When I’m feeling stuck and don’t feel “in the mood” to work on anything that’s on my to-do list (or none of the ideas I have to choose from seem all that appealing), it would be very easy to just give up.
And many people who find themselves in this situation do give up. They spend five minutes or less (okay, maybe sometimes more) struggling to Make Words Happen and then they close their laptops and go off to do something that doesn’t involve writing … because it’s easier? Because not writing when they want to write is stressful? Because an all or nothing mindset just naturally makes people quit when one thing isn’t working?
Before I wrote the two paragraphs above, I started at a blank blog post draft for a good six or seven minutes. I checked my email, I fed my dog, I made another cup of coffee. I checked my email again. I had already opened two drafts I’d previously saved hoping inspiration on another topic would strike, but it didn’t. So there I sat.
What was I supposed to say about writing when you can’t write when I couldn’t write? More importantly, should I even keep trying when my brain was busy trying to focus on a dozen other things? What if I tried to write and what I ended up creating was total garbage?
And yet here I am, still writing. And while this isn’t necessarily proof that anyone who feels blocked (you might know it as writer’s block) can overcome it through writing, I’ve personally come to believe that in many (though not all) situations, the inability to find the right words has a very simple solution: Write. Right?
Here’s what you need to know.
Everything you write is going to need touch-ups. Can I be honest with you about something? I’m getting really tired of hearing the “but I’m going to have to go back and clean up the garbage later!” when the subject of Writing While Umotivated/Unfocused/Blocked comes up. If I hear one more person claim they can’t write because they don’t want to “waste time” writing trash, I’m going to have a stroke.
Here’s the deal: It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been writing. It doesn’t matter how good you are at it. It doesn’t matter how much you hate self-editing or how often you “don’t make mistakes because you take your time and don’t write when you don’t feel like it.” EVERYTHING NEEDS EDITING BEFORE IT GETS PUBLISHED. EVERYTHING.
So guess what? “I can’t write because it’s going to come out bad” is a terrible excuse for not doing your work. Because even if you took two weeks to write 500 words that were all “perfect,” you would still have to go back through it and make it better. That is how writing works.
Therefore, there is no point in trying to make everything come out perfectly the first time. Zero. Rewrites, revisions, edits: They are a staple of publishing FOR EVERYONE. If you expect to have to go back and make changes, then at least you’re being realistic about it.
Write anyway, even if you’re afraid it’s going to come out terrible. The only way to fix that is by writing through the rough parts until you get to the good stuff underneath. Not writing does not solve any of your problems. Writing at least clears away the doubt and fear and frustration and forces you to think and tap into the creative energy you have buried beneath your own insecurities.
In most cases, the only one stopping you is yourself. People don’t like this answer because it forces them to acknowledge that writer’s block is all in their head … because it is! We have all experienced creative blockages. I’m not saying it’s not a real thing.
I’m saying stop using it as an excuse to avoid getting words out of you rhead and onto paper.
There are many, MANY reasons people struggle to move past their creative barriers and get their writing done. For some, it’s low self-esteem. For others, it’s the crippling fear of being judged or criticized. Some struggle with their mental and physical health. Others were simply never taught how to set and achieve goals and, through no real fault of their own, don’t have the discipline to work through the typical hardships of creative expression (yet).
The bottom line is, regardless of your reason, you’re usually the only one holding yourself back. We create our own mental barriers even just in the way we think. “I don’t know if I can do this. I’m not good at this. Other people must think I’m a total loser for trying this.” We don’t realize we’re creating these barriers, but it’s happening.
Yes, you CAN break through these barriers — and I’m currently working on something I hope is going to help you do this so you can write the things you want to write.
But it all starts with telling yourself you can write — even when you don’t want to — no matter how much you think you don’t actually believe this. When the words won’t come, no one but you is going to change that. Only you can write that first word, and then the next word, and then the next.
Are there situations when you SHOULDN’T write? Yes. A few obvious ones come to mind: When you’re not feeling well (mentally and/or physically), and I’m not talking about a mild headache or nervousness here. When you can’t get out of bed (whatever your reason might be), the last thing you should be worrying about is whether or not you can get your writing done.
But being mentally/emotionally or physically unfit for writing (don’t beat yourself up about this — it’s temporary — and this is coming from someone who once wrote thousands of words while suffering from the flu just so she could win NaNoWriMo … and we’re not going to talk about the wisdom teeth incident) isn’t the only reason you should set writing much lower on your priority list, far below things that should come first.
Family and friends who need your love and support, for one. It’s OK to skip out on invitations to hang out or attend events here and there — people will understand that if they respect that writing is an important job for you. But sometimes things happen and people need help, or at the very least, a comforting presence while they deal with things whether they involve you directly or not. Always be there for the people you care about, no matter what. If thinking about someone is keeping you from writing, it might be a sign you should visit them or give them a call instead of writing.
For another: Stress and burnout. The dangerous thing about burnout (in many cases, though certainly not for everyone) is that people who are in the process of burning themselves out don’t slow down or stop. They just keep working through it. Which means that you might keep writing even though you’re physically and mentally drained and you don’t want to but you keep going anyway because THE SHOW MUST GO ON.
Don’t do that! It’s not good for you! You may still be producing massive quantities of high-quality work now, but if you keep going there’s going to come a point where you just completely shut down. Don’t let yourself get to that point. It is not a fun place to be.
And also: When it’s something really important (like work for a client or something you’re submitting to an editor for potential publication) but you know you’re not in the right headspace for it. This is one reason why you should never wait until the last minute to write things! I’m serious! You have to give yourself some room to breathe if a deadline is approaching and you just “can’t.”
But if it’s crunch time and you absolutely have to write something ASAP, honestly? Just do what I’ve done here. Sit down and start writing. Chances are, it’s going to start out terrible and get better as you get into a flow. Will it require some editing and rewriting? Yes. Write anyway. I know that doesn’t sound like a good solution, but keep in mind that mental barriers are some of the strongest creative roadblocks out there. The more you tell yourself you can’t, the harder it will be. Just do it. Just start writing.
I know how frustrating it can be when you want so desperately to write but it seems there aren’t any words left to be written.
It’s how I felt when this blog post was nothing more than a blank page with a blinking cursor at its beginning.
And yet, here we are, at the end.
Don’t give up just before you write something good. Don’t talk yourself out of trying even before you get the chance to go. Just do the best you can. It’s better than doing nothing at all, don’t you think?
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.