You’re at this site, reading this article, because you’re a writer. Whether or not you’ve had your writing published isn’t important. What is important is that you continue to write.
Being disciplined to write regularly, particularly when you’re not in the mood, is hard. It can be easier to crawl back into bed or binge-watch Stranger Things while you devour a tub of ice-cream.
Life gets in the way too, providing excuses not to write: the cat’s sick, you can’t stop thinking about the horrible fight you had with your sister, your bank account is in minus and your rent is due.
Oh, and at the time of writing, there's a worldwide pandemic that's shut down states, closed businesses and taken lives.
Thoughts and worries are greedy, needy things. They crowd your mind and suck away all your attention until you can’t think clearly at all.
So how can you possibly write when you can’t even think?
You write through it.
Turning up at the page
Writing requires you to turn up consistently at the page, even when you don’t feel like it.
Let's use an athletic metaphor. A boxer in training has to get up every morning and train, rain, hail or shine, before they even step into the boxing ring to spar.
Think of yourself as a boxer. There are days you won’t feel like training. Days you won’t feel like writing.
You tell yourself a lie: 'I’ll just quickly wash last night’s dirty dishes to clear my mind, then I’ll write'.
Next, three hours have passed and you’ve rearranged your saucepan drawer, fixed that loose cupboard handle that’s annoyed you for months, and rearranged your books into alphabetical order.
If you really want to make progress with your writing, you need to leave all that needless distraction to your non-writing days.
No writer is immune
At some point, all writers have fallen victim to the allure of dirty dishes and distraction. But if you want to be a writer, remember this: your time is precious, and you should treat it like currency.
If you don’t spend time writing, your word bank doesn’t grow. And anything that takes you away from your writing time is essentially stealing from you.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to stop spending time with family and friends, give up volunteering at the local dog shelter, or neglect your health and wellbeing.
It’s simply about committing to writing regularly, regardless of your motivation level. Published writers all have one thing in common: they write!
The formula is simple: one plus one equals two. One word plus another plus another plus another equals a sentence. Several sentences equal a paragraph, then a page, then a chapter…
You see where this is going.
Even when your mood is low, even when you don’t feel like it, promise yourself that you'll write that sentence.
Even if you feel unmotivated or distracted by what's going on in your life, write. Write through it. Write about it.
See writing as your friend, as a comfortable mattress you can fall into, a world you can escape to.
Besides, if all past, present, and future writers waited until they felt inspired to write, we’d have fewer stories in the world. And that would be a tragedy.
The world needs your stories. So, next time you’re not in the mood to write, try the tips below.
Tips for writing when you're not in the mood
1. Trick yourself
Follow the adage of: ‘Fake it 'til you make it.’ Don’t wait until you’re inspired to write.
I know how it goes: you’ve got a headache, you’re tired, sick or sad. We all have bad and good days, but the difference between a writer-in-waiting and a prolific one is in the actual act of writing.
Try shifting your thinking. Tell yourself you’ve had an invigorating eight hours of sleep, your head is full of ideas, you’re energised. You’re happy. You’re healthy.
Say to yourself out loud: ‘Writing comes easily to me. Writing makes me feel good. Writing is my purpose in life’.
Put on some big, motivational music. Dance around the room (if you can’t do this, visualise it instead), throw punches in the air, pretend you’re that boxer who's just run ten kilometres, and that you're ready to go into the ring.
You’re a fighter. You’re a champion. You’ve already won!
Remember your writing goals. The only way you’ll achieve them is to step into that ring and spar with your own moods. You want to be a writer. So, write.
2. Reward yourself first
You know how the reward system works. You experienced it as a kid. You did well in school; you received a gold star from the teacher. You suffered through a vaccination needle; you were given a lollipop by the doctor.
Sure, you're an adult now, and you don’t need gold stars or lollipops to get tasks done. But the truth is, even years later, all grown up and in charge of our lives, the reward system is still ingrained in us.
Use it to your advantage – and even try rewarding yourself first.
When I was first introduced to this concept in 2013 by a writing coach, I struggled with it.
The coach wanted to know what activities I liked to do for creative fun; she then stipulated that I choose one day per week that I could dedicate to that pursuit.
At that time, I wrote only on Fridays. Each Friday morning, before I wrote a single word, I would play. I would paint, sing or make a necklace.
Before long, my coach and I called these 'Fun Fridays'. I looked forward to them – not only the fun reward-first exercises, but the writing afterwards, because I had a smile on my face.
I was lighter. I was open to expressing myself. I was free.
At first, the idea of 'playing' then writing felt counterintuitive, but I came to love the exercise, and it helped me write.
