When You Should Stop Slogging Through Writing

When You Should Stop Slogging Through Writing

When I came to write my opening note for today’s guest poster, I realized that if I started by saying “I like Ali Hale” one more time, someone would probably shoot me. So I won’t say it. You can’t make me. I will say, though, that Ali’s post was coincidentally timed – though you’ll have to tune in next week to learn why. Until then, read and enjoy.

The following is a brief, geeky digression. (Can it be called a “digression” before I even begin? Call it a prologue, if you want.)

Back in my misspent youth, I invested more hours than I care to admit in an online roleplaying game. There were orcs and goblins and all kinds of fantasy monsters.

In a roleplaying game, you played a character that had a bunch of stats and a level. To get to the next level, you needed experience points. To get experience points, you bashed monsters.

You bashed monsters for hours. You bashed monsters by hitting keys on your keyboard whilst wondering if you could hook up a nodding bird à la Homer Simpson. You bashed monsters while watching the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, extended edition.

It was called grinding. And I cannot adequately convey its tediousness. And pointlessness. (Hey, I’ll spent all evening hitting some buttons so that a number in a database somewhere slooowly goes up.)

My point? If your writing ever starts to feel like a daily grind, it’s time to STOP.

I’m not saying that you should stop writing for good. You’d lose a crucial part of your life (and your income, if your writing forms all or part of your paid work).

I’m saying that if your writing is just an endless slog to fill blank pages with little black marks, something’s gone wrong.

When you sit down to write, do you feel excited? Do you have something you’re keen to say or to share? Or are you just thinking about hitting your target word count, churning out that blog post, ticking off that task on your to-do list?

There’s a school of writing – call it writers’ boot camp – that tells you things like:

  • You must write every day.
  • You should set a target and challenge yourself to exceed it.
  • It’s all about getting your butt in the chair.
  • Writers’ block is just laziness

Now, there’s some truth in these bits of advice, otherwise we’d never listen to them. It really does help to get into a routine of sitting down every day to write. While total writers’ block may be a reality for some individuals, for most of us we’re just stuck on a particular project.

But self-discipline only gets you so far, and it isn’t going to make you a great writer.

The tricky thing with self-discipline is that it can feel good. We’re proud of our grueling writing regime. We boast on Twitter about the number of blog posts we’ve written in a day. (Yeah, I’m guilty of this). We post our novel word count on our blog or on Facebook.

Having accountability in that way can definitely help drive us towards our goals. But self-discipline is a cold and joyless way to write. It’s a useful tool if you really truly need to get something done (looming deadline), but it’s not a long-term strategy.

In my experience, enthusiasm beats self-discipline any day.

If I want to sit down and write a scene for my novel or a blog post or a new chapter of my ebook, then it flows easily. If I make myself sit there and write it, I get distracted. I stare at the screen, watching the well of words dry up. I make progress of a sort, but the finished piece lacks something.

So how do you stop relying on self-discipline and find your lost enthusiasm?

Well, if you’re a writer, you probably enjoy writing. You might not be enjoying it today or this week, but at some point, you loved it. When I was a kid, I dreamt of making a living through writing. I still wake up some mornings surprised that now I do.

I love the magic of words. I love that my black marks on the screen put pictures into your head. I love that I get emails and comments telling me that a blog post came at just the right time. I love that I’m more eloquent in writing than I am in speech. I love being able to find just the right word for the job. I love the nuances words have and the associations they carry.

What do you love about words and writing? There’s something. Find it – dig back to being a kid or a teen or a student or a beginner – and remember why words are precious to you.

On my creative writing MA, we’re often encouraged to remember why we’re writing. We have stories to tell. We have something worth hearing. Writing is a form of communication, and there’s a person on the receiving end.

Sometimes writing does feel like a slog, I’ll be honest. There’ll be times when writing is like a fantastic quest to dig up buried treasure … and other times it feels like you’re in the middle of a very long, dull journey along a flat, grey road with not even a marauding goblin to break the tedium.

If you write for a living, you may well end up writing on projects that aren’t exactly thrilling to you. The trick is to find some way to make it interesting.

