Almost every writer successful enough to gain a platform to talk about such things prescribes setting a consistent writing time. So, desiring to be a successful writer yourself, and maybe even a good one, you set aside a block of time to write. You look forward to it. You have visions of filling up all of that time with productivity, swinging words and sentences into place like a discus thrower.
Then your writing time arrives. You get your tea/coffee/water/snack and settle in to write.
Some days it goes really well and you can write the whole time you have set aside. Other days…not so much. You stare at the paper/screen and nothing happens. It’s like your writing brain switched off by itself and you don’t know how to turn it back on. Suddenly you start remembering all kinds of unrelated things, like how long it’s been since you cleaned the bathroom, or you black out and when you come to, you find yourself deep in a Wikipedia wormhole of research gone wrong, or writing a blog post.
There will always be days on which we are less likely to produce new words. A variety of factors can affect this (sleep, time of day, energy already expended, preoccupation, stress, etc.). For whatever reason you find yourself unable to write. The good news is, there are lots of legitimate alternative ways to engage with your work without actually generating new combinations of words and recording them.
Here are some of my favorite writing alternatives for slow days:
- Take notes. This is a close relative of writing, but it takes the edge off, because you aren’t WRITING the real project. You’re writing ABOUT the project. I use this often to figure out what exactly I’m thinking about and then to sort through all of those thoughts on the paper. This tactic often leads me into writing the project.
- Draw. Sometimes words hold us back. Yes, even us writers. Sketching a character, setting, object, or map of something involved in your project is a way to get your head in the game without actually writing. I usually discover something new about an aspect of my project when I engage with it in shapes instead of words.
- Timeline/Outline. Starting with the beginning of what you know, outline the events of the story or the sequence of your argument as far ahead as you can. It doesn’t have to all come true. In fact, play around with different variations. See what makes the most sense, what makes the least sense, and why. The goal here isn’t to nail down all the events of a story; it’s to get you interacting with your project, so don’t be alarmed if you feel you can’t stick to the outline later on. You don’t have to!
- Flow Charts. This is one of my favorites. I do this whenever I get stuck on a character’s next decision. I draw the decision at the top of a very big sheet of paper, and then map all the potential reactions she could have below. Then I follow each of those reactions as far as I can based on who she is and her central desire. You could use this with anything you’re unsure about that you can see many options for.
- Meditate/Apply Intense Brainpower. Maybe there’s a particular spot you’re unsure about, or you don’t know what happens next, or who a character is. You’re stuck. A ton of thinking and decision making is involved in writing. On some days, it is enough to spend time thinking about the project. Turn off the lights, close the door, sit, and just think about it. Do this for a really long time. Until A) Your writing time is up, or B) You feel the urge to write. I’ve solved many a twisted plot problem this way.
- Take Time Off. This is the last resort. Even so, skipping one day will not end your career as a writer. In fact, scientific research about the creative process suggests that our biggest breakthroughs happen when we step away from a project to give our subconscious mind time to work it out. Time is an essential ingredient to writing. So go do the dishes, clean the bathroom, take a walk. When your brain has a solution, it’ll bring it forward for your inspection. And if a breakthrough doesn’t occur, at least you’ve cleaned or gotten exercise. Tomorrow is a new day with new writing opportunities.
I’m sure there are lots of other ways to write without writing. If I missed your favorite, let me know! I can always use new tricks.
Whatever it takes to keep us at our desks…