7 Tips to Help You Write When You Don’t Feel Like It

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on July 24, 2017 • views: 2378

You know you’ve come to the culmination of your writing career when a client asks you to write about poop transplants.

This happened to me a couple weeks ago. As a health writer, I’m often asked to write about the latest advances in medical science. These things usually interest me, but sometimes it can be a little tough to get started.

Turns out that the area of poop transplants—officially called “fecal microbiota transplants (FMTs)”—is actually fascinating. It involves all this new stuff we’re figuring out about the good and bad bacteria in our systems, particularly in the digestive system, and how much it affects our health.

But it’s not exactly the topic that gets you running to the computer with your fingers eager for the keys. Thing is, when you make your living writing, it doesn’t matter if you feel like it or not. You have to produce, as that’s your bread and butter.

And some days, it’s just darned difficult.

Fiction is usually easier, but not always. Some days even when we’re working on stories that are precious to us, we just can’t seem to get excited about them. We have deadlines on the calendar, but when we think about sitting down to work, suddenly almost anything else—even washing dishes or cleaning the bathroom—seems preferable.

After 20 years of full-time writing for a living while writing fiction on the side, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out how to get it done even when writing’s the last thing I want to do.

Here are seven tips to help you get going when you don’t really feel like it. Try them out and you may find yourself producing more than you thought you could.

1. Shut Everything Off

It’s so easy to be distracted these days. If you feel like you don’t really want to write, you may be tempted to pick up the phone and check Twitter or Facebook “for just a minute.”

Don’t fool yourself. That minute will quickly turn into five and ten and before you know it your writing time is blown. When it’s time to write, shut everything off. Just do it. Don’t ask yourself if you want to. Turn the switches and push the buttons.

Promise yourself the “reward” of checking it all once you’re writing is done. It takes discipline, but once you have all the distractions out of the way you’re more likely to be able to tune into your own imagination.

2. Get Some Motivation

I’m a health writer, and the founder of Writing and Wellness, so I’d rather you not tank up on sugar and saturated fat, but let’s face it: a little motivation can go a long way toward helping you sit down and write.

If you can go for some cut-up fruit, a handful of nuts, or a serving of yogurt, great. But I know most of us need something a little more indulgent when we’re facing the blank page.

Moderation is key. Whatever your vice is—sugar, wine, chips, soda, what have you—try to “health it up” either by making a healthier choice or going easy on the portion size. I like chocolate chip muffins, but a regular one packs on the calories, so if I’m going to have one, I choose a mini muffin (much smaller). That plus a cup of coffee makes it a lot more pleasant to sit down with my laptop.

If you’re having trouble getting started, try tempting yourself with something good. Just be smart about it. If you’re a chip fan, look for the high-fiber, whole-grain variety. Cookie monster? Choose one or two instead of a half bag. Candy? Separate out a few pieces and put the rest of the bag away.

This is about getting started, so choose just enough to get you going.

3. Read Books from Authors You Admire

Even when I’m struggling with my work in progress, I look forward to my writing time because I start out by reading.

I have a stack of 8-10 books by my chair and I read out loud from one or more every day before writing. I started doing this after I attended a writing workshop in Florida. As part of the workshop, the organizers invited well-known authors to participate in regular reading events.

That meant that every night, for six nights, we gathered in the auditorium to listen to the likes of Andre Dubus III, Ann Patchett, Dennis Lehane, Stuart O’Nan, Daniel Woodrell, and other amazing writers read from their award-winning books.

I went home with my ears buzzing. There’s something about hearing great stories read out loud that teaches you more than any class ever could. The great thing is that we can expose ourselves to these mentors every day by simply reading their work out loud.

I’m a music teacher as well as a writer, and I always listen to recordings of great artists with my students to help them hear how the pieces should sound. They make great leaps forward after these exercises.

The same principal applies to writing. Reading other works out loud helps get you in the rhythm of great writing, so that when you return to your own work, your prose will naturally come up a notch in quality.

4. Engage Your “Muscle Memory”

You’ve shut off all the distractions, gotten yourself something tasty, and taken a mental dance to the rhythm of great writing. Now it’s time to set yourself up to write.

This means sitting in your chair, setting up your laptop, opening the file you’ve been working on (or a blank page), and setting your fingers on the keys (or around the pen) so you’re ready to write.

These first four steps (or any modification of these that you set up) need take only 5-10 minutes, and can form a regular writing ritual for you. If you do this same set of steps every time—every day or every other day—you’ll establish what we call “muscle memory.”

Muscle memory is something we develop through repetition. It’s what allows you to drive your car, play a tune on the piano, and hit a ball with a bat without really having to think about it. All these things required a lot of step-by-step mental processing at first, but the more you did them, the more automatic the movements became, until you did them naturally.