  • Look for a new angle for your next blog post, anything from a clever running metaphor to an “anti-advice” style of post where you tell people what not to do.
  • Pick a writing constraint, like not using the letter “e” in a piece. This is a great way to stretch your vocabulary and your ingenuity.
  • Think about your reader. However dry the content, someone will eventually read it. Make your words as clear and straightforward as possible for that person.

Give yourself sufficient space for your writing. If you tend to over-plan, make a real effort not to cram too much into one day – especially if you’re working on multiple ideas, like several blog posts. Sometimes, all that you need to find some enthusiasm is to give yourself a little more space.

Above all, let writing be fun. Give yourself time to play with words – not with any productive end-result in mind, just for the joy of it. Play with writing in the way you’d fiddle around with a guitar or with finger-paint or with Lego blocks.

What drew you to words in the first place? What do you love about writing?

Want more great advice to get you back to writing productivity? Check out Constructively Productive, a brand new blog devoted to getting the most out of your day, brought to you by Ali Hale and Thursday Bram.

Post by Agent X

Agent X is the name many mysterious and intriguing people take on when they guest post at our site. Their mission is to slip in like a thief in the night, leave you with entertaining, valuable and useful content, and slip away again - without getting caught.

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  1. Great post. When I wrote my first novel (and only mention first because I just started the second) I did it every day for 6 weeks and though it was discipline that go the job done, the act of writing and creating was such a joy to me that I didn’t mind the days that I “slogged” through it. And even when I was dragging my feet, there was never a day that I had to force myself to write. I wanted to.

    But I’m a lazy procrastinator by heart so that is something I have to battle too.

    My current issue is having faith in myself that I can write and that I am good at it… my opinion wavers daily and relies too heavily on what others think. Re-reading my first draft, though I cringed in many places and seriously wanted to slap my main character sometimes for being a bit too like “me” (not in a good way), I found myself intrigued by a story I wrote. So maybe in the end, if I can’t be a good writer, at least I can enjoy reading what I wrote.

    Totally off-topic, but anyway, glad to have found your blog :)

  2. I love the fact that anyone with an Internet connection is on an even playing field. If you want to write, you can write. If you want to publish what you’ve written, you’re just a few clicks away.

    By writing more for yourself, it becomes easier to write more for others. That may sound strange, but personal enthusiasm really does beat self-discipline. Writers’ boot camp becomes second nature. You *want* to write every day, you challenge yourself regardless, you choose to get your butt in the chair, and a writing block is just a time to take a breather.

    As always, a great post Ali.

  3. Mary E. Ulrich says:

    There are some interesting ideas and new words (for me) in your post. I’m guessing there is at least one poet/wordsmith in our community who will now use slog, blog, grind, grinding in some Haiku or other freeverse…. James, maybe a chorus refrain, or two????

    You are right, it is all about a writer’s desire to tell a story–the more fun, the more enthusiasm, the more connection between the writer and the reader.

    What story can I tell today? (smile)

  4. Great post Ali, I’m definitely guilty of cramming too much writing in one day and I don’t always let myself play, which is why writing songs and stories tend to come low on the list because I know I need a lot more space to feel around them.

    But it is a bug, and I love it and will always be addicted to it!
    .-= Amy Harrison´s last blog ..Queens Park Books Brighton Hiring for Website Project =-.

  5. Hey Ali,

    These are some awesome points buddy. Excellent post. I love this point “I love that my black marks on the screen put pictures into your head.”

    Thanks for sharing this great post. Great work. Keep it up.


  6. Wonderful post here.

    No matter how small, I push myself to do some kind of writing. I don’t always get as much done as I want, but I believe in small victories. Everyday, I have inspiration to write something for me or for business.

    I came into writing for many reasons. The last few years has not only been how I can express my voice in words, but also how I can give a voice to my 4 year old special needs daughter.

    Writing is therapy for my life. Without it, I would be in a deep and dark place – always trying to escape.
    .-= George Passwater´s last blog ..Do You Know This Secret Ingredient to Better Writing? =-.

  7. I think inspiration plays a major role so you don’t end up getting into a rut where your writing feels like grinding.

    It’s difficult sometimes to sit down and write an article off the top of your head when you’re really trying to think of an idea. I think if you remain open throughout the day (looking at great design, listening to music, talking to people) writing seems to come naturally once you get the one good idea, the one spark that puts you into a good writing mood.
    .-= Murlu´s last blog ..Insights And Interviews: Jonathan Beebe Of MMO Work =-.

