Stale Writing Sucks—How to Breathe New Life Into Your Stories

Filed in Boost Creativity by on June 18, 2018 • views: 1327

Sometimes a persistent difficulty can push you into taking another giant leap forward in your writing skills—if you approach it the right way.

As writers, we often come up against the same weaknesses in our storytelling again and again. With each book completed, we improve on some things, but others continue to hover around the mediocre level, which can be frustrating.

The danger is that we eventually become accustomed to those weaker areas, and just write around them. We become blind to the problems that continue to plague the writing, and use the same techniques to manage our stories to the best of our abilities.

It’s a natural coping technique, but it’s dangerous, because eventually it can lead to stale writing—and a writer that is no longer improving.

I came up against something like this recently, and got so frustrated with banging my head against a wall that I tried something completely different—and I was amazed at the results. You, too, may need to shock yourself a little bit to get out of that stale writing rut and take your work to the next level.

Writers Can Go Through Periods of Stale Writing

After a period of writing—years, usually—writers can reach a plateau, and suddenly find they can’t go any further. Writing becomes humdrum, and no longer holds that fun sense of adventure that drew us to it in the first place.

“I feel as if my writing has become stale and formulaic,” says writer Dave Cotton. “The stories feel like they’re all following a similar pattern, and I’m starting to get bored.”

“We get bored with our style” says writer and educator Sally Ember. “We are tired of the way we phrase things. We depict the same thing repeatedly. We use similar sentence structure too often. Our dialogue sounds forced, our imagery is trite and our comparisons are about as subtle as the proverbial freight train.”

This is a different kind of situation than writer’s block. You’re not blocked. You’re still writing. But the writing seems to have lost its spark. It’s like you’re going down the same road again and again.

You may not notice it at first. Maybe it’s when you get your manuscript back from your editor and discover you’ve had characters sighing 300 times that you realize things are getting a little dull.

There are other signs that the shine is coming off your prose. Here are three of the most common ones.

3 Signs Your Writing is Going Stale

1. Your Emotions are Flat After Finishing a Book

Most of the time, writers feel a myriad of emotions after typing “the end.” You may feel elated that you finally finished the story. You may also feel a sense of loss, now that you will no longer be spending every day with your characters. Fear is common, too, as you think about editing the book and putting it out into the world.

When your writing starts to go stale, your emotions flatten out. You may finish a book and feel only a sense of relief that it’s done. You may find it easier to move on to the next thing, as you weren’t really emotionally invested like you were before.

If a general sense of apathy has come over you related to your writing projects, it could be because the writing itself has gotten stale and needs a jolt of energy.

2. The Writing Seems Way Too Familiar

Usually writing is discovery. Even if you outline your projects, you are still likely to enjoy a sense of mystery in how everything is going to turn out, or in how each scene will play out for your characters. Writing a novel is like a journey, where the unexpected is likely to happen.

When your writing starts to get stale, though, you start to get that feeling that you’ve been here before. The story feels the same, even though it involves different people and settings. Author James Dick talked about this over on the “Serious Reading” blog:

“The biggest problem to interfere with my best writing, however, has not been a block but rather a feeling that my work is getting stale. It’s like what I am writing is too much like something I previously wrote albeit with different words and a different setting. It just doesn’t feel right and it saps my motivation as I think of others seeing what I am seeing about my writing.”

3. Interest in Your Writing is Waning

This one can be the most painful, but it’s also the most concrete sign that something is up. If your blog traffic starts to decline, your faithful readers start to drift away, or your reviews are sounding a bit forced, it could be a sign that your writing has gone stale. Maybe your novels are getting too predictable for your readers, or your blog posts are lacking your own personal enthusiasm behind them.

“No matter how hard you push to keep your ideas fresh and your content new and interesting, eventually you’ll reach a point where your content starts to seem stale,” says founder of “AudienceBoom” Jayson DeMers. “It could be a feeling you get as you’re writing, a gradual decline in new traffic to your blog, or some other initial indication that leads you to the conclusion. The bottom line is that your content seems less exciting or less intriguing than it used to, and you’ll need to make a change if you want to continue seeing results.”

How to Breathe New Life Into Your Writing

If you notice any of the above occurring in your writing life, or if for some other reason you feel like you’re writing has gone stale, be sure to take it seriously. Stale writing signals stale feelings inside you toward writing, and if you don’t attend to it, you could start to drift away from the craft you love.

“[T]here are times when I have almost quit,” says writer Jon Westenburg. “I’ve almost quit because I have felt my work getting stale, turning dull and difficult and an all together depressing shade of grey.”

Try the following tips to breathe some life into your writing, and experience again all the myriad of colors and emotions it can create.

1. Hire an Editor

After reaching a certain proficiency in writing, we tend to rest on our accomplishments. A good editor/mentor can help kick you out of your complacency, and that can be well worth the investment. It’s like going back and refreshing your education. Most every other professional is required to do that on a regular basis. Why not writers? It may be just what you need to jerk yourself out of your plateau so you can start sharpening your skills again.

2. Sign Up for a Writing Craft Workshop

When did you last take a class or workshop strictly on the craft of writing? Not on marketing, blogging, self-publishing, or making money, but just on the craft itself? If it’s been a while, that may be the problem.

