When Writing Feels Like Work — and Like Play

How do you know when it’s time to work — and when it’s time to relax?

For some writers, crafting stories is a hobby. Even if there’s a small desire to turn writing into work someday, in the present moment, they’re just doing it for fun.

Other writers classify everything they write as work. Even blog posts, personal essays, and spur-of-the-moment flash fiction or poetry cuts into their work time.

This often makes “writing time” much more confusing than it needs to be. When writing is your work, but you also enjoy it, how do you get into the right mindset to accomplish your goals?

Let’s say you walk into whatever room houses your desk and computer, with your morning coffee or tea or whatever your drink of choice, and you sit down, ready to write.

How do you know whether you’re sitting down to relax, or work?

In some instances, this is easy. If your job involves writing articles, and you’re sitting down to write an article, you know you’re about to do work.

But what if writing isn’t your job? What if you’re working on a novel on your own time — something you hope to publish eventually, but you’re not getting paid for your time right now?

Is that work? Or is creating this fictional world still considered a hobby?

Or … is it both?

Can you write and relax at the same time? Is that a thing? It depends on what you’re writing. When I’m slowly (very slowly) chipping away at my novel, I’m in a working mindset. It does not relax me. However, when I’m journaling, or jotting down song lyrics I’ll probably never use, I feel less stressed.

You might be able to separate your writing time between “fun” writing and “not fun” writing, if that’s how you need to break things up to stay productive. But it’s important, when you look at your “fun” writing, to acknowledge what you’re getting out of it, even if it relaxes you. When I journal, for example, I consider that productive, because it gives me a chance to gather my thoughts, work through my anxieties, and plan out (or reflect on) my day.

It’s also important to remember that whether you’re writing for pleasure or not, this process uses up massive amounts of creative energy. Even writing for fun can leave you feeling drained, especially if you’re really bad at taking breaks. Don’t force yourself to write all day “for work” and then spend all night writing “for fun.” It’s OK to do other creative things to give your brain a little bit of a rest.

Even when you’re working, writing can be an enjoyable experience. Learning to shift your mindset between “I’m just messing around” and “I have a goal I need to accomplish before my butt leaves this chair” takes a lot of practice. Especially when you really do like what you’re working on, but need to take it seriously at the same time.

Still, the best way to approach creative projects is to keep everything balanced. When you block out time for work, spend that time working. When you block out time for play, spend that time playing. Maybe for you it’s a matter of spending an hour making actual progress in your story, and the last 30 minutes going back, rereading older chapters, and experimenting with new techniques and styles. It doesn’t always have to be just one or the other.

Maybe your “fun” writing involves writing only for yourself, and your “work” involves writing for your audience. Again — there is room for both.

Above all, take your work seriously — but not too seriously. Be flexible. Set goals, but don’t lock yourself in a room and wallow in misery when you have an unproductive day. As long as you leave your work/play space feeling fulfilled, you’re good. If you don’t genuinely enjoy any aspect of what you’re writing, that’s how you know something is off-balance — and needs restructuring.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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