This year, for the first time since graduating from college, I took a substantial amount of time off from writing. I don’t just mean a week or two after finishing a round of revisions. I don’t mean a month where I gently tinkered with side-projects. I mean a full-blown 4 months where I wrote ZERO new words.
After a long break like that, getting back into the groove of writing was…difficult. And I’m sure if you’ve ever taken a long break from writing, you’ve experienced the same thing. Feeling like you’ve forgotten how words work. Feeling like sitting down in front of the keyboard is some kind of strange torture you’ve decided to inflict on yourself. Feeling like there is no longer enough time in each day–seriously, where is all the time going?
But I am here to tell you that yes, it is difficult, and yes, it can be emotionally draining, but it is totally possible to build up your writing habit again.
1. Get excited
Taking time away from writing can be great–you can recharge, refill your creative well, and get re-invigorated about all your great ideas! When I’m transitioning from “fallow periods” (times when I’m not writing regularly) I like to focus my first couple days on getting myself pumped for whatever work is in front of me. Drafting a new project? Why not make a pinterest board or a playlist? Revising an already-written draft? Re-read all your favorite parts from the last draft, and jot down all the reasons you love your book.
Be careful though that you’re not using these things to procraste–the point is to get excited about the work you’re about to do, not put it off indefinitely.
2. Start small
After taking time away from writing, it can be easy to trick yourself into thinking you’re faster/better/more productive than you really are. Today, you will think to yourself, I am WRITING. That means I will sit down and 3,000 words will come spilling out immediately.
And maybe that happens for some of you, but it rarely happens for me. Instead, my first couple days back at writing, it can be a huge struggle just to sit down and get focused. And if I’m expecting myself to write 2,000 words or revise six chapters, it’s really, really easy to get demoralized when that doesn’t happen.
Instead, I have to lowball myself on what I can accomplish each day. Just find a solution to this ONE plot-hole. Don’t think about the 500 other things you need to fix. Just sit down and write ONE scene. Don’t think about all the ones that come after it.
The point is to break everything down into pieces. Sure, revamping that one character’s entire emotional arc sounds daunting–but what if you just focus on a single scene? Drafting a 2,000 word chapter seems impossible–but what if you sit down and just write 100 words?
3. Stick to a Routine
Habit and routine go hand in hand. For me, one of the biggest hang-ups I had when getting back into my writing groove was my lack of willpower. I felt like I had lost the ability to carve out writing time and stick to it. And when I did sit down to work, my productivity was all over the place. One day I would knock out 3 chapters, and then get absolutely nothing for the next week. Working in these fits and starts was frustrating to say that least, and at some point I started to wonder if my motivation was just somehow broken.
That’s when I decided to change my strategy. Instead of focusing on everything I needed to accomplish and how many words I needed to spit out, I focused solely on building my routine. Making sure I was sitting down to write on the days I said I would, regardless of how productive I was that day, or had been the day before. I put all my energy into showing up to write, and none of it into worrying about the work itself.
It was definitely hard at first. Nothing kills motivation more than feeling like you’re spending a whole lot of time getting a whole lot of nothing done. But I kept at it.
The turning point came one Friday evening when I came home from work exhausted with a low-grade headache. I laid down for about 20 minutes and decided. Fuck it. I’m gonna watch Netflix tonight. I can always write tomorrow. But then I had another thought: “Katy, if you don’t do at least a little bit of writing now, getting started tomorrow morning is going to be so much harder. You’ll have lost all the momentum you had this week, and it’ll take you all day just to get it back.”
Ok, I decided: I’ll do a little bit of writing. Just an hour. And then tomorrow I’ll get real work done.
So I sat down and started fiddling with one scene. When I looked up, three hours had passed and I’d gotten through three chapters of edits. The next day I got through five more.
After a while, the stamina returned. The routine was second nature. And that’s when I could truly start to work.
4. Take breaks
“Wait, wait, hold on. You just said to push through and build routine and blah blah blah. Now I’m supposed to take a break?”
Well, yes. As my favorite fictional russian figure skater once said, “Rest is a part of work.”
It is crucial to be aware of your limitations and to take breaks when you need them. For me, personally, it helps tremendously to plan what days I’m going to take off ahead of time, in order to avoid that awful guilty feeling of I should be writing right now but instead I’m scrolling through tumblr eleven hundred times…
I like to give myself one night off for every 4ish days of writing. Schedule drinks with a friend, take a walk or do some yoga, spend an evening on the couch with a book or some TV. A good routine is not just about carving out time and space for work — it’s also about the rest that makes that work possible.
The most important piece of advice I have for getting back into writing is this: celebrate. Celebrate every hundred words. Celebrate every beautiful line or funny quip. Celebrate the fact that you showed up for yourself, for your story, for the future readers who are going to cherish your words. Maybe your big accomplishment for the day is nailing a particularly tricky scene. Or maybe it’s just that you opened the word document.
The transition back into writing regularly is always pretty tricky for me, but I find that if I’m patient with myself and follow these tips, I can usually get back in the groove. If you have any great strategies for rebuilding your the writing habit, let us know in the comments!