through the idea during my non-writing hours, I’ll have a much harder time writing about it during my scheduled writing time.
The Writer’s Dilemma
I like to think most of us are writers. If you’re creating “stuff”–content in the form of blog posts, articles, or newsletters, writing books, or producing videos or podcasts (or all of the above), I’d call you a writer.
And as a writer, you’re going to be struck with a period during which you just cannot get any work done. You’ll go through the phases of incomprehension (“I don’t understand this enough to write about this”), lack of confidence (“I’m not expert enough to write about this”), and then finally fatigue (“I’m too tired to write about this anyway”).
If you can recognize these elements of “writer’s block” or whatever you want to call it, you can start using triggers that fire an automated response to combat these things (a habit).
But you first need to recognize and acknowledge where these weaknesses lie–for me, a lack of sleep can have a serious effect on my productivity. Once you know what your weaknesses are, though, you can start to overcome them one at a time and push through from idea to done.
And there’s nothing more motivating that seeing the words “The End” on your manuscript’s last page!