  8. @Murlu – There’s a post coming up right here on MwP in a week or so about that rut and writing feeling like a grind – I think you’ll like it :)

    @George – I love that writing provides that outlet and ‘therapy’. I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that I’ve felt blessed I could write words that make a difference in how I face the world.

    @Dev – I cried at that sentence Ali wrote. I thought *MY* black marks were what she loved most! Lies… all lies… *sobs*

    @Amy – Part of the reason why I keep my creative writing site alive is to have that break place where I can go have fun and just love the visual impact I can create with words. Glad to hear you have that too!

    @Mary –

    James was a writer who wrote
    He poled across bogs in a boat.
    It was never a slog
    ‘Cuz he had a nice dog
    Who serenaded at each passing moat

    Right. More coffee, eh? 😉

    @Martin – There’s nothing like a good challenge, eh?

    @Wanderlust – The thing about not being sure if we write well is that very often, there’s not really a person who can tell us if we’ve done that great job. Writing is so subjective that I feel (and this is just me here) that only you can tell you if you’ve done that job well.

  9. I was thinking about this today when I was reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” to my 13-year-old. The WHY of writing. Harper Lee had an awesome story to tell. A big story, but it was small too. Small town/Big issues. I tend to write small stories. I am looking for the big issues too! To make it meaningful. http://gettingmyessayspublished.wordpress.com/
    .-= MaryBeth´s last blog ..PDF Submission =-.

  10. “how do you stop relying on self-discipline and find your lost enthusiasm?”
    That right there seems a topic ripe for creation Ali! I love that sentence.

    I’ve been following MWP for years, and yet for some reason I still consider myself a writer. It’s likely because I try the self-discipline route.

    Thanks Ali, good post :) “It came at the right time”.
    .-= Shawn Christenson´s last blog ..I Have Nothing Incredible that I Designed or Built. =-.

  11. It’s true, some people have a strangely masochistic approach to writing. I’ve always been reluctant to criticize it, b/c I don’t want to sound arrogant for never having to force myself to do what I love. But now that you’ve let the cat out of the bag, I think I’ll start being more vocal. Do what you love. Writing is at its best when the effort is genuine. Great post.

  12. I’ve just gotta point out my unconscious slip up. I meant to say ‘I Don’t Consider myself a writer’. And I dropped the ‘don’t’ – guess today is the day I consider myself a writer. Look what you did Ali!

  13. @Shawn – LOL, you go, dude. Welcome to Writers Associated. :)

  14. Awesome post and yes, it did come at just the right time for me. I’ve been noticing recently that sometimes when I sit down to write a new post, I have to force myself to do it. So thanks for the reminder of why I became a writer in the first place. :o)

  15. There are probably as many ways to be productive as there are people on the planet (possibly more), and yet we keep trying to find the one way that will work. I’m not a member of the write at the same-time-every-day school of writing, but sometimes I wonder if I should be.

    What I like about this post, Ali is that it doesn’t preach “this is the way it must be done.” Instead it says to follow what you’re comfortable with.

  16. Timeless advice…there are times where I would stare blankly at the white screen of death with drool running down my mouth. Thank you so much for injecting the serum of joy in writing back into my system. :)
    .-= Griffin´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesdays =-.

  17. Wow, cheers all, great response!

    @Wanderlust – My main character started out as a kind of idealised version of me. (My bad guy started out as me on a really crap day…) I think it’s something most writers have to work through. On some level, *all* our characters are pretty much us. After all, your own head is the only one that you can see inside of.

    @Martin – Thanks! I agree, I write faster (and better) when I’m actually keen on what I’m doing. When I just push myself through it, I can get it done, but it’s not a long-term strategy.

    @Mary – Should I be thanking you for inspiring James’s haiku or not..? 😉 (I’m quite fond of the word “slog”, there’s a certain onomatopoeic quality to it.)

    @Amy – Almost all the writers I know — the ones who write a LOT and consistently — say that it’s something they *have* to do. I know that’s the case for me. I can’t imagine not writing!

    @Dev – Total tangent here, but you might like Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series for a very clever, creative take on the power of words. Particularly “The Well of Lost Plots”.

