The only thing harder than getting started on a new writing project is returning to an old one after an extended period away.
We all need breaks from writing for the same reason we require annual leave from our day jobs. Doing the same thing day in day out for months on end is exhausting and mentally unhealthy.
Creativity can be a difficult beast to harness, and that fragile relationship comes with an omnipresent fear that once you let go of the reins, you may never get it back again.
Fortunately, it does return – but the road back to productivity is a bumpy one at best.
Whether you’ve been forced out by writers’ block, abandoned by the muses, or made a conscious decision to step away, we’re here to help you get back on the horse.
Read on to check out our top tips for returning to writing, no matter how long your hiatus may have been.
Tip #1: Get Back Into Books
When I fall into a creative slump, one of the first habits to go is my nightly reading. It’s a subtle warning that often goes unnoticed for days (or even weeks…) before I realise something is not quite right.
Reading is fundamental (and no, I’m not talking about throwing shade). Not just for writers, but for success in general. Many noteworthy and successful people are known to be avid readers.
Mark Zuckerberg reads a book a fortnight; Bill Gates one a week; and, before his success, young Elon Musk was known to spend up to 10 hours a day immersed in science fiction novels.
While the preferred genre of the ultra-wealthy leans towards non-fiction, novels are generally the go-to for emerging and established authors alike.
In fact, horror-writing juggernaut Stephen King averages about 80 books a year (or 1.5 a week for those playing at home). That’s a pretty impressive feat for an author who publishes a book every six to twelve months.
But this can seem almost impossible to the emerging writer who has to hold down a 9–5, or one who, like me, has 500 other hobbies (and a toddler) demanding attention.
But it all comes down to discipline. If you want to write, you’ve got to read, and immersing yourself in a good book is a great stepping stone back to creative bliss.
As the King himself says: ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.’
Tip #2: Don’t Beat Yourself Up
There is no holiday as big a waste of time as the guilt trip. Not only do you achieve nothing, but you also suck up vital mental energy that could be used elsewhere – like, you know, your writing.
We all have lazy days (or weeks…). We all procrastinate. And like it or not, we all make mistakes.
Chances are, if you’re super passionate about writing and making a career out of it, you probably feel pretty darn guilty every time you make a decision that leads you away from your goal.
Guilt is a complex emotion that essentially manifests in two ways: healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt.
Putting it simply, healthy guilt is your conscience acknowledging that you’ve legitimately done something wrong, like hurt someone or stolen something. Or, in this case, squandered your precious writing time.
While you may not be able to control the initial onset of guilt, there are ways to combat it and move beyond once it sets in. You can jump straight to making amends and, most importantly, changing your behaviour.
For example, if you made the decision to use your child-free day off to play PS4 all day instead of working on your manuscript, you can make amends by writing in smaller intervals throughout the week to compensate for the ‘wasted time’.
And, to change your behaviour moving forward, you might incorporate an additional step into your morning routine to allow for this extra writing time on the regular – leaving weekends a guilt-free gaming zone.
Tip #3: Revisit Your Work
If writers’ block has got you down and the muse just ain’t chattering, then it may be time to start digging through the archives of your unfinished drafts and half-baked ideas to see if any of them are worth sticking back in the oven.
While it’s true that some story kernels or characters never amount to anything, others are simply prematurely conceived. In other words, the idea might be great, but the execution… less than impressive.
For example, a ten-year-old writing a classroom melodrama featuring drunken parties and a murder mystery on the eve of the big exam is not going to have enough lived experience to convincingly tell this tale.
However, if you – as a now-twenty-something – happen upon something like this in your archives, you may very well have a Young Adult gem on your hands.
This lack of experience also applies to the craft of writing itself.
Characters or storylines may not have been as competently executed in your early writing days, causing you to step aside in frustration. P(l)ot holes can break the wheels of the best of ideas, after all.
But if you’ve maintained your reading habits (or picked them back up again), chances are this exposure to different styles and stories will have sharpened your eyes enough to pick up on errors that may have derailed the project in the first place.
Planning on jumping back into that half-complete manuscript? Going back is the best way forward.
If you’re wanting to stay on track and not be distracted by shiny new ideas, then simply rereading the last few chapters you wrote can remind you of the passion and excitement you once felt for your project.
