Sometimes hearing the well-meaning words “Just Write!” can be more infuriating than helpful. I get it. It’s not always as simple as just write. If it was, then I wouldn’t hear from so many writers who are having trouble finishing their first drafts. And quite frankly, I wouldn’t struggle with it as much as I do, either. But the good news is that if you do suffer from not being able to get words on the page, it just means you’re normal, you’re human! And there is something you can do about it.
If you’ve written for any length of time, you know that getting the words down is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, it can be almost as dreadful as the thought of pulling a bad tooth with rusty pliers. Not that I pull teeth with rusty pliers, but you get my meaning.
Since I struggle with getting words on the page probably as often as you, if not more, I’m going to share a few things I’ve learned along the way to combat this very frustrating problem. Strategies that work.
Let’s start first by looking at what is actually happening in our brains.
According to this article in Farnam Street, Hyperbolic Discounting and the Science of Procrastination, “human motivation is highly influenced by how imminent the reward is perceived to be.”
In other words, our brains are wired for reward, but if the payout is too far in the future, if there’s too much distance between the difficult task and the actual reward for doing it, then the reward is not as valuable. This phenomenon is often referred to as present bias. And if the reward for doing something difficult doesn’t hold much value, then we won’t be as driven to do the challenging work. That’s when procrastination sets in.
Think about it: How often do you find yourself on social media, checking email, or even playing a video game instead of writing? Or maybe you hop over to Google to look something up and then next thing you know you’re down a rabbit hole? We do this because these options provide an immediate dopamine reward unlike writing, whose reward is much further in the future.
So what can you do about this?
To become a more consistent writer, try setting yourself up with smaller, more immediate rewards. When you do this, you’ll be less likely to push the more difficult work aside. The reward doesn’t have to be anything big or expensive. It can be as simple as a walk in the park. It just has to be something that holds value for you.
Next, take a good hard look at your schedule and determine where you can block off some time. Be sure to block off time for play and for writing. Yes, I said play. Schedule your downtime, your Netflix binge time, your reading in the bubble bath time, whatever it is, be sure you make time for it. Then I want you to block off time to write. Your goal should be a minimum of 10-minute blocks, but no more than 45-minute blocks. Remember, for every 45 minutes of focused work, you’re going to need a 15 minute break.
Getting your schedule worked out and a reward system in place will get the words flowing easier. But never fear, I have a few other tools in my arsenal to help you get top-notch results.
One thing I find especially helpful when the words won’t come is to change my writing location. Sometimes I work inside the house, in my office, outside on the deck or in the hammock, coffee shops, and even in the car sitting by the water. For example, I wrote this creative nonfiction piece sitting in my car at the edge of the ocean. There’s something about a change of scenery that rattles the cobwebs loose.
Another thing I find helpful is to plan what I’m going to write about the night before. This may be as simple as jotting down some thoughts or it can be as in-depth as a full-blown outline. It all depends on the project and where my head’s at at the time.
How about music? Do you like listening to music while you write? If you haven’t already, give it a try. Choose a playlist that’s not too intrusive or that won’t give you the urge to jump up and start dancing or singing. A lot of people recommend music with no lyrics. Personally, it doesn’t matter if it has lyrics. For me it’s the style of music. I have different styles I prefer for different types of writing. For instance, right now I’m listening to an 80s playlist. It’s a good choice because I know the songs so well I won’t be tempted to stop and actively listen. The songs aren’t a distraction, but instead they stay in the background, keeping the distractible part of my brain busy so I can focus on writing.
If you’re having trouble getting words on the page, give these strategies a try. They work.
Want to dive into this topic more deeply? Want the support and guidance of a focused group as you set out to write your novel? Write with Courage is the first in a series of workshops designed to catapult you forward into the successful writer you were born to be. Click hereto join my list for more details.