It has been three days since you have written a single word. And you are beginning to panic.
Oh, you WANT to write. You have ideas! There are stories in your head begging to be told, but for some reason, you just can’t seem to sit down and figure out how exactly to put any of it into words.
If this sounds familiar to you, you might be in the midst of a writing slump. This is definitely the case if you:
- Are no longer looking forward to writing
- Feel like you either don’t have any good ideas or can’t focus on any of them
- Worrying that everything you write is worthless
- Starting to question whether or not writing is even worth it.
And these are just some of many possible signs you have fallen into a writing slump. Some might go as far as to call this “burnout” but I don’t think we always need to take it to this extreme. Sometimes burnout is the underlying cause, and this is a very serious issue that needs to be addressed for you personally if that’s the case.
But a lot of the time, a writing slump is just a period of time — sometimes short, sometimes longer — when you feel consistently frustrated and unfulfilled with your work. Or you’re unmotivated to do the work even when you “want to” want to. Or you just feel lost, capable of writing, but not really sure where it’s going.
Writing slumps are completely normal. But that doesn’t mean you have to remain stuck in one. Here’s how you can navigate your way through it.
Give yourself the time off you need — but set an “end date.” When you are struggling to write, sometimes it is tempting to continue trying what isn’t working with the hope that it will somehow magically start working. We don’t always even realize this is happening, and find ourselves trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of “need to write, want to write, can’t write, feel bad, repeat.”
Instead of continuing to struggle to the point of stress and frustration, just give yourself permission to not write for a minute. Even I have struggled through periods of time where I start watching Netflix when I “should” be writing, don’t even enjoy what I am watching because I “should” be writing, feel awful that I did not write, and then wonder why I dread writing so much the next time I try to come back to it.
All this can be avoided if you just give yourself the formal go-ahead to not write — not forever, but just for now. Guilt will not motivate you to write. More likely, it will completely sabotage your next writing session because you’ll approach it with the same attitude with which you left it last time. “I should have written something and I didn’t and now I feel like a failure. What if that happens again?”
Just let it go. In reality, no matter how much I and other writers and bloggers might tell you that “just writing anyway” is so often a helpful mantra and practice when facing creative barriers, sometimes you just aren’t in the right headspace or physical health to do the work you are convinced you “should” be doing. And continuing to push yourself through that, in most cases, will only make things worse.
But before you decide to set your writing aside temporarily, take some time to think about how long you need a break. A few hours? A few days? A few weeks? Sometimes you really do need to separate yourself from your work and take care of other things, especially yourself. There is nothing wrong with taking a break. But if you are truly dedicated to Making Words Happen, you should treat a break like a vacation — one that, unfortunately, must eventually come to an end.
Plan it out the exact same way you would plan a trip to Disney World (just an example). Decide when your break is going to start and how long it is going to last. Know the exact date (or time) your break will end, signaling to your brain that it is time to get back to work. Do whatever it takes, to the best of your ability, to make sure this “start date” remains.
Do be aware that this usually does not apply to writing jobs with deadlines. There will be times you do have to get your writing done even when you don’t “feel like” doing it. In these cases, time off — sometimes even a single night off — isn’t an option. You have to still do the work, and you have to make it your best work.
So how do you do that? You just do it. Starting is often the most challenging hurdle for writers. You pace around worrying about writing and how unmotivated you feel about doing it, but the second you sit down and write those first few sentences, you forget why you were struggling so much and you write the whole thing in one sitting.
It doesn’t always work out that way. But there are exceptions to the “let it go” rule, as there are exceptions to every rule, especially when it comes to writing. Make sure you do plan rest time no matter what, though.
Start slow, and start small. One common mistake people make after going on any kind of writing “hiatus” is that they try to jump in to 10 projects at once and almost immediately feel overwhelmed and scattered.
As someone who has done this at least a dozen times in the past five years (and has immediately regretted it each time) I can advise from experience: Do not do this. It will create a cycle of burnout and negative mental associations with writing that are extremely difficult to come back from. You can come back from it, you can break the cycle, but it is much better to never find yourself caught in one in the first place.
One way to avoid all this is to treat every “soft return” to writing as if you are starting out for the first time all over again. And by this I mean choosing one small goal, one small project, and running (sorry, walking) with that and only that for as long as it takes to finish it.
There is this common misconception that writing has to be done quickly, that a faster pace means more productivity which somehow leads to better writing or “more success.” This is almost always not the case. Good, solid writing takes time. Don’t force yourself to operate at top speed, especially not right out of the gate.
Slow down. And even more importantly, don’t forget to enjoy the ride. Writing is supposed to be fun, remember? Yes, goals are good, ambitions are what keep driving us forward. But at the end of the day, if you aren’t enjoying what you are writing, no one else will enjoy reading it. Make sure you are always working on at least one writing project that brings you nothing but joy and satisfaction. Even if it’s terrible. Even if no one will ever see it but you. Enjoy the heck out of that project. It’s good for you.
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.