Sign up for a workshop in your area, or try an online one if you can’t get away. Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusche provide several throughout the year that involve only craft, on topics like short stories, dialogue, author voice, novel structure, and more. There are several other writing workshops around the nation that you can choose from, so sign up and go back to school! When you finish you’ll have a lot of new ideas and skills to apply to your stories.

3. Write About Something that Matters to You Personally

Take a break from your other writing activities and write about something that really matters to you. Write a blog post, poem, essay, or short story—anything that fits what you want to say.

Share an experience you went through in the past, or a memory that meant a lot to you. Explain your point of view on a controversial issue, advocate for something you believe in, or give a tribute to someone who made a difference in your life. You never know where this type of writing may take you. You may end up publishing it in a magazine you never thought about before, which could open up a whole new avenue of writing for you.

4. Open Your Eyes to Other Writing Ideas

What are other writers around you doing? What ideas are floating around on the web? What sorts of blog posts are you attracted to and why? Maybe these are posts that have nothing to do with writing, yet you could still find a way to work a different angle on the subject matter that would provide something fresh for your site.

How about books? What’s going on? The trend lately seems to be that shorter is better. Have you tried a novella? A book of short stories? If you haven’t, maybe that challenge would be just what you need to spark your writing energy.

You could also vary up the length on your blog posts or essays to challenge yourself. If you normally write short, try long, and vice-versa. Often times a challenge is just what we need to jolt us out of stale writing.

5. Think of Writing Like Recipes

If you spend any time in the kitchen, you know that it can be fun to experiment with new food and spice combinations. Especially on a pizza, right?

Why not apply the same idea to your writing? Brainstorm ideas of things you might try. Think of something you enjoy—horseback riding, maybe—and then combine it with an unusual genre, like science fiction. How might horseback riding be used in the future? What if horses evolve to be more intelligent than humans? Or what if in the future apocalypse, horses become the preferred method of transportation once again, but an extinction-level virus threatens the species?

Play around with things that intrigue you, and before long you’ll find yourself creating something entirely different—something that will help push your writing to the next level.

6. Get Back Out Into the World

Sometimes our writing goes stale because our lives have grown stale.

Ask yourself: are you spending most of your time tied to your computer? When was the last time you went someplace new, or did something different?

Often writers are so busy with writing, editing, proofing, publishing, launching, and marketing that there seems little time for anything else. But too much of that can lead to a stale mind, which naturally produces stale writing.

“Without going new places,” says writer Suzanne Gochenouer, “meeting new people, your writing veers into staleness. There’s nothing fresh in your stories. All your characters share the same life perspective. Your readers all say, ‘Ho hum.’”

Make a pact with yourself to shake things up. Take a weekend trip somewhere you’ve never gone before, even if it’s only an hour away. Try a new restaurant, hobby, or sport, or sign up for a class to learn something new. Add a bit of freshness into your life, and it will probably bleed into your writing, too.

7. Give Back to Yourself

Sometimes writing becomes stale because the writer is plain exhausted. If you’ve been going at it hard and heavy lately, consider taking a break. Grant yourself some “me” time in a serious way—like for longer than an hour. Think about what you could do that would make you happy, and then go do it.

Don’t forget to focus on resting your body as well as your mind. Take some long walks in the park. Breathe in some fresh air. Spend some time with a favorite pet. Move in new ways—dance, go boating down the river, or try some tai chi on the lawn. We ask a lot of our bodies and minds as writers—sometimes all we have to do is give back a little to restore the energy and imagination we need to make writing an adventure all over again.

How do you breathe life into stale writing?


Sources
DeMers, J. (2015, January 22). 3 Steps To Take When Your Content Becomes Stale. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jaysondemers/2015/01/21/3-steps-to-take-when-your-content-becomes-stale/#6e0d1ae0532e

Dick, J. (2017, July 21). Writing Getting Stale? Try a Different Genre | Serious Reading. Retrieved from https://seriousreading.com/blog/17036-writing-getting-stale-try-a-different-genre.html

Ember, S. (2015, February 10). Stale writing? 4 Underused Literary Devices: Aphorism, Hyperbole, Tmesis and Zeugma. Retrieved from https://sallyember.com/2014/11/18/stale-writing-4-underused-literary-devices-aphorism-hyperbole-tmesis-and-zeugma/

Gochenouer, S. (2016, October 5). How to Know When to Quit Writing. Retrieved from https://transformationaleditor.com/how-to-know-when-to-quit-writing/

Westenberg, J. (2017, July 24). 4 Ways To Make Sure Your Writing Is Not Getting Stale. Retrieved from https://medium.com/the-mission/10-ways-to-make-sure-your-writing-is-not-getting-stale-c0afa89a2288

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  1. Sharon Schnelle says:

    Great ideas, Colleen! Especially shaking things up, traveling, and going back to school. I found I love online classes in writing craft. New people to talk to virtually, where no one is judging you, just helping each other get better at writing. And part-way through every class, I find my muse grab my heart with her little hands and say, “Quick, get back to the office. I’m full of new ideas and I need you to write about them.” How can I say no? These classes fill me with energy, new insights and tips, a different way of looking at things, and a strong chomping at the bit to start a new story/article. No room for boredom or staleness when you shake, rattle and roll.

    • Colleen says:

      Wow, sounds like you found a great resource there, Sharon! Anything that gets the muse rocking and rolling has to be a good thing! :O)