Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

How to Reestablish Your Writing Habit After a Break

One of my clients is a successful novelist. She has a high-profile, New-York-based agent, and has already had one of her books published, to critical acclaim. Now, she's under contract to write another one. I worked with her, briefly, when she felt bogged down with writer's block, and I helped get her back on track. I take little credit for this. She's a hard worker, and very bright.

I still check in with her from time to time to see how her book is doing. Mostly, she tells me that it's going well and that it's just a question of putting in the hours. But, she emailed me this week to tell me her dad had died. "I'm okay, but totally stalled on the book," she wrote. "Would love your advice."

My heart went out to her. It's so difficult to lose a parent, even if they're old, even if they've been sick. It's traumatic. Of course it's going to affect your writing! Everything affects our writing. So does moving. I have another writer friend who's recently sold her house and moved into an apartment. The ensuing chaos has meant she's not been able to write for the last three weeks. Going on holiday does the same thing. You take a break, get out of the rhythm of your daily life, relax, have some fun, get less exercise than usual — or, perhaps, more exercise — and when you return, the world seems different.

So, here's how to reestablish your writing habit after a break.

1. Expect your writing habit to have been disrupted. Further, expect writing to be harder. This is 100% normal. It's really important that you not see yourself as inadequate or inept. Think of writing as similar to exercising: if you don't go for a run for three weeks, running will be more difficult and slower than before your break. We all understand that we need to be conditioned in order to exercise. The same is absolutely true of writing. You have to ease yourself back into the process. Don't expect to start up again exactly where you had left off. There is nothing wrong with you because writing is harder. It's just one of the unpleasant realities of life.

2. Scale back your expectations, dramatically. If you have been writing to a timed goal — say 60 minutes — don't try to start again with 60 minutes right away. Instead, pick a goal that seems stupidly easy. It's really important that you have not a nanosecond of hesitation about your ability to achieve this goal. If you need to start with as little as three minutes to make it seem easy enough, that's perfectly okay. Similarly, if you're writing to a word count goal — say, 500 words — don't start with 500 words immediately.

Instead, began with 250. And if that seems too daunting, it's perfectly okay to begin with just 50. Again, you want to pick a goal that you'll be able to hit out of the park with no problem.

3. This will be tough, but stick with this new goal for at least 10 days. Don't up the ante too quickly! You want and need to establish a track record of success. It's far better to have a small, manageable goal rather than trying to boost the goal too quickly. This record of achievement will make you feel good about yourself and positive about the writing process. Feeling happy and successful is an important motivator for writing.

4. Increase your goal — whether timed or word count — S-L-O-W-L-Y. Warning, this may feel painfully slow, especially if you compare yourself to your former record. After 10 days, for example, you might increase your writing goal by 50%. After another 10 days, you might add another 25%. And following yet another 10 days you could recoup the final 25%.

5. Don't beat yourself up for the apparent slowness of the process. Writing habits are both delicate and fragile. If you push yourself too quickly or too hard you're going to meet resistance: your body and mind will conspire against you and work to stop you from finishing your writing. Then you might find yourself facing writer's block, or exhaustion or burnout. Why give yourself this opportunity to fail? Instead, be more respectful of your emotional needs.

There's a story about a tortoise and a hare that springs to my mind right now. Surely you know that it's better to be the tortoise…


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday May 30th, 8:59 AM
Comment by: Sam T. (Tucson, AZ)
If the block is from grief I suggest you read SORROW'S WORDS - Writing exercises to Heal Grief by Sheila Bender. It may not be your novel, but you are dealing with the Grief AND writing at the same time. As you write through your grief, you will find that you can move gently into a new normal with your novel.
Sunday June 3rd, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for recommending that book, Sam. I hadn't heard of it.
Tuesday June 12th, 5:49 AM
Comment by: Daniel S. (Bristol United Kingdom)
Enjoyed this, thanks.

Have you ever written anything to help writers identify what to write? I don't mean content, I mean format. I know I want to write something but don't know what I'm aiming for and that in itself is forming a barrier.
Tuesday June 12th, 9:41 AM
Comment by: Sam T. (Tucson, AZ)
Google Sheila Bender@Writingitreal.com. https://writingitreal.com/ She is an excellent facilitator to help you get started. Daphne has some good advice for starting and aiming. You are on the right track by asking for help. Keep asking. Keep writing. Start by describing that barrier. What does it look like? When does it rare its wall? Good luck!
Thursday June 14th, 9:35 AM
Comment by: Daniel S. (Bristol United Kingdom)
Thanks very much Sam T, I will do all of these things!! Thanks for your encouraging words.
Wednesday June 27th, 5:06 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Sorry for my belated reply, Daniel, but I often recommend that my clients spend some time identifying a good model, which I think is what you are seeking. It sounds as though you're trying to do something different and perhaps unusual so I strongly suggest you look OUTSIDE your usual genre.

Go to a bookstore and look at books in sections you don't typically explore.

Go to a library and do the same thing.

Spend some time browsing through Amazon to get ideas for titles you might want to look up at a library (or, possibly, buy — if they seem interesting/useful enough.)

It can take a fair bit of time to find a useful model but it's worth it. I'm a firm believer in NOT re-inventing the wheel.

Also, if what you are inchoately imagining is in fact unique then even if you don't find a model, looking at other books may help you generate enough new ideas to help you form the idea more fully.

Hope this helps!
Monday July 16th, 8:48 AM
Comment by: Daniel S. (Bristol United Kingdom)
Hi Daphne,

Thanks ever so much for your reply. I wrongly thought I had set up notifications for when a reply is received, hence the even longer delay in my response!

This is good advice and I will give it a try. It resonates for me as well because if I'm struggling for inspiration, then it won't just arrive by keeping everything the same.

I also think I need to break things down to a more manageable size, rather than thinking it's a novel or nothing.

But what I really need to do is just start writing...

Thanks again, and for your advice column which is always very welcome.

All the best,

Dan

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