When to write on vs. when to write later

When to write on vs when to write later_purple text over lightened image of a mason jar with string lights inside and coming out of the jar like fireflies
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*Note: this post appeared on the previous Center website’s blog. I have revised it slightly to re-share with some action items.*

Sometimes it might seem like the best writing advice you’ve ever heard conflicts with other advice that also makes sense.

Step away and gain some perspective sounds like a wonderful tip…unless what you really need to do is keep pushing yourself and finish that draft! If you’re wondering how to tell when you should do which—write on or write later—this post offers some insight.

First, remember that all writers have their own process. You are developing yours. What works for you might not work for someone else. Remember also that there are different stages of your writing process, and that not all tips are going to work in all stages.

So, should you stay or should you go? Should you push yourself to keep going, or should you take a break and come back later? Consider the following:

Check in with your process.

Problem: You’ve had this idea for a story in your mind for days, but you can’t quite flesh it out in your mind.

Action: Write! Flesh it out on the page or screen, not your mind, already! Before the idea flees your consciousness, commit to giving it some attention and noticing, working with, what pours out. Pick a word or phrase or sentence to describe your idea, write it down, and free write for 20-30 minutes, recording any association with or progression of your idea that comes to mind. Don’t worry about it making sense, being in complete sentences, or being grammatically correct. The only rule is, don’t stop writing for X amount of time. Maybe your free-writing time will result in a first draft. And if not, it doesn’t matter. What matters is, now that you have some words down, you’re invested in this idea.

Problem: You’ve spent three long writing sessions trying to end this story and you just can’t get it to work.

Action: Take a break! Put the story away for a couple hours or a couple days. Take a walk. Read a book. Cook a meal. Write something else. Let yourself think about, but not agonize over, your story, but not necessarily the problem you’re having with it. Imagine your characters in a completely different context. Get back in touch with them so that when you resume, refreshed, you are better equipped to answer the questions, what would they really do right now? What tension between them really needs to be resolved? Identify where you keep stopping, as you approach the end of this piece. What’s making you stop there? Do you need to go back and revise an earlier story point? If you’ve been living-eating-sleeping-breathing a story and still can’t end it, you might need to sit with what you have written for a while in order to arrive at what you still need to write.

Check in with your environment.

You are not the only writer who battles the siren lures of social media, Netflix, piles of laundry, or other distractions. There’s a reason so much writing advice in circulation is about making time to write—we are busy people, so busy that even when we aren’t actually busy, we make ourselves busy with myriad devices and the nagging feeling that we should always be doing.

Make writing one of those things you should be doing, and understand that writing requires thinking, and sometimes good thinking requires not-doing for a while.

So, what in your immediate space is pulling your attention away from writing? Can you remove it? Can you remove yourself to a space with fewer distractions? Can you do this several times a week, or even for a little bit every day? If so, you’re going to do your writing a huge favor…

Check in with your mind and body.

…unless, of course, the issue isn’t your physical space but your mental space. Time for a mental health check. Are you stressed out? Not sleeping or eating well? Sick or in pain? Obviously, stress and sickness will affect your energy levels and creativity. Legions of artists and writers will argue that, if pristine mental health were required to make good art, then no good art would exist. Still. Take care of yourself as best you can and I bet you’ll make it to the page or screen more often, and with a clearer mind for focusing.

And give yourself a break, figuratively speaking. It’s great that you are so committed to your writing, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Find the balance between the two extremes that most frequently plague writers: no regular writing practice at all, or a routine so rigid, so demanding, so unforgiving, that it produces not words but creativity-zapping burnout. Congratulate yourself on both meeting your writing goal for the day or week AND recognizing that it’s time to take a break to gain perspective. Both practices will yield better final drafts, if you know when, in your unique writing process, to employ them.

Do you ever struggle with whether or not to push through discomfort or take a break? Was this post helpful? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: How and why to add check-ins to your writing practice

Write your way out of a rut with relief projects

Writers, take up space!

How not to overshare when writing the truth

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