Where do writing motivation problems come from, and how can we overcome them? In recent years, there has been a movement in psychology to understand what happens in our brains when things are going well. Research in neurology, cognitive psychology, positive psychology, strengths psychology and related areas has brought new insights into the workings of happiness, well-being and motivation. Here are 20 techniques, drawn largely from this body of new research, that can help get us writing on days when the words won’t flow. When you find a tactic that appeals to you, it’s ideal to use it several times over a week or so, even if it’s not strictly necessary every time. This helps your brain fix the information in long-term memory and makes the new behavior readily available for use.
1. Get a little exercise. What does exercise have to do with motivation? Let us count the ways. It stimulates brain chemicals that improve mood, relieves stress and muscle tension, boosts confidence, improves the quality of sleep, fights anxiety and depression, increases endurance for both physical and mental activities, aids relaxation, and sometimes provides an opportunity to think without being interrupted. While some of these benefits show up over time, many of them are immediate.
2. Repair your ideas. Cognitive psychology offers a process we could call “idea repair” (the technical term is cognitive restructuring) that addresses immediate emotional obstacles like guilt, frustration and anxiety. Idea repair means identifying misleading thoughts in our ongoing internal commentary and replacing them with more rational substitutes. Asimple example: “I should be writing right now” becomes “If I choose to write now, I’ll be glad I did later on.” Some good books on the subject include Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper’s classic A Guide to Rational Living and David D. Burns’ popular Feeling Good . You can find more resources on my website at lucreid.com/idearepair.
3. Pretend you’re finished. Imagine for a moment that you’ve completed the piece and that it’s time to write a query or cover letter for it. Experience the satisfaction of completing the work and bask in it long enough to create good feelings and enthusiasm about what you’re writing. You can then go back and use that enthusiasm to write.
4. Track your word counts. This tallying provides immediate feedback and a sense of how productive you’re being over time. It also lets you try for personal records—for instance, most words written in a day or a week. Try to track your word counts daily, even if you’re writing down a lot of zeros. This maintains focus on your writing goals and makes your word-count log a habit rather than something you forget about the next time you go a week between writing sessions. Logging word counts doesn’t reward activities like editing and sending out queries or submissions, but if the log approach works well for you, it’s easy to find ways to track these other kinds of writing work, too.
5. Visualize. Picture the kinds of inspiring writerly situations you’d like to see come up in the future, such as having a finished manuscript in hand, doing a book signing, or getting a positive review. As with pretending you’re finished, this kind of visualization creates positive feelings about writing that can be harnessed to get words on the page.
6. Converse. Find a supportive friend or colleague who’s willing to talk about your project with you. Someone who’s genuinely interested in your subject matter can provide moral support, allay fears, recommend new ways to fix problems, suggest new perspectives, and rekindle enthusiasm.
7. Bypass the mental debate. We sometimes spend an amazing amount of effort talking ourselves out of writing. Instead of saying “I’m too tired to write” or “Shouldn’t I dust the blinds?” we can go directly to “Where did I leave off last time?” A conscious decision not to deliberate makes it possible to focus on the simple steps of starting the task without going through a decision process.
8. Take a short walk. Based on multiple studies, it seems that a brief walk in a natural setting can cause a measurable improvement in mood and energy level. If it’s an option in your location, a pleasant walk is one of the easiest ways to prepare your brain to write.
9. Revisit your reasons. Why did you decide to write the piece in the first place? What attracted you to the idea? Reconnecting with the reasons you chose to take the project on can propel you forward. Alternatively, this thought process can also make it clear when your writing really isn’t fulfilling your needs. If you don’t make it a habit, sometimes it can help to set aside a tough project and start something more inspiring.
10. Create or ignore an outline. Different writing approaches work for different writers and different projects. If you usually write off the cuff, try writing a rough outline. If you outline and the outline is cramping your style, try ignoring it. The goal is to see your project from a new vantage point, which offers a different way forward.
11. Write about writing. Because there are so many possible obstacles to writing, when one presents itself it can be efficient and enlightening to explore what’s holding you back by writing down your thoughts. Do you have reservations about what you’ve written so far? Are you worried that the finished product won’t succeed? Are you distracted by other obligations? A written investigation can help identify the reasons for trouble. It also provides a good medium in which to work out a solution.
12. Go somewhere else. Interruptions, conflicting obligations, entertainment options and other external distractions are often linked to your location. If you’re getting distracted or interrupted, try moving operations to a café, library, office or anywhere where there is little to do except write.
13. Introduce a change. If your enthusiasm in your story or topic is flagging, consider making a change that engages your interest. For example, try a different organization of the material, a plot twist, a new character or a new source of research.
14. Warm up. If you’re not yet ready to start writing in earnest, take a few minutes for warm- up exercises: Describe an object in the room, recount a memory, reconstruct a conversation, or write anything else that feels easy and immediate. Getting the juices flowing in this way activates the parts of your brain that have been trained to help you write. Once these elements are in play, writing your real project will come more easily. (For more, read Jerry Cleaver’s article “5 ‘nothing’ minutes a day” in the September 2011 issue of The Writer.)
15. Choose a first step. It’s easy to become overwhelmed when trying to get a grip on a large writing project, because our brains are only capable of focusing on a single complex task at a time. By picking a task out of the pile and ignoring the rest, you provide an obvious, immediate, reachable goal. If you don’t know what to pick right off, your first task can be choosing a second task.
16. Skip ahead. If you’re having trouble with the section of your project you’re currently writing, try skipping ahead to something you can write immediately. You’ll make progress, even if out of order, or may even stumble on a solution to your earlier writing problem.
17. Find a reader. A supportive friend, family member, fellow writer, mentor or colleague who will look at what you have written and can help provide key boosts to motivation, including outside encouragement, a deadline (if arranged with your reader), and the knowledge that your work will be read.
18. Try Scrivener. Scrivener is a computer program that lets you simultaneously write and outline. Your writing project is put together as blocks of text that can be organized and shifted around as you go, and your research and source material are kept in the same file as your finished work. Download a free trial at literatureandlatte.com.
19. Try Write or Die. Write or Die (writeordie.com) is a free Web application that lets you set a word-count goal, then requires you to write without long pauses till you reach it. Depending on your setting, too long a pause will draw a gentle reminder, play an obnoxious noise, or even start erasing what you’ve written so far. The penalty ends when you start writing again.
20. Write every day. This may sound more like the result of writing motivation than a source of it, but a practice of daily writing generates benefits that make further writing easier: You’re more likely to remember where you left off, you have a designated time for writing, and you build your confidence. Even a daily 100-word minimum can lead to high writing productivity.
Luc Reid is a Writers of the Future winner, the founder of the Codex online writing group, and an author of fiction and nonfiction, most recently the novel Family Skulls. He blogs on writing and the psychology of habits at lucreid.com.