Tip #4: (Re)establish Your Routine
Let’s talk about why it’s important for every successful writer to establish a routine – and not just when it comes to carving out time for your craft.
Humans are creatures of habit, so it’s little wonder that some of the most successful business entrepreneurs can identify rituals and routines that contribute to their overall productivity and wellbeing.
If your writing has hit a wall, it may be time to bring in a little order. This can be as simple as making your bed, sitting down with a quiet cuppa or meditating first thing in the morning – anything to set you up for a positive day of productivity.
A great time to sneak a writing session into your daily routine is first thing in the morning – the earlier the better. Now, before you start groaning about losing sleep, research has indicated there are decisive benefits to rising at an ungodly hour.
Daytime distractions – people, emails, social media – play a huge role in decreased productivity, which is what drives some people to start their day so early. Psychologist Josh Davis, director of research at the NeuroLeadership Institute, writes:
“By waking up at 4am, they’ve essentially wiped a lot of those distractions off their plate. No one is expecting you to email or answer the phone at 4am. No one will be posting on Facebook. You’ve removed the internal temptation and the external temptation.”
Long story short: nothing solves a problem like removing it all together.
Of course, if you’re a shift worker, a parent, or have any other commitment that does not allow for early starts (your love of bed doesn’t count), then you may need to get a little more creative with your block-out period.
If the thought of the same monotony day in day out is bringing you to tears, then there are ways to maintain some flexibility. Jack Dorsey (CEO of Twitter and Square) keeps things fresh by assigning ‘themes’ to his weekdays.
For a writer, this technique may look something like this:
- Monday: Editing
- Tuesday: Drafting
- Wednesday: Short stories
- Thursday: Freelancing
- Friday: Blog/social media
- Saturday: Break
- Sunday: Rereading the week’s work
This can be broken up even further into morning, afternoon and evening sessions, depending on the time you have available and the number of things you need to achieve.
The point of building a routine is not necessarily to schedule every waking moment of your life. It’s about building structure and goals and holding yourself accountable for obligations, whether externally or internally imposed.
Unfortunately, it takes 66, not 21 days of persistence to create a habit, which can sound like an eternity if you’re trying to drag your butt out of bed at 5am during winter.
But once writing becomes a habit, you’ll simply get it done.
Tip #5: Start Small, Aim Big
Are you a short story writer or a poet looking to try your hand at a full-length novel? Or perhaps someone familiar with extended prose who has been on the sidelines for some time?
If so, jumping into an ambitious program like NaNoWriMo might seem like far too much too soon. You’ve gotta walk before you can run, right?
Writing is a skill honed through exercise. And like exercise, the more you do, the more you can do. Fitness initiative Couch to 5K, for example, encourages you to get up and get moving by gradually increasing your weekly activity.
Asking someone horridly unfit to run a marathon is not going to end well, and getting a rusty writer to churn out a complete manuscript in a small timeframe will likely have similar results.
Chances are there will be injury, insult and a further aversion. So, like Couch to 5K, start with a small, achievable goal.
Aim to write a sentence three times a week. Then move on to a paragraph. A scene. A chapter. Repeat whatever phase feels necessary before moving on, or stay at a level that fits in with your routine.
Of course, you don’t need to start as small as a single sentence. Measure increments however feels comfortable to you: 10-minute writing sessions; 200 words day/500 words a week – it doesn’t matter.
The point is to start with small, achievable goals in order to work towards a bigger picture.
While it might seem like you’re deliberately taking even longer to return to that regular writing routine (or may even feel like you’re procrastinating), there is method to the madness. Or in this case – science!
“The satisfaction of ticking off a small task is linked with a flood of dopamine. Each time your brain gets a whiff of this rewarding neurotransmitter, it will want you to repeat the associated behavior.” —Dr Ralph Ryback, Psychology Today
Even if the goal is so small it’s not possible for you to fail, you’ll still manipulate your brain into releasing that motivating dopamine. Talk about life hacks!
Tip #6: Stretch Your Mental Muscles With A Writing Exercise
Writing exercises can be the first small step to get you back on track, or incorporated into your daily goals. Either way, setting aside time to ‘warm up’ is a useful practice that encourages productivity in the long run.