    @George – I think writing can be extremely powerful as a tool for expression and as an outlet when life is dark. I’m glad you’ve found that, and hope it continues being a way forwards for you.

    @Murlu – Yep, inspiration definitely helps! I often find that a conversation (either one that I have, or an overhead one) can spark an idea.

    @James – I love your black marks too. Honest. They’re all, you know, black. (I want more drive by shootings. I miss those!)

    @Shawn – You wrote it now! Too late to take it back! Dude, if you write, you’re a writer. There’s no test. No barriers. Go claim it. :-)

    @Mark – I don’t think you sound arrogant! I do think that most of us will have moments when writing feels like beating our heads against a brick wall … but there has to be considerably more to it than that. I’m always a bit dismayed, too, when people treat writing as though it’s washing dishes.

    @Mokibobolink – I find that telling myself “I don’t *have* to post today” helps. Sure, I try to post twice a week on my Aliventures blog, but I’ve had weeks where I’ve posted nothing, and guess what? No-one’s ever complained…

    @Adam – I’d say, try the “write every day at the same time” thing and see if it works for you. At the moment, I’m writing my novel redraft most mornings from (very roughly) 8 am – 9.30am. It’s not a “I must do this” thing, it’s more like “woo, I get to play with my novel while my brain is still fresh and uncluttered with emails and to-do list stuff”.

    Having said that, I’ll always hit a day when I just don’t feel like writing. That’s cool. It’s when my subconscious works for me.

    @Griffin – Drool and keyboards don’t mix. 😉
    .-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..Four Steps to Making the Most of Information Products =-.

  18. My good friend is a writer and only writes from 5am to 11am and spends the rest of the day adminstrative tasks. Why? Because that is when her juices are flowing and she finds the words come freely.
    .-= Frank´s last blog ..The new MP30 music projector from Australian Monitor has arrived! =-.

  19. You have valid points here. I hate writing boot camps as it feels like being pressured to write. This is why I don’t keep regular work hours when I do so. So far, I’ve never miss a deadline and I come up with a copy that my clients love. I think you can say that writers do get burned out too. I guess, a little break won’t do harm – take a stroll in the park, go out with friends, party, or have a shopping spree just to break the monotony of things. Sometimes, when you do so, you’ll get fresh ideas for your next writing gig.
    .-= Issa´s last blog ..Setting Work Boundaries as a Freelancer =-.

  20. Your advice about writing is very helpful. I am a freelance writer and sometimes I write on projects that aren’t really interesting to me. But I managed to finish the project by self-discipline. Thanks for telling that enthusiasm beats discipline. I am now trying to find my lost enthusiasm. Before, every time I’m about to write something, I always end up having a writer’s block and spent a couple of minutes just staring at the pen I’m holding…thinking, thinking and thinking how to start my piece. Sometimes, self-motivation is also important. I make sure to make writing fun by making my desk look happy and organized, using my favorite pen, or thinking about happy thoughts. After all, motivation, discipline and enthusiasm make anyone a great writer.

  21. Thanks, Valerie, glad it helped! I like your tips for making writing fun … I have a fountain pen which I love to use, it’s got a great weight to it and a nice smooth flow. Funny how such little things can somehow trigger our mental state into happiness!
    .-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..Balancing Work and … Work =-.

  22. Do you have any suggestions for someone whose motivation and interests waver quite a bit? I write for my job, and my personal blog. My personal blog has become a total chore, and I think it’s because I wrote too professionally (and at work).
    .-= Paul Kwiatkowski´s last blog ..Email Marketing Basics =-.


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  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rebecca Hargreaves, Mark Anthony Lopez. Mark Anthony Lopez said: On masochism and writing: Don't combine the two. http://is.gd/crHrc #amwriting #writing #novel […]

  3. […] There is no commitment. Since you're not paying for it or utilizing any other services you can stop and start writing whenever you want. If you try it and don't like it you don't have to feel bad stopping. […]

  4. […] I’m not going to say that that thing I’m not supposed to say, but I might as well give up on calling Ali Hale a guest poster. She’s more like a Featured […]

  5. […] I like to write with. The flair. The fast and snappy, the confidence and cockiness. I remembered what I loved about words. I remembered that I liked quipping little jokes and being casual. I remembered that when I was […]

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