You sit down, ready to work. You’ve silenced your cell phone, closed the door, and set yourself up for 30 minutes of uninterrupted writing.
You open your laptop ready to make another sizable dent in your project. After all, you’ve done everything right. You’ve set aside the time, you’ve gotten rid of the distractions, and you’ve embarked on a project you’re passionate about.
You sit. Nothing comes to mind. You try to type something, and then erase it. Maybe you get a few paragraphs out, but you know they’re not going the direction you want them to. You try again. And fail.
Argh. It’s hard enough to find the time to write. What can you do when the right words just won’t come?
“Bad writing days,” says freelance writer Sarah Painter. “We all have them. We don’t like to talk about them. We’re frightened that by talking about them we will make them stronger. Or, worse still, we will jinx our productivity and conjure them into existence.”
We all know that it happens sometimes. There are days when we just have to let it go and try again the next day. But wouldn’t it be nice to salvage today?
It’s possible. If you find yourself in a spot, try these seven tips to see if you can get going again.
Those paragraphs you’re erasing? Don’t. At least not on the same day. I have had so many writing days that felt like total wastes of time, but when I read the material a day later, hey, it wasn’t so bad. Sometimes, it even struck me as great.
Set the editor aside and just write. Even if it takes you five minutes to do a sentence. Even if it’s so hard you’re tempted to check your Facebook page instead (don’t!). Get the page filled. Save the judgment for another day.
“Our words on paper rarely measure up to the sparkling perfection of the ideas in our heads,” says author K. M. Weiland. Don’t let your premature judgments get in the way of your progress.
Thriller writer Timothy Hallinan agrees, stating that even though his bad writing days can make him feel like his idea stinks or his talent has vanished:
“But here’s an extremely important secret I learned the hard way. When I read the work six weeks later, I can’t tell the good days from the bad ones. In other words, I usually have no idea whether I’m writing well or badly.”
Is your head really in your story? Or is something else going on?
“You’re in a foul mood,” says author Juliette Fay, “perhaps after a miserable morning with kids who do not feel like going to school, or making their lunches or picking up the wet bathing suit they left in the hallway last night.”
Give yourself five minutes to journal fiercely about whatever’s on your mind. Even if you don’t think anything is there interfering, there may be something under the surface that you can uncover if you free write for five minutes. Set the timer, go for it, and once you’ve finished, put it aside, and go back to your project.
Sometimes just the act of “dumping” your feelings on the page will be enough of a release to allow you to return your full concentration to your project.
Especially on my current work in progress, I’ve found that it takes me a bit longer than usual to sink into that other world my characters inhabit.
I chalk it up to having too many other things going on. My brain is running with my long list of to-dos, and it can take me 30 minutes of focused work to really get into the flow.
If you’re in the same boat, there are some things that can help you sink in. Try music, but make sure it’s music that suits the mood of the part you’re working on now. Sometimes piping it through earphones is better than listening to it in the open air—it can help you get into that sort of meditative state that you need to achieve.
Changing your lighting can also help. Dim the lights, or turn off the overheads and simply use a lamp or two. Maybe you need some visual inspiration. Check out your pictures of your characters, settings, or other images that get you into that other world.
Don’t forget your body. Are you feeling tense somewhere? Muscles tight? Take some deep breaths, relax your shoulders, and try a relaxing cup of tea or other warm beverage. As long as you’re still straddling this world and your fiction world, you’ll probably struggle, so give it some time to slow your mind down and sink a little further.
Science fiction and fantasy writer Elizabeth Moon talks about writers with a “trickle-feed imagination.” These are the writers who can’t outline their stories, because they don’t know what’s going to happen until they get there.
In other words, if you’re a pantser—and you’re someone who writes regularly—you may find that, in Moon’s words, you “overrun your inspiration repeatedly.” If you’ve landed in a scene and you’re just not sure what happens yet, switch to something else.
Write another scene that you are more aware of, for example, even if it’s out of order. Or try writing a bit more background on one of your characters, or settings.
Or, try writing a dialogue between you and the character that dominates the scene you’re trying to create. Imagine sitting down for a conversation at a future time, when the scene has already taken place. Ask your character to describe what happened, and his or her feelings about it.
The farther along you get in your writing career, the more you learn. The more you learn, the higher your expectations for your work. The higher your expectations, the harder you are on yourself.
All that can add up to a blocked writing day.
“The reason it feels harder than last time is because it is,” says women’s fiction writer MM Finck. “You learned on the last ones. You are a better writer, and your expectations for yourself are higher. Remember when you wrote that first book? That spiral-bound unpublished beauty under your bed? Every moment writing it was glorious. Because you couldn’t believe you were actually doing it! Borrow some of that.”
Remember that your last work became the masterpiece it was after you put it through a myriad of edits (and edits and edits). Allow yourself to write at a lower level, if necessary, to get the pages filled, and realize that you could be being too hard on yourself because of your experience.
Do you tend to slip into self-doubt on a bad writing day? Do you start questioning your story, your idea, or even your writing talent?
Do you begin to imagine that all your other writing successes were flukes, and that truly, you’re just a fraud who hasn’t been discovered yet?
Stop the negative train. Realize that bad days are normal and natural. All writers have them. Frequently.
Says blogger and co-founder of Red Vine Web Studio Nicki Hicks:
“We’ve all had bad writing days: those days where we feel either completely uninspired to write, or sit down with an idea only to find out that the writing isn’t flowing like you want it to. It happens to the best of us; it’s happened to all writers of every skill level.”
It’s also normal to start doubting yourself when this happens. Most writers do. The trick is to remember that these days are normal. They are to be expected. You will have them. Think of them as evil forces conspiring to try to get you to stop writing. How much will you fight back?
Maybe something really is wrong. Maybe you’ve run into a plot problem, or discovered that one of your characters just isn’t fitting.
Maybe you don’t have enough going on to sustain a novel. Maybe you aren’t clear yet on your theme, or even what you’re writing this story for.
It may be time to get help. I’ve fallen into this trap a number of times and I always turn to craft books (and sites). A couple of my favorites include Blueprint Your Bestseller by Stuart Horwitz, Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, and Story Fix by Larry Brooks, but you can choose whatever speaks to you.
Writers are always learning, always practicing. There’s always something we can do better from project to project. Maybe your lack of flow has to do with something that you know, subconsciously, isn’t quite right, but you’re not sure, consciously, how to go about fixing it.
I’ve found that studying the craft of writing can usually jostle something loose. Often exercises like breaking up your scenes, finding the theme, checking your plot against a standard formula, etc. can all help you see with a clearer mind what’s up with your project.
And it’s a great feeling once the light switch comes on and you realize what you need to do to move forward. Often, your insights will lead to a new period of productive writing.
Maybe the Muse Has Left, but You Can Win Her Back
Whatever may be causing your bad writing day, I hope some of these tips may help. If not, let it go, do something nice for yourself, and try again tomorrow. If you’re still struggling, it may be that the muse has left you—you’ll find tips for attracting her back here.
“We have good days, bad days,” writes Glenell Rosburg in Writer’s Digest. “Some days we write well. Other days we just write. And so my ongoing mantra has become this: Ten minutes of writing is something. Bad writing is something. Something is better than nothing.”
How do you manage a bad writing day? Please share your tips with our readers.