I’m a sucker for good strategies. This is a helpful obsession to have in general, but it’s proven especially effective in my development as a writer and as a mentor to other writers.
The first two questions I ask of the writers I work with are:
- Are you writing every day?
- If not, do you wish that you were?
The answer to the first is almost always no, and the answer to the second is almost always yes.
So why aren’t they writing?
The common solution I see proposed to young writers is they just need to develop “good writing habits” and then they’ll be on their way.
Write 15 minutes a day for a week, then 30 the next week, and so on, until you’ve eased yourself into “good writing habits.” Find yourself an accountability partner so you can keep one another on your toes. Give yourself deadlines.
All good ideas. Unfortunately, I rarely see this plan of attack work.
So what’s getting in the way? Can we take something as ambiguous and all-encompassing as “procrastinating” or “writer’s block” and find real solutions to getting you in front of the note pad/computer/rock and chisel/overpriced antique brass typewriter?
I’d like to think so.
And it all comes down to getting your brain right first. So here are 7 reasons you’re not writing and solutions for them that will get your head in the game.
You Think You Don’t Have Time.
If you don’t have time to write, it’s only because writing is not yet a priority for you. This can be because you don’t want to write as much as you think you do, or because Life with a capital L needs your full attention right now. If you often find yourself saying “I hate writing, but I love having written,” you’re likely in the first camp. In that case you may want to quit writing and find something you enjoy doing, because you’ll have a lot more fun. If you’re in the latter camp, give yourself a break. Writing will be waiting for you when you’re ready.
As for the rest of you. You’ve got time.
Remember: You get to decide how to spend your free time. Set a timer for 15 minutes. And don’t write. Meditate. Read a book. Paint a portrait. Watch videos on YouTube. Go for a walk. Do anything you want to that you don’t HAVE to do. The timer will count down no matter what you’re doing. The time is there.
There are myriad apps you can use to help manage your time, so I’ll spare you a lecture on how you’re spending too much time on Instagram. (But if you’re looking for more help on time management, check out the StayFocused Google Chrome extension to block out pesky distractions).
Now to address the more sneaky reasons for why you’re not knocking out more pages…
You Think The Well is Dry.
You want to be writing, but you’re not sure what to say. Or you’ve written one script and aren’t sure there’s another one in you.
This dilemma often wins the lofty title of “writer’s block,” but I hate that phrase, and that’s not the problem. Your struggle isn’t that you don’t know what to write. It’s that you don’t know how to find out what you want to write.
Carve out time to unearth your next story. Give yourself 2-4 weeks between wrapping up one project and starting the next. Officially blocking off time for this process gives even more legitimacy to the internal work done during it.
Compile ideas, themes, character seeds, half-ideas, twists and titles and look for patterns. Write out a rough logline for your favorite ideas. Then flesh out each idea as much as you can. Eventually you’ll zero in on 2-3 ideas that you can’t stop thinking about.
You Think Writing is Only Writing.
Brainstorming is writing. Outlining is writing. Researching is writing. Staring at a wall is writing (kind of). You’re wasting time and energy if you’re kicking yourself every time you’re not literally adding to your finished page count.
Check off a box every time you do anything related to the writing process. Checking off that box feels good, and the more momentum you subconsciously build by acknowledging all of the steps in the process, the more your writing will feel like one cohesive journey.
Once you rewire your semantics, you’ll stop worrying about the official 1st draft pages, and you’ll get to enjoy your productivity at every step of the writing process. So stop feeling bad for spending an hour on Nameberry to properly christen your next protagonist. It’s all part of the process.
You’re Afraid To Start.
Fear of failure. Fear of success. They can both paralyze a writer from moving between the brainstorming/outlining steps of writing into an actual first draft. Like Schrodinger’s Cat, your idea can maintain a quantum state of perfection if it stays in your brain, but once you put it to the page, you’ll find out if it’s alive or dead.
Consider writing guru Anne Lamott’s epically beautiful essay “Shitty First Drafts.” You can read the full essay HERE.
You must deal with the fact that your baby steps into your project will not look polished or beautiful for weeks or months to come. It’s gonna be ugly to start, and there’s a chance it may never look as perfect as it was in your head. But the sooner you let your first outlines and first drafts be messy and imperfect, the sooner you can revise them and make them even better.
You’re Not Having Fun.
You’ve got a great idea, and you’re putting it on the page! …But it’s missing something. The process has become a slog, and you’ve stopped writing. How do you breathe life back into a project that’s giving you trouble?
Give your protagonist a gift. Writers often create protagonists similar to themselves. And because of this, newer writers can sometimes default to making their protagonists too safe or too likable, since they identify with them so much. So heighten your hero’s attributes. Give them quirks and traits and flaws that will make us want to follow this protagonist. Give them a trigger that always gets them into trouble, a world view they can’t help talking about, a guilty pleasure they can’t control. Make them want their goals 10 times harder. Once you separate your protagonist from yourself, you can make them more awkward, more flawed, more troublesome, and across the board more fun to watch.
Tap into the tone you love. Are you writing a drama but your favorite shows to watch are all on Cartoon Network? Make a list of your favorite moments from TV and films. The wonder on Charlie’s face walking into the candy room in Wonka’s factory for the first time. Or Peter Parker discovering his powers for the first time in Spiderman. Sean telling Will it’s not his fault in Good Will Hunting. This list should clue you into the types of stories you want to tell. If the script you’re working on now doesn’t include a moment like the ones you’re listing, step back and consider why it’s not there and if it can be added.
You’re Trying To Do Too Much.
You’ve got four hours set aside for writing today, and you know how you want to spend it. You just need to outline a new script, do a full revision of another, write new character bios, rewrite your logline, flesh out your series trigger and dilemma, and punch up your dialogue.
But for some reason, you freeze when it comes time to start. Or worse, you avoid your laptop, choosing instead to clean the kitchen or maybe do some laundry. Suddenly you’re two hours into your writing time, in a tidy house, but lacking any focus.
Focus! Don’t just pick one thing to focus on. Go through your writing to-do list and actively decide what items you’re not going to spend time on today. Once you let your brain off the hook for those, it will be a lot easier to focus on the task you are going to tackle.
You’re Trying Too Hard.
If you’re trying to take on a new habit, and your sole resource is your willpower, you won’t last long. Your willpower is finite, and the habits we already have in our bodies are so ingrained that it will take more than just wanting to change to shake things up a bit.
Bad habits are hard to break, and good ones are hard to start, but one fancy life hack into finally making a change is to hijack an existing good habit you have, with the new one you want to add to your life. Let the ingrained pattern of an ongoing habit or activity in your life give momentum to your change.
If you drive, dictate notes into your phone that can be written out later. If you take public transit, bring a legal pad and write during your commute. Go to work early and knock out some pages before you officially start your day. Put a pen and notebook by your coffeepot or kettle so the next time you pour a cup you can knock a few ideas down on the page.
Most importantly, stop giving yourself a hard time that your willpower alone was not enough to set new habits. Once you stop judging yourself, you’ll have more energy to check out the rest of these solutions and transform your mindset about writing into one more tool that helps you get things done.
Liz Thompson is a screenwriter and freelance development consultant. She has one show currently in development, is featured on The BitchList 2020, and won the 2019 Tracking Board Launch Pad Julian Silver mentorship. In between outlining and pitching she runs The Writer’s ARC group on Facebook, and on Twitter she’s @howtoliz.