7 Tips for Writing When You Want to Throw Your Laptop Out the Window
August 11, 2020
(In which we continue our exploration of the writing process… with EVEN MOAR CAT GIFS!)
When we were finishing our dissertations back in 2018, we both arrived at a crucial and terrible nadir: the point where you feel like you’re going to die if you have to write today but also simultaneously like you’re going to die if you don’t write today.
It wasn’t cute.
From the many conversations (aka: wailing festivals) that we’ve had with