A word of warning: This system only works if you actually do the writing that you’ve already rewarded yourself for.
If you find that you're still not doing the work after rewarding yourself, get some backup. This is where an accountability buddy helps (see #6 below).
3. Stop mid-scene at the end of a session
Stopping writing mid-scene, mid-action or even mid-sentence might sound counterproductive. Why would you stop when you’re on a roll?
Simple: because if you’re writing something that requires you to undertake months or even years of work, you need to keep yourself interested. You need to keep alive the desire to continue with the story.
When you stop mid-scene, you can look forward to tomorrow, knowing you left yourself the 'fun' part of the scene to write, or at least that you know exactly where it will be going next.
You’ll be full of pleasurable anticipation, and the next day you can get straight back into it.
Here’s an example. Let's say you’re writing a climactic scene in which your detective protagonist has finally hunted down and caught the sadistic serial killer in a dark alley.
The detective has a gun. The killer grips his teenage victim and holds up a knife to her throat.
You've described your detective raising her gun. Her arm is sure and strong, the gun pointed at the killer's head. The killer, eyes wide, is ready to slice his victim's throat.
Who'll strike first? Will the killer strike the victim, or will your protagonist shoot the killer in time to save her life?
And... this is where you stop writing.
I know, crazy! But if you've recently been unmotivated to write or too distracted to think clearly, this method could work for you. You won’t know until you try.
4. Try freewriting
Another useful writing exercise to try when you're not in the mood is freewriting.
Freewriting is the practice of stream-of-consciousness writing. It means channelling whatever comes to mind and writing it down.
Natalie Goldberg, writing teacher and author of Writing Down the Bones, dedicates a chapter to freewriting, where she sets out the following parameters:
- Keep your hand moving. Don’t stop to read what you’ve just written. Don’t edit. Keep going.
- Don’t cross out (that’s editing as you go). Just keep going; even if you didn’t mean to write it, leave it.
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar.
- Don’t think. If you don't know what to write next, write exactly that: 'I can’t think about what to write. How annoying. This is hopeless. Oh well, better keep going...'
Another devotee to freewriting is author Julia Cameron. In her book The Artist’s Way, Cameron suggests that stream-of-consciousness works in two ways:
- To get mundane thoughts and constant worries out of our heads and onto the page, so that when we come to structured writing, we’ve parked our anxieties elsewhere.
- To get used to ignoring our inner critic/inner censor.
Next time you’re not in the mood to write, set a timer for 60 seconds and just go for it. If you’re unsure what to write about, try these prompts:
- Your first kiss
- The smell of rain
- The last time you felt pain
- A funny moment
- Pick up any book or magazine, look at the first sentence you notice and write from that point on.
If the 60-second timer has sounded and you find yourself lost in the practice enough to continue writing, allow yourself to do that. Give yourself over to the freewriting experience and soar.
5. Try transcription
Consider starting your writing day by verbalising some words into a dictaphone, smartphone or laptop, then transcribing them (or using a direct speech-to-text tool).
Is this cheating? Maybe, but if it helps get some preliminary thoughts out of your head and onto the blank page, it does more good than harm.
The caveat here is to allow yourself to verbalise for two minutes only. After that, continue writing from where you left off.
Don’t be hard on yourself and don’t worry too much about what you’re saying. Just let the words tumble out of your mind as if you’re freewriting through speech.
6. Buddy up
Being accountable to someone else gives us extra motivation to achieve our writing goals, and that's where an accountability buddy comes in.
This is what my writing coach did for me. She didn’t critique my work. She didn’t even read it. She simply asked me for a chapter each week and each week, we’d meet and discuss my writing project.
I’d hand her a new chapter; she’d congratulate me. We'd talk through any bumps along the way, such as why one character was harder to write over another. Then she'd cheer me on to write the next chapter.
You don’t necessarily need to pay for a coach to help keep you on track. You might already know someone who would make a great accountability buddy.
Perhaps you have a family member who's always wanted you to succeed, or a mentor that you’re still in contact with.
An accountability buddy will keep you on track and cheer you on. They’ll champion your success. They’ll keep you writing. If they'll call you out if you haven’t followed through with your writing goals, even better!
Before you begin, however, be sure to set out clear goals and boundaries with your accountability buddy so you both feel comfortable, empowered and secure in the exchange.
7. Create a space to call your own
Do you have your own space in which to write? If not, have you thought about the kind of space you'd like to write in?
For instance, do you prefer to be surrounded by noise, with the thrum of humanity pressed up against you? Or do you need silence and solitude to contemplate each word?
