Is it ever OK to take a break from writing?
Will doing so kill your creativity, dissolve your interest, and erase the skills you’ve worked so hard to build up?
No. Quite the opposite, actually.
But there is an effective and highly ineffective way to take a writing break. Before we get into that, let’s talk about the circumstances that make it totally acceptable not to write for a while.
I typically divide legitimate reasons for taking writing breaks into four broad categories:
- You feel like you’re in a “rut” or you’re just “going through the motions”
- Life Happens — you’re moving, a family member is ill, something needs your full attention
- Your body and/or mind need a kind of rest they haven’t been getting lately
- You dread having to sit down and write even though you usually enjoy it
There may be more. And you may be experiencing more than one of these particular circumstances simultaneously. The point is that a good reason for taking a break goes beyond “I just don’t feel like it.” For something to truly pull you away from writing, it should be interfering with your work enough that stepping away from your keyboard will benefit your craft in the long-term rather than hindering it.
For example, walking away from your book because you “don’t feel like working on it” will probably hurt more than help you in many cases. If you actively avoid writing because you don’t want to do the work, you’re going to keep avoiding it, and it’s going to become harder and harder to get back into it as time goes on. Chances are, you’ll feel guilty when you think about not writing. You won’t enjoy the things you do in place of writing, such as watching Netflix, because of that guilt.
That’s not what a writing break should be or the effect it should have on you. That’s the difference between a healthy hiatus and harmful avoidance.
A writing break should be a relief. It should be planned and you should allow yourself permission to walk away. And eventually, when you are ready, you should return to writing feeling refreshed, rested, and ready to pick up where you left off.
This is not an easy thing to do. Because, if we’re being honest with ourselves, most of us walk away — even if only for an hour or an evening or a day — unexpectedly out of frustration, exhaustion, or boredom.
The only thing that sets you up for is wandering aimlessly in the creative void, getting lost, and having a very hard time finding your way back again.
I know of many people who have told me they are taking a “writing break” — giving a pretty good reason for doing so, most of the time, all things considered — and that break ends up being permanent. They don’t get back to it. And some of them knew before the break began that this would most likely be the case.
As much as this breaks my heart, I completely understand why it happens. And I don’t judge anyone who does decide they need to put writing aside to focus on other, often more important things.
But despite what you may have experienced yourself, or seen others go through, it IS possible to take a writing break without the danger of stalling your work as a writer completely, or forever. After all, a “break” should be temporary. It’s not stopping. Think of it more as slowing down.
To make a writing break as effective and worthwhile as possible, take the following suggestions into account before your “hiatus” begins.
If you can, plan your breaks. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m getting very close to arranging my schedule so that I take every Sunday off from writing. You don’t have to be that strategic or consistent with your breaks if you don’t need to be. But the hardest breaks to take are the ones that aren’t planned. And if we’re talking about burnout — a common reason for taking a break — the best way to manage it is to know that at X time or on XZY day, you don’t have to worry about writing anything. I actually look forward to Mondays now because, for the most part, I begin them fresh off of a break and I’m not dreading having to jump back into writing.
Always think of a writing break as temporary. Never, ever say, “Oh, I’ll get back to writing eventually.” Eventually is not nearly specific enough to safeguard your writing goals. Approach the hiatus with the mindset that you DO want to get back to it and that you WILL return to it at a specific point. For example: “I’ll pick my novel back up two days after I finish final exams.” Or: “I will spend this week unpacking as many boxes as I can — office stuff first. On Monday, once I’m settled, I’ll start writing again.” Hold yourself to that, as much as possible.
Don’t write anything — not even if an idea pops into your head. Anticipation is a good thing, especially if you’re holding off on something because you haven’t been spending enough time away from it lately. Sometimes writing breaks are necessary because you lose focus or begin to forget why you even bother sitting down to write — you need time to remember what it’s like NOT to write (to remind yourself it’s not as great as you sometimes imagine it might be!). Even if you are tempted to write something, don’t. Let the ideas roll around in your head for a bit. Chances are, when you do sit back down to write, you’ll actually be excited to do it — just like you were when you first started.
Shut out your guilt. We have had it drilled into our heads that NOT writing is some kind of creative sin. We are conditioned to believe that any time spent not working toward a goal is wasted time. This is simply not true. While it’s not much use to you to not write out of laziness (I use that word very carefully here), it’s OK to take breaks. It’s healthy. It’s good for your brain as well as your body. Not too long ago, I wrote every single day for over a month without taking a break, and guess what? I got sick. I physically could not write for a day, and I felt guilty about it. I shouldn’t have. I also should have taken several breaks to allow myself to rest, and if I’d done that, I would have had a much easier time avoiding the guilt. You are not somehow “less than” because you didn’t write today! Stop feeling bad! You have a plan. This is part of your plan.
Yes, you can take a break from writing.
No, doing so won’t ruin your life.
It is absolutely possible to take a break, return fully rested, and continue on as if you never stopped.
Give yourself permission to rest, whatever your reason. You won’t regret it.
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 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.