To Finish a First Draft, a Writer Must Learn to Work Without Motivation

If you’re low on motivation and want to know how to get through it, here’s what you need to know.

As I begin writing this, I have zero motivation to write this.

It was a rough day at my full-time job. It’s been raining for almost 12 hours straight. There are a thousand things I would rather be doing right now than sitting down to write a blog post.

But I’m sitting down to write a blog post anyway.

These opening lines aren’t intended as an excuse for me to complain about my life. There are enough people on the internet doing that for me to feel the need to join the gloomy fray. I think there is a big difference between senseless complaining and purposeful glimpses into the “real” side of life in the professional writing space.

I also think it’s extremely important to be honest about what life as a writer really looks like. Not just the good parts, but the not so great moments too. So many people want to know what it’s really like to work and live as a writer. Well … this is often what it looks like.

Sometimes you don’t feel like doing the work.

But you almost always have to do the work anyway.

If you’re low on motivation and want to know how to get through it, here’s what you need to know.

Don’t assume that motivation will magically come to you at will. It won’t. “I’m just waiting for the motivation to hit.” Well it might be a while before that actually happens … if it happens at all. Motivation usually doesn’t work like that. You need a trigger, something that is going to get you off your couch and into your writing chair (if you have one of those).

And sometimes, friends, even that isn’t enough. Sometimes the only way you’re going to start “feeling like” writing is by already being in the process of writing. There are countless moments where it’s not until I’m over halfway through finishing what I’m writing that day that I feel like continuing.

You can’t just sit around waiting for “the right time” to write. No such thing exists. When we’re not writing, writing seems like the one thing we absolutely do not want to do. That tends to change once you’re actually sitting there doing it. Like now, as I’m writing this, for instance.

Let go of the idea that good writing only happens when you’re “in the mood.” I encounter dozens of writers — more often than you’d think — who insist that writing when you “don’t want to” is terrible advice. Hey, I respect everyone and their opinions. You do you. But honestly? These days, I feel like writing about 25 percent of the time. Not because I hate it, but because I have so many other things occupying my headspace and time that sitting down to write is just undesirable more often than not.

When you force yourself to write, it doesn’t (have to) mean you just sit down and write a bunch of garbage. You do have to put some effort into it. But it’s not nearly as difficult as it seems. Most of the time, writers facing mental blocks see the activity as a much greater barrier than it actually is. That’s how our minds work. We trick ourselves into thinking writing a blog post is going to take hours and is going to be the most difficult task we’ll tackle today. That’s almost never the case.

Maybe we shouldn’t think of it as “forcing ourselves to write.” Maybe it’s more of “forcing ourselves to shut out our distractions and other desires so we can focus on our creative needs.” I like that. I’m going to use that more often. Maybe.

Treat writing as work first … then learn to enjoy it as much as any hobby. Many aspiring writers don’t like to think of writing as work. And that’s completely understandable, from a certain point of view. A lot of people don’t like feeling forced to create something — they think “forcing it” means you’re somehow not doing it for the right reasons.

Here’s the part you’re probably not going to want to hear: If you want to take your writing seriously, if you truly want to create your own success in your preferred corner of the industry, you’re going to have to learn to treat writing like work. And that means you’re going to have to do what a lot of people do at work every day: Do the thing even when you have zero motivation to do the thing.

True, at a traditional job you usually have things like a paycheck and health insurance to keep you on track because most of us can’t afford to lose those things. You’re not always going to have that kind of thing when you’re writing, which is tough to handle. I know.

But when it comes to writing, I’ve personally found that the more I treat my process like work, the more I come to enjoy it over time. Writing is hard. If it were easy, anyone could publish a bestseller on their first try. You’re not going to enjoy every single minute of it. That’s just not possible.

You know what you probably will enjoy always, though? The satisfaction that comes with getting your work done, checking it off your mental or physical to-do list, and going to bed feeling like you really did something good, something right. You did the thing you said you were going to do and it wasn’t terrible!

Here’s the part you’re going to love: Writing will always satisfy you at some point along the process. Even on those days you don’t feel like you did your best work or don’t believe anything great will ever come of what you’ve just poured out onto that page. Knowing you tried, and that it might not all be bad, is a feeling truly like no other.

Motivation isn’t something you stumble upon. It’s almost always something you must find within yourself. Through writing. Which means you actually have to sit down and do the thing.

Make Words Happen. Right now. Go! Do the words! I did! You can too!

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.

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6 thoughts on “To Finish a First Draft, a Writer Must Learn to Work Without Motivation

  1. Wonderful post and insight. I love being creative, especially as an author/screenwriter. I don’t always feel like writing, or rewriting, but I remind myself that it’s not a hobby to me. It’s a business, and I am a business in and of myself. I am a brand, and my writing is huge part of that. My name is everything, and I must take it seriously as well as have fun developing my writing crafts.
    Thanks for writing this!

  2. You are right, Meg, writing is hard work and you have to work at it all the time. Nothing in the arts every comes easily, it is 10% talent and 90% hard work. And yes, paycheck jobs also have plenty of horrible bits that you hate doing.

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