We’ve all been struck by writer’s block at one point or another. We lament the shortage of words and wait impatiently for inspiration to return. But even when we’re unable to make progress on a project, most of us would rather die than voluntarily set down our pens. We bravely forge through any and all problems, determined to meet our goals.
But is that always a wise approach? Should writers ever step back instead of pushing forward? In certain situations, I believe that the answer is yes, and learning to recognize the warning signs saves writers from mental exhaustion.
1. Fear and Envy
Sometimes writers drive themselves for the wrong reasons. If you’re finding yourself fretting about publication, your writing quality, or people’s reception of your work, you may need to pause and examine your motives. Striving for improvement will bring you closer to success, but not if it consumes you.
God gave us our talents. Whether writing is a hobby or profession, remember that He’s the source of your creativity and focus on glorifying Him through it. Every writer’s journey and purpose is unique, but God does not want us to be anxious about what lies ahead. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Do you feel like you’re in a competition? When another writer reaches a milestone before you, does that spark jealousy? That’s not how you should react—read 1 Corinthians 12 to see God’s thoughts on different gifts and accomplishments. Rather than writing in a fervor to plunge ahead or beat someone else, pray for contentment with where God has placed you right now.
2. Burn Out
Though writers are legendarily fueled by coffee, in reality that’s unhealthy. We’re human. A runner can’t complete marathon after marathon without a reprieve, and neither can writers.
The Triple Crown is a series of horse races in rapid succession, and only thirteen entrants have ever won all three. These horses are champions, training and competing all their lives. Yet the trainers and jockeys allow the animals as much rest as possible between events so they don’t falter on the big day.
Writing consistently and honing your craft are good habits to form. But an endless sprint will wear you down instead of strengthening your skills. If you’re out of energy and ideas, take a break. You’ll likely return with a fresh game plan and renewed vigor for your story.
On the one hand, writing isn’t especially strenuous. We sit at a desk and move only our hands. On the other, writing is mentally taxing, and the sheer lack of physical activity can lead to fatigue, weight gain, and depression.
Writers need fresh air and exercise, and if you’re facing a health issue, your hiatuses may have to be longer than a few hours or days. Whether you have a fitness routine or just tend your garden daily, being active and soaking up sunshine will rejuvenate you physically, spiritually, and mentally.
My husband and I are currently expecting our second child, and I’m plagued with morning sickness (which is a misleading term since it happens all day). For the first few weeks, I struggled to update my blog regularly. The posts I did manage to write were poor quality. The computer screen made my head spin. So I decided to suspend blogging for the rest of the first trimester. No content was better than subpar content. I also cancelled my coaching sessions and ceased editing my WIP.
When I hit the second trimester, I’ll re-evaluate how I’m feeling. That doesn’t mean I won’t write if I have the urge and the stamina. But I’ve removed the pressure to meet certain deadlines and word counts. I know that’s better for me and the baby, and my latest chapter can wait until later.
Writers are stereotyped as reclusive, coffee-chugging zombies who stare at a computer screen until the wee hours of the morning. But when we aim to emulate that image, we’re buying into a myth. Sleep loss and caffeine won’t supercharge our writing. We’re more likely to produce sloppy work or damage our health so we can’t write another day.
Don’t hesitate to take care of yourself. The words you write can never be as important as you are as a human being.
Whether writing is a career or hobby, you should enjoy it. Of course you’ll experience blah days. A fourth round of micro edits is torture for anyone. But if writing constantly feels like a chore and stresses you out, that’s a signal you need to pull back.
Are your goals realistic? Recently, mine were not. I needed to rewrite one story, edit two others, and finish a first draft. Then queries, publication, and world domination. The obligations I’d piled on were suffocating me.
Since lightening my load, bits of inspiration have been popping into my head throughout the day. I jot down the ideas at leisure and have fun thinking about them as I do other tasks. When I feel up to writing, I’m confident that I’ll love it again.
5. Writer’s Block
While I generally encourage writers to maneuver around writer’s block, sometimes the underlying cause can’t be ignored. Maybe you’re stuck because the plot is broken or the protagonist is flat. You’ve spent hours engulfed in your fictional world, which can blind you to big picture issues. Letting a story stew for a while might bring the problems to the surface.
I hated the 25,000 words I wrote for my last story, “Mad Hatter.” I loved the premise, but the draft I was churning out didn’t do it justice. So I quit for several weeks. During that time, I filled out a couple character worksheets, brainstormed, and examined my three-act structure. Finally I realized that the story needed to be in first person, not third. I changed the POV, then proceeded with my new course of action, and now I have a version I’m excited about.
If I hadn’t stepped away from the story, I might have slogged through an entire first draft and loathed it so much by the end that I abandoned it. Instead, I found a clearer direction.
There is a time and a place to set writing aside. But usually it’s temporary. If you’re passionate about writing and feel called to do it, nothing should shut you down permanently.
Writers often have an all-or-nothing mentality. If they can’t write all the words, they won’t write any. Don’t use a break as an excuse to give up. Replenish your energy and brainpower however necessary, then pour out those stories, articles, and poems. Learn new techniques and grow. Stretch yourself, but know your limits. You got this.
Maddie Morrow grew up with her mom reading to her and her dad telling stories about cowboys hunting Bigfoot. The combination sparked her love of writing early, and she’s been lost in her notebooks ever since. Aside from writing, she enjoys loud music, good horses, and hardcover books. She lives on a farm in Nebraska with her husband and children. Her Gaslamp novella, Red as Blood, won the 2018 Snow White retelling contest hosted by Rooglewood Press, and it released in December 2018 with the Five Poisoned Apples collection.