You know the saying “it’s like riding a bike.” Once you establish that muscle memory, you never lose it.

You can do the same thing with your writing routine. This is one of the most helpful things I’ve found to get me writing when I don’t feel like it. Do the same ritual often enough and you’ll set those grooves in your brain to automatic. (It usually takes only a couple weeks.)

At the designated time, your body and mind will gravitate toward writing because that’s what you’ve taught them to do. Once the habit is firmly established, you’ll likely feel “weird” if you don’t do it. So even when you don’t feel like it, it will be easier to get started.

5. Set a Timer

When we don’t feel like writing, we watch the clock. We think about what we’re going to do after we’re done.

The kids are coming home in half an hour. Then we’re going to do this and that. Maybe you should cut up some fruit as they’re going to be hungry, or make sure the wash is in the dryer, etc.

The mind will run away with you if you let it. Setting a timer helps you focus on the task at hand. If the kids are coming home in a half hour, turn the knob to 30 minutes and then forget it. Until that ringer goes off, the only thing you have to do is write.

This can be really liberating for you. Without having to worry about what you have to do next, your mind can feel free to play on the page.

6. Allow Yourself to Write Crap

Remember crap can be fixed or tossed. But you need some words to work with, first.

Often when you don’t feel like writing, the first few paragraphs don’t come out very well. It feels a little like stuttering, and you may be tempted to just pack it in for the day.

Here’s where you’ve got to lower your standards and give yourself some slack. The trick is to allow yourself to write badly.

It doesn’t matter. You just need to get into the rhythm, so let it rip. Remember that what counts is getting words on the page. You can go back and fix (or delete) them later, if you need to.

You may surprise yourself. The next day what you thought was crap may actually sound pretty good.

7. Use Other Inspirational Tools

If you’ve gotten to this point and you’re still not writing, there are a couple other things you can try.

What you need is some other inspirational tools. Music often does it for me, if it’s the right music. Find something that evokes the mood of the scene you want to write. It may help to set up a play list for your novel so that you have some tunes you can easily choose from when the need arises.

Images are another good option. Look at the photos you’ve gathered for your characters (you have gathered photos, right?), photos of your settings, or try finding your scene location on Google maps. Let your eyes take you into that other world where your story takes place.

Drawing works well for some writers. Sketch out the scene you’re thinking about and imagine what happens next. Draw a map for your fantasy world, or try depicting in ink your spaceship or new weapon.

Just be careful not to let your new hobby be a distraction. Give yourself 10-15 minutes (set a timer if you need to), and then return to your writing.

Bottom Line: Just Get Past the Initial Discomfort

There are other things that may help. You can write just one sentence, for example. It can be anything. Make it up. Let it be awful if it’s awful. You just have to get started.

Or, pick up one of the books you’re reading and copy down a sentence or two out of it. Then think about how you can use it for the scene you want to write. Change it around to fit. Keep working with it until you’re off and running.

The key is getting over that hump—that wall that can sometimes exist between you and the world you want to create.

What do you do when you don’t feel like writing?

NOTE: This post first appeared on author J.C Lynne’s blog.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Ann Kroeker says:

    This is a wonderful, useful post that I’ll gladly share with people on Twitter. But I have to say one of the reasons I felt compelled to comment is that I actually know about fecal transplants. My dad got c.diff. multiple times and it looked like he might never shake it, and one of the possible treatments was fecal transplants. My brother gallantly offered to be a donor. We did not need to go that route, thankfully, as another approach worked…but we were seriously considering it.

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Ann. Ugh, I feel for your dad. Those infections are so scary. And yes, I’ve written about fecal transplants a couple times now and they can be lifesavers, no doubt. So glad everything worked out okay!

  2. Phoenicia says:

    I enjoy writing and find my tight schedule means I am pretty much fixed on the day I do my draft, spell check, choose photographs etc etc. This makes writing feel a little rigid (perhaps it is the rebel in me!) I function far better with structure and have a lot of discipline.

    • Colleen says:

      “Rigid” often works when you have a tight schedule. As long as you can keep plugging Phoenicia!

  3. Great post – I really enjoy your blog. This summer has been particularly hard for me to get motivated, as I have young kids and they are always distracting me when school is not in session. Of course, I have my own distractions as well. Thank you for the concrete and doable tips !

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Jennifer. I’m sure it is hard when the kids want to do other things. Good luck fitting your writing in!

  4. Anna says:

    I am developing a bulletin board with images related to my current project. There it is, right in my face, reminding me of why I began this project, why it’s worth doing, and why I really want to finish it, way down deep.