Every day, you face a volley of excuses to quit writing: a market that’s glutted with competition and intimidating standards, responsibilities that monopolize your time, and shortages of ideas and motivation that drain your passion. Unless you can break past those discouragement-inducing factors, you’ll never finish a manuscript—or achieve publication.
Although writing may feel isolating, you’re not stranded alone in a desert that spans from page one to “the end.” As Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, once said, “Every writer I know has trouble writing.” All writers go through dry spells, and renewing your love for storytelling is possible. The solution is simple: write even when you’d rather sink into the sand instead of pushing through it, and you’ll stumble upon the oasis you’ve been searching for.
At my university, I’m a writing consultant. I help students turn unappealing assignments into papers they’re proud of. If someone who’s apathetic either toward writing or their topic can produce compelling material, so can you. All you need is a routine that’ll equip you to navigate the sometimes arid terrain of your imagination.
Teacher, author, and artist Julia Cameron describes the advantages of writing as a habit more beautifully than I can: “Doing it all the time, whether or not we are in the mood, gives us ownership of our writing ability. It takes it out of the realm of conjuring, where we stand on the rock of isolation, begging the winds for inspiration, and it makes it something as doable as picking up a hammer and pounding a nail. Writing may be an art, but it is certainly a craft. It is a simple and workable thing that can be as steady and reliable as a chore.”
You don’t need constant, explosive brainstorms to keep your fingers flitting across your keyboard. What you do need is direction and discipline. Dan Poynter, author of more than a hundred books on writing, publishing, and marketing, argues that “if you wait for inspiration to write, you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.” The secret to productivity is learning how to focus, and that requires an uncluttered mind. If you’re struggling to visualize the next segment of your work-in-progress, other priorities are probably distracting you. So allot yourself fifteen minutes to journal, pray, or take a walk. Once you’ve unpacked and set aside everything else that’s cramping your headspace, you’ll have room to interact with your characters and explore your plot.
If a lack of drive is holding you back, you can try the trick that a writing teacher suggested to me: treat writing like a relationship. Before you power on your computer, dress up as if you’re about to leave on a date. The advice may sound silly, but careful grooming tends to improve mood and confidence, and studies have shown that it can have a similar effect on job performance.
Exhaustion may be yet another reason that you’re intentionally (or unintentionally) letting other activities, even compulsive tics like checking social media, suck time away from your writing. But, again, you can prevent the lapse through planning. Josiah researched and compiled an entire article on balancing mental energy, so I’ll refer you to his tips instead of repeating the conclusions he drew.
A few years ago, I heard bestselling author Nancy Allen speak about how she used to be a hardcore pantser. Although she enjoyed the freedom it offered, she eventually had to change her approach because all of the plot bunnies she chased left too many holes behind.
As I mentioned earlier, writers need direction and discipline, and that applies to your method as much as your mindset. At minimum, you should chart all of your story’s main plot points and the structure of the scenes where those pivotal events occur. The more details you sketch out in advance, the less likely you’ll lose momentum.
If you’re a pantser, that doesn’t mean you have to abandon the flexibility you prefer. You can still make adjustments as you go and avoid being specific about how every incident will play out. But when you’re unsure what should happen next, you won’t stay stuck for long. At most, you’ll have to figure out how to connect two consecutive plot points—instead of two dozen loose threads.
3. Garbage Dumping
A blank page is like a pressure chamber where the barometer continues to rise until you form words and sentences. Even when you have a clear premise, the question of how you should execute it can be paralyzing. To relieve the stress, you need to listen to Hugo and Nebula award-winning author Nancy Kress: “Write. Just do it. Then again. Then some more. And more. Do not wait for inspiration; if you do enough of it often enough, inspiration will eventually come.”
Notice how she doesn’t stipulate that the results must be impressive. Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner echoes the sentiment: “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” You can edit or replace the text you forced out, no matter how awful it is. But you can’t siphon a masterpiece out of an empty document.
I’ve started more drafts with placeholders like “insert characteristic moment here” and “drop hook here” than I can count. Instead of stalling at the outset, I’m able to keep moving forward. Once I’ve become more familiar with the story, I can backtrack and fill in those gaps without straining.
4. Well-Being Checkup
The previous tips will cure small bouts of writer’s block, but when you’re stagnant for an extended period of time, a deeper issue within your story or personal life may be taxing you. Instead of (futilely) battling the urge to procrastinate, sit down with your journal or someone you trust and hash out possibilities about why you can’t write.
- Are you disconnected from your current project? Does a character or situation feel artificial? Is your level of spiritual growth insufficient to tackle the theme? Do you need a broader understanding of the people or places you’re representing?
- Are you overloaded at work and/or school? Upset over a family conflict, illness, or death? Do you get enough sleep each night and eat healthily? Have you recently experienced a disappointment that’s making you doubt yourself?
Wherever the interference is coming from, don’t lose hope. Edna Ferber insists that “life can’t defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for life itself is a writer’s lover until death.” Once you’ve identified the source of your problem, you’ll know how to counteract it.
- If you’re dealing with story challenges, you can revise the parts that are disengaging you, expand your research, experiment with new angles, or pursue an entirely different concept.
- If you’re dealing with life challenges, you can reorganize your schedule to reduce burnout, develop more effective coping strategies, or seek support from loved ones and counselors.
5. Returning to Your Why
Convincing yourself that storytelling has no value is easy but untrue (as Martin’s, Abbi’s, and Eliza’s articles demonstrate). When you’ve lost sight of your purpose and your spirit is downcast, pause to reflect on the last time your writing excited you. What topics or stages of the process brought on those positive emotions? If you haven’t crafted a mission statement, I’d recommend that you do so now, or you can sign onto the Christian Storytellers Manifesto that hundreds of writers have committed themselves to living out.
Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx explains that “you should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page.” Maybe you started writing because you couldn’t stop dreaming up fantastical worlds and adventures layered with meaningful symbolism. Maybe you wanted to comfort broken, lonely readers. Or maybe you hoped to provide children with wholesome books that don’t talk down to them. You were personally invested in each keystroke, and you felt called to share your ideals with anyone who’d loan you their attention. If you can revive that fervor, you’ll thrive again. As Jane Yolen, author of The Devil’s Arithmetic, puts it: “Love the writing, love the writing, love the writing…the rest will follow.”
Give Yourself Grace
Writing is grueling. Life is unpredictable. Some days, inspiration will be out of reach, and you’ll be too tired to stretch for it. Every writer (published and unpublished, famous and unknown) goes through slumps. Don’t beat yourself up. Instead, allow yourself to regroup and recharge.
If you’ve attempted everything on the above list and are still faltering, you may need to take a dedicated break. You can’t write stories that show others the Fountain of Life if you’re not filled with it too. Immerse yourself in Bible study and prayer. Remember that God is the first and ultimate creator, and even He rested for a day.
Allison Raymond has been captivated by stories for as long as she can remember. She was only eleven years old when she came to recognize writing as God’s purpose for her life. Although many years have passed since that moment, she has never doubted this purpose. Instead, she chooses to spend her time working hard to make her dream of becoming a published novelist a reality.
Allison grew up in Virginia, Illinois, and Oklahoma. She now lives in Missouri, where she is attending college in pursuit of a degree in Secondary English Education. In the future, she hopes to become a high school English teacher to share her passion for storytelling with aspiring young writers. Currently, she shares this passion on her personal blog and in a large number of her daily conversations.