It’s Sunday afternoon. You’ve been putting in a lot of extra time on your nights and weekends lately, trying to make progress on a personal project you hope will turn into something more … eventually.
The bottom line: You’re exhausted. You’re also hungry and cold (because the weather went straight from summer to winter somehow and you just weren’t prepared for that, were you?). You haven’t even logged into Netflix for over a month. You don’t want to do anything. You certainly don’t want to do any writing.
But you know you should write anyway. Either that, or you realize with a sinking feeling that you have a deadline coming up. It was one of those “oh, I’ll get to it when the due date gets closer” promises that has suddenly turned into “if I don’t start working on this today, I’m never going to finish it in time.”
Whether you want to write or you have to, “not feeling like it” definitely doesn’t make writing any easier. One of the hardest parts about being a writer, after all, is writing even when you’d rather not. Sitting down to write is often more challenging than the actual writing — yes, it makes sense. You might be shaking your head right now, sadly, because you know it does. You know all too well.
Maybe you’re afraid. Not of writing, not of what your final product might turn out to be, but that you’re going to write when you don’t want to write and it’s going to be bad. Bad writing, a bad story, a bad idea — it doesn’t make sense, writing when you’re not in the right “mindset.” What if it’s not good? What if you waste hours of work on something you’re just going to end up redoing or throwing out later?
This is not an uncommon fear. This is not a fear that you should be ashamed of, or one that anyone should judge you for. All of us want to write good things. None of us want to waste our time writing something that we’re just going to have to go back and rewrite later.
But here’s the thing: Sometimes, you aren’t going to have any other choice.
Some writers are way too concerned with producing the best quality work possible every single time they sit down to make something.
This is an opinion I’ve had for a long time, and one that has produced possibly the only negative comments I have yet to receive on this blog (LOVE Y’ALL).
To be clear, it’s not that I think it’s OK to publish garbage, or that you shouldn’t put effort into your work. That’s not what I’m saying.
What I mean in the context of writing is that sometimes what’s stopping people from doing the writing they dream of doing isn’t that they don’t know what to write about or that they’re afraid of putting their work out there. It’s that they are so worried about doing published-quality work every time they write that they often don’t end up writing anything at all. And that’s not very useful to anyone.
Unfortunately, this is a complicated question with a not at all simple answer — a tough problem with more than one solution. Of course, in the end, it all comes down to personal preference. All the writing advice in the world is meant to influence the choices you make, and no one can tell you you’re “wrong” for making those choices. They’re your choices. It’s your life. You do you.
So to make this easier, let’s separate things into two different types of writing, which will each have different approaches to them when you ask the “should I write when I’m feeling blah or shouldn’t I” question.
The reality is that you have to learn to separate “this needs to be my best writing possible” time and “I can write now and make better later” time. These are very different approaches to writing, very different mindsets and often varying moods and/or levels of energy and focus. And succeeding as a writer depends a lot on how you structure your time and where you place these different kinds of writing throughout your day.
For example: I’m currently working on a huge assignment that needs to be as close to perfect as I can make it. I’ve been working on it for about a week. I could have very easily written and submitted a draft 5 days ago and moved on to other things. But it would not have been my best work. I could not have written a good “this needs to be my best writing possible” article this week.
So I’ve taken more time on it than I would have preferred. But that has been my very deliberate choice. I have saved this work for — sigh — a quiet Sunday afternoon that will allow me to deep-focus on this project for multiple uninterrupted hours at a time. Even if it takes away from my personal weekend time, it’s going to be a good article (per my own standards, I guess). I’m making sure of it.
However, I’ve also spent this previous week doing my best to keep up with my NaNoWriMo word count, blog posts, and other lower-profile projects. These are things that are still important, but that either don’t need to be absolutely perfect and/or can be edited and rewritten at a later time. What mattered to me during my evening work time this week was that I wrote. The quality didn’t matter, because it didn’t have to. (I am proud of the blog posts that I write, but they simply don’t take the same level of effort, say, a feature story does.)
Divide your time between “things I can write when I’m mad at technology for never working right” (just an example, no relevance to my current circumstances at all, nope) and “things I have to wait to write when everyone is out of the house and I’m happy for once.” There’s a difference there. Some things just don’t matter as much — not to say that they aren’t important, but that you can afford to “just write” and not worry so much about it being your best. Sometimes you just have to get the words out and worry about “fixing” them later.
When you’re writing something you have to submit to a client or boss or editor, yes, you should do the best you can to work on it when you’re mentally, emotionally, and physically at your best — or the best you can be.
But if it’s just something you’re writing for yourself, or something that’s less of a time constraint — when there’s less pressure, when you can go slow and write terribly and go back and fix it as many times as you need to — write even when you’d rather be watching Netflix. You’re not going to want to do it. You might struggle for the first 200, 300, 700 words. Those words may not be usable in the end.
But every now and then, once you get past that first hurdle, that initial “ugh” time, you forget you were in a mood, you forget you didn’t want to do this, and you’re in it now, so you actually start writing words that aren’t so bad after all.
The biggest hurdle is sitting down and starting. I won’t say it gets easier. But it does become less of a chore.
Here’s one more thing you should know: More often than not, you’re going to end up writing something your brain convinces you is terrible. But it’s not. Maybe it’s not the same quality as a successful author’s polished and published novels, but it’s better than bad.
Always remember that you are your worst critic, that even when you think you aren’t doing your best, chances are, you’re doing better work than you think.
Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is sit down and do the work. It’s never going to turn out exactly the way you want it to turn out the first time around. It’s very rarely, if ever, going to look or feel or sound “perfect.” It doesn’t have to. That’s not the point.
Successful writers don’t just make time to write. They make time to go back and make things they’ve already written better than they were before.
As long as you’re working with your words, there is no such thing as wasted time.
Write. Even when you don’t think you’ll do your best.
Getting the words out, giving yourself something to work with or show, is better than not doing anything at all.
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.