Julia Cameron, best-selling author of The Artist’s Way, lives by the practice of Morning Pages, an activity she designed to prepare herself for the day ahead.
“The bedrock tool of a creative recovery is a daily practice called Morning Pages.” —Julia Cameron
The stream-of-consciousness, non-specific writing activity instructs you to hand-write three pages every single morning to awaken your creative self.
Done efficiently, the practice takes about ten minutes and yields approximately 750 words, depending on the size of your notebook.
Morning Pages are a great way to teach you to write on demand – something that will prove very handy indeed when sitting down to your scheduled writing time.
If you’re not a fan of writing the old-fashioned way (or, somehow, you’re a writer who hasn’t managed to accrue a random assortment of notebooks), online writing tool 750words has got you covered.
Inspired by The Artist’s Way, the website is used by over half a million writers worldwide who seek to get more out of Morning Pages through various stats and insights relating to their mood, writing habits, speed and themes.
As with all exercises, it’s important to stretch first. So if you’re looking to be more productive by actually writing when you sit down at your computer, writing exercises like these can help get you started.
Tip #7: Reach Out To A Writing Buddy (Or Find A New One)
Everyone likes a wingman (or woman), right? Nothing boosts your confidence better than someone who’s got your back.
If you’ve withdrawn from your writing thanks to self-doubt or confusion over the story, engaging the services of a writing buddy can be the first step to rebuilding an amicable relationship with your art.
Sometimes referred to as a critique partner, a writing buddy is a similarly-minded friend (or stranger, if you’re game!) who can review your work, provide suggestions, and give that all important pep talk.
Unlike a copyeditor, critique partners know that this is an unpolished offering – perhaps even a first draft.
They know not to sweat the typos or grammatical errors and instead focus on providing the feedback that will help you move forward – or get started again.
Fellow writers are also great soundboards for brainstorming ideas. If you wrote yourself into a corner and aren’t quite sure how to back out, throwing a couple of thoughts at a buddy can help identify the best solution.
Having a critique partner to hold you accountable for your progress is also a great way to get back into the routine of regular writing.
If your buddy is also an active writer, consider exchanging work every week or so. That way, you’re not the only one who benefits.
Tip #8: Remind Yourself Why You Write
Forcing yourself to write when you don’t want to can quickly see your beloved passion turn into a chore.
Of course, pushing through the writer’s block and procrastination is essential to turning those small goals into a consistent habit. But what if you fall out of love with the craft in the meantime?
It’s bound to happen. After all, you often hear stories of people who managed to turn their passion projects into employment and ultimately don’t end up doing it for fun anymore, or even resenting it.
But this doesn’t happen to everyone, especially if they’ve kept a healthy relationship with the craft. So how do you do that?
One of the best things to help get us back into writing is reminding ourselves why we want to. Time to think back: what inspired you to write in the first place?
Was it a whirlwind adventure about princesses and dragons you devoured as a schoolkid? If so, maybe it’s time to revisit that particular book or something of a similar vein to rekindle that flame.
Bathing in a little nostalgia might be just what you need to wash off the grime of writer’s block.
If you’ve stopped writing because you fell out of love with your manuscript, give it a thorough read-through, start to finish.
Don’t get hung up on what’s wrong with it; focus on what can and does work. Seeing hope in the picture at large can inspire you to drive back in and work out those kinks.
And finally, get yourself that pep talk. Enlist a friend to read over your work to get some feedback and all-important motivation. Hearing your project’s merits from a third party is a huge self-doubt blaster.
Chances are, they’ll fall in love with the characters and story as much as you did – and listening to them gush will drag you right back in.
We writers can be a fickle bunch, and the smallest of hiccups can seemingly throw us off course or turn into an oppressive block. But you can and will get through this.
Encountering a writing slump is an inevitable obstacle, and how you choose to get yourself through it will strengthen your craft in the long run.
Sure, you can wait it out until the muse returns, or until you have ‘time’ again. However, this is an indefinite solution, and there’s no guarantee if and when it will even happen.
If you’re serious about ending the hiatus on your own terms, then this is your call to action.
Pick up your favourite novel. Open an old notebook and do some writing exercises. Edit the final chapters you wrote before you left off. Have a chat with a writing bud and remember why you started.
You’ll be back in the game before you know it!