by Meg Dowell
I get it. I really do. You want everything you write to be as close to perfect as you can make it.
When we read things other people have written, they’re often polished, shiny, and sometimes completely error free. That’s what we’re used to seeing. So when we sit down to write our own things, we start to feel stuck when we realize what we’re writing isn’t polished or shiny … not even close.
And when you start to feel discouraged with a task, it’s hard to continue. Eventually, it gets to the point where it’s even hard to start. You’re feeling sad, so you don’t write. You’re frustrated, so you don’t write. The smallest thing could go wrong on a Monday and nope, you’re just not going to bother writing.
I used to have this approach to writing, too. I used to refuse to write unless I was in a “good writing mood.” I couldn’t write in the morning because I was “too tired.” I couldn’t write late at night because I “wasn’t a night person.” I got “too sad” to write. If I sat down to write and something interrupted me, I would just give up and not even try to get back to it later.
As you can probably guess, this resulted in me not getting a ton of writing done over the course of a year. I was so worried about writing everything perfectly the first time that if circumstances didn’t promise I could do my best work, I just couldn’t personally justify trying to do the work at all.
Many writers have fought me on the idea that you should #JustWriteAnyway instead of waiting until you’re inspired or “in a good mood.” Of course you’re allowed to have your own opinion — this is the internet, after all. So I’m going to share mine, and how writing even when I don’t want to write has changed my life for the better.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Pushing yourself should not mean hurting yourself.
I’m not going to get into the super personal aspects of this because, let’s be real, you don’t care. But I’ve had issues in the past with working so hard that it ended up hurting me mentally and physically, and in no way do I ever want to imply that this is OK. In fact, I can and will do everything in my power to help encourage you to get more writing done without pushing yourself over an invisible edge.
On one end of the spectrum, we are told that not working hard is a lazy waste of talent and time. “If you want to succeed, you have to work hard” so often implies that we have to give up anything and everything that matters to us — including food, sleep, love, and happiness — in order to have time to pursue our dreams.
And on the other end, we are told that working too hard is “dangerous,” that it’s not healthy to give up sleep, to turn down invites to hang out with friends or set aside a hobby we love because “you can’t spend your whole life sitting behind a screen bonding with imaginary people.”
The most frustrating thing about the above is that this is all true. You can’t give up sleep, but you can’t sleep too much. You can’t constantly put your friends on hold, but you can’t spend every night partying. Writing is important, especially if it makes you happy, but you can’t do it constantly 24/7.
If you want to succeed in writing, there are going to be days you have to push yourself. But you do have to know your limits. Sometimes “not feeling like writing” really is a sign you need to take a step back and give yourself some room to slow down and breathe.
But I use the word “sometimes” for a reason.
“Not feeling like writing” is often an excuse — but you can fight against it.
Yes — I will emphasize this again for those who might be skimming this post — YES, SOMETIMES YOU SHOULDN’T WRITE IF YOU DON’T FEEL UP TO IT. Our bodies give us signals to let us know when we’re pushing too far past the breaking point. Listen to your body. Mind your mental health. Be kind to yourself. If you can plan your breaks and time off ahead instead of waiting for these signals, even better.
But in the majority of cases, many writers struggle to write because they’re making excuses. There, I said it. They’re using “not feeling like writing” as an excuse not to get anything done. They’re sad, they’re annoyed, they’re happy and need to celebrate! No writing! None!
I’m certain that if most aspiring writers actually got work done when they didn’t want to get work done, they would all be closer to achieving their writing goals.
The sun doesn’t need to be shining in order for you to sit down and write.
You can write in the middle of a thunderstorm. Literally or figuratively. You don’t have to wait until “the time is right” to write. Just write. Who knows — you might sit down to write when you’re feeling sad and end up writing the best page of prose you’ve ever produced. You won’t know until you give it a try, right?
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A lot of the barriers stopping you from writing are predictable and/or preventable.
While it’s true that things do come up unexpectedly — if you’re going to be a writer you pretty much have to accept that things will not usually go the way you plan in all aspects of the craft — many common barriers, like exhaustion, stress, and overall busyness, are completely predictable.
This means you can schedule your writing time around these things. Treat them like you’re planning a vacation. You probably make sure to get your work done before you leave for the airport so you don’t have to think about it while you’re on the beach. If you have an event Thursday night that’s going to cut into your usual writing time, you can always wake up an hour earlier that day only and get your work done then.
Be willing to be flexible in some cases and rigid with your planning in others, depending on the specific circumstances.
If you know you’re going to have a long day at work and you have extra meetings that are going to leave you feeling more stressed and/or drained than usual, plan on not writing that day.
If you plan on calling a friend and know you could spend several hours catching up with them, don’t plan on writing that day.
If tomorrow is the end of your work week and you’re already exhausted, give yourself permission not to write tomorrow. Plan on not writing. It’s OK. It’s part of your plan.
As long as you plan to write more than you plan not to — don’t abuse your own power over your writing schedule no matter how tempting it might be — you can avoid a lot of frustration and heartache by not only being aware of when you’re not going to be at your best, but also by scheduling your work around that.
Why “just writing anyway” works
People have strong opinions about National Novel Writing Month — a month-long competition of sorts that challenges people to write 50,000 words in 30 days (1,667 words per day for 30 days in a row). Some say professional writers shouldn’t do it because it “teaches bad writing habits.”
I completely get where they’re coming from. Writing quickly in a short amount of time definitely created some bad habits in my own writing that I later learned to correct — and am still working toward correcting.
But I also learned one of the most valuable skills a writer can learn from completing NaNoWriMo 11 years in a row: When you don’t feel like writing, sometimes the best solution is to start writing.
Which sounds completely bizarre. I know. But when we enter a downward spiral of negativity because we want to or should be writing but aren’t, everything seems to fall apart around us and all hope of getting anything done, even outside of writing, goes dark.
When we push through that initial barrier we create for ourselves and start writing, most of the time, we realize “not feeling like writing” really wasn’t a valid reason for not writing. We were simply struggling to get started. And most of the time, once we do, all the writing gets done and we forget we even considered not doing it at all.
These tips and suggestions will not work for everyone. And if you don’t agree that Writing While Storming is a good idea, stick with what you believe. I’m not trying to change your opinion. I’m just trying to get you to look at the realities of the writing life from a different perspective.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.