If you’re not sure, identify the last place you wrote freely, with lightness and with ease. Bring into your mind the image of that place. Try to recall how you felt that day and why, and do your best to recreate that space.
Having your own space in which to write can help you fight through when you're not in the mood. Even if the exact space you desire isn't possible, you can still bring in elements of that ideal.
For example, if you wish you could write on a beach listening to waves rolling in and out, find a large colour print of the ocean and put it up on the wall, or set up a screen with an ocean scene.
Check out free streaming sites for soundtracks of ocean sounds to play while you write. Imagine you're at the beach, content and warm and energised.
Now, let’s get real for a moment: having an ideal writing space makes sense, but don’t spend so much time dreaming about and creating your space that it distracts you from the actual practice of writing.
Sure, your perfect writing space will help inspire you, but it's only one item in your writing toolkit. Another important element – perhaps even more important than your writing space – is experience.
You can’t continually learn about the experience of being alive while you isolate in your heavenly writing space. You need to be in the world to remind yourself how people interact, how they talk, what makes them tick.
It’s exploring this rhythm of life that will help you write the next time you’re not in the mood.
Try to get out of your writing space occasionally. If you can (and if it's safe – don't risk contracting COVID to do this!), write at a café, a pub, in the library, at a bus stop.
Bring the sights, sounds, smells and overheard snippets of conversation back with you to your writing space.
The next time you find yourself more motivated to reorganise your cutlery drawer than to write (and there will be a next time), let those observations fuel you and keep you interested enough to continue writing.
8. Turn up the volume
Listen to music and turn it up! Music affects us. It reaches into our psyche and moves us, playing with our emotions, influencing our moods.
In 2019, a team of researchers studied the responses of 80 volunteers to three pieces of emotional music to investigate how music affects our brains, bodies and emotions.
The study was conducted at the USC Dornsife’s Brain and Creativity Institute, led by Assistant Professor of Psychology Assal Habibi, who found that:
'From a therapy perspective, music is a really good tool to induce emotion and engage a better mood.'
Next time you feel unmotivated to write, find and listen to some uplifting music.
Create a playlist that makes you feel like a champion boxer, someone who can achieve anything, someone who can write and write and write.
9. Breathe and meditate
It sounds a bit zen, but like listening to music, controlling our breath can help us regulate how we feel and provide calm and mental clarity.
Start with your breath. Take a moment. Close your eyes. Relax. Slow down your breathing. Try to shake off feelings of anxiety or failure or pressure or external worries.
Allow yourself this moment to zone out everyday problems. Take this time to realign your thoughts; to tell yourself that you deserve this writing time.
Tell yourself that although you’re not in the mood to write, the next five or 10 minutes are yours, and that you can do it.
You could do a quick meditation: visualise yourself achieving that day’s writing goal. See yourself carrying out the steps to achieve that goal. Imagine you’re at your writing space, getting words onto the page.
As you breathe, visualise yourself as a prolific writer who has achieved their writing goals. You will simply come to the page to do what comes naturally and effortlessly to you.
Go a step further and see yourself holding your published novel in your hands. See yourself dressed up in an auditorium or bookstore, reading an excerpt of it.
Use this breath and visualisation technique to imagine yourself out of feeling unmotivated to write.
10. Actively seek out motivation
The next time you’re not in the mood to write, search for inspirational quotes from well-known writers.
Even the most famous and successful of writers have likely gone through the same struggles as you. Reading about how they got through it can help you get through it, too.
There are many repositories of motivational quotes online. Do a quick Google search and you’ll be sure to find quotes that resonate with you and make you feel like you can achieve anything.
11. Remind yourself why you write
In his book What Makes Us Tick, Hugh Mackay writes that humans are driven by the desire to be taken seriously. We want to be recognised. We yearn to be acknowledged. We want our lives to matter.
When you’re not feeling in the mood to write, think about why you write in the first place. What underpins your desire?
Mark each of the following statements with True or False:
I write because I have the desire to:
- Be noticed
- Be accepted
- Be heard
- Be seen
- Be remembered
- Be valued
- Be appreciated
- Be validated
- Tell the truth
Add to this list if you have additional reasons for writing. And whenever you’re not in the mood to write, come back to this list and remind yourself where your deepest motivation to write comes from.
Play around with these tips to find out what works best for you. It could be a combination of more than one.
Perhaps your style will be to listen to music while you dance around the room and read motivational quotes pinned to the wall. You might feel silly, but your mood will almost certainly shift.
Allow yourself to feel your emotions, whatever they are. You’re human, and being in touch with your emotions makes you a better writer.
Know what works for you to keep you writing. The world is ready and waiting for your stories.