As I’m writing this post, it has been almost four months since I have touched the novel I began writing in November 2018.
I worked on it fairly regularly from November through March. And then I just … stopped.
This happens sometimes. It’s common for a writer to face a particular point in a story where they get stuck and choose to walk away for a while to gather their thoughts. For me, this point used to fall around the 30,000-word mark. That’s not usually the case these days. Now, I almost always find myself stuck when I’m getting close to the end.
Which is, as you can imagine, extremely frustrating.
I’m facing a brand-new problem now, though. As I mentioned, it has been almost four months since I even opened that unfinished draft. (I have been working on other things in the meantime, but this specific project has fallen far down my priority list.) At this point, I’m almost fully convinced I will never return to finish it.
How did this happen? There are many reasons for both my extended hiatus and my doubts. But for the most part, I’ve simply spent too much time away from my story.
Taking a break from specific writing projects, or writing altogether, is essential. Our brains just can’t operate at maximum capacity all day every single day — sometimes we need to give them some time to rest.
But I’ve shared my story. If you take the “taking breaks is essential” philosophy to the extreme, you might end up unable to return to writing — or, at the very least, you’ll really struggle to get back into a steady workflow.
Why is that? Can it be prevented? And how long is “too long” to take a break, exactly?
To start off, there are several different ways to take a writing break. You could take a full-scale break from all writing — like I should be doing now but gosh darn it I just can’t help myself. You could also take a break from just one type of writing or a specific project you have been working on.
Basically, a writing break doesn’t have to mean you stop writing completely. You might continue writing blog posts and articles for your client base but temporarily put a hold on making progress on your book. Both of these strategies are effective and can help you take advantage of the benefits writing breaks have to offer.
Why do we need to take writing breaks? The short answer is that brain power is a finite resource. You don’t have an infinite amount of it. Scientists aren’t one hundred percent sure if this is the reason we sleep, but we do know that rest does [hopefully] help us wake up feeling clear-headed and refreshed.
If you’ve ever felt foggy and “slow” after a long, tough day at work, you know what it’s like to overwork your brain. The reason I call writing “work” isn’t always necessarily that it can’t be fun and enjoyable — what I mean is that creative energy still uses up brainpower the same way math might. It can be considered “work” because when you do too much of it — no matter how much you might be enjoying it — you get tired. You run out of energy.
Thus, all writers can benefit from breaks. When you take an active break from writing, you:
- Give your brain a much-needed “thinking hiatus.”
- Give yourself permission to think abstractly about everything without having to worry about putting it into words, opening yourself up to new concepts and ideas.
- Avoid burnout — it happens, it’s real, and the recovery period is much longer.
- Can more easily return to your work feeling rested and open-minded.
Now you know the benefits of stepping away from your keyboard and letting your mind wander without the added pressures of having to write it all down. But there are downsides to spending too much time away, whether you want to believe them or not.
What happens when a writing break goes on too long? Basically, your writing vacation becomes a permanent residency and you risk actively or passively deciding you’d rather not go back. Which, don’t get me wrong, is the appropriate decision for plenty of people who choose to focus on other things. There’s nothing wrong with deciding not to write if continuing to do so would be the wrong decision for you personally.
But if you do want writing to continue to be an important focus in your life, letting your writing hiatus go on for too long can throw you completely off course and make it almost impossible to right yourself again.
The longer you spend away from your story, the more you will become distant from it — and this will only make getting back into writing that much harder later. And it’s already hard enough! You don’t need to make it any harder on yourself. You’re a delicate bean. You don’t want to make yourself upset or sad.
Taking too much time away from writing in general pretty much just breaks any positive writing habits you have formed or prevents you from forming them if you haven’t previously established any. If you want to start taking your writing more seriously, these kinds of setbacks aren’t going to make it any easier to achieve your goals.
Are writing breaks important? Yes. Can they prove harmful if you don’t plan them carefully? Absolutely.
So how long should a writing break last? I know “as long as you need” would not be a helpful answer. But there is also no proven length of time away from writing that works equally for everyone. I have personally found that a week is just the right amount of downtime. It’s almost too long, but anything shorter isn’t quite long enough.
What I would recommend is that you don’t let a break last more than several consecutive weeks. I know even a few weeks doesn’t seem like much time, but you’d be surprised how much you might feel the itch to start writing again after deliberately and guiltlessly taking time off.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a planner, I do recommend carefully mapping out your writing breaks so they don’t become permanent.
- Decide which areas of writing you are going to take a break from.
- Set a specific date to mark the end of your break. Know when you need to be ready to get back to work.
- Do what you can not to work on the specified material during your break — you need this break!
- Go back to work when you say you will. Treat it like a real work vacation, as if your boss is expecting you back in the office when you say you’re going to be there.
I do hope to return to and finish the story I started sooner rather than later. The issue isn’t that I’ve “grown out of” the story, which does happen occasionally, or that I’ve lost interest. It’s just not at all near the front of my mind, and it’s going to take a lot of energy (and time spent rereading what I’ve previously written, much of which I’m sure I have forgotten about by now) to get back into a reasonable flow, and back in the right mindset.
But it’s common for writers who are in this situation not to return to projects they have set aside and walked away from regardless of the reason. The truth? You don’t HAVE to go back to finish something if you don’t want to. You really don’t. No one is going to judge you or ridicule you or call you a failure. In many cases, deciding to let a story go in favor of something more valuable or meaningful to you in the present is a sign of creative maturity.
However, if you want to return to it, there’s no harm in trying. While I don’t recommend abandoning and running back to the same story over and over — you do need to grow as a writer, and this won’t help — if you feel like you’ve been away too long, be brave. Give it a try. If you’re not feeling it, then you can put it away for good and move on and feel zero guilt about it.
You never know, though. That spark that once existed might ignite again, and you’ll return to your work with more drive and determination than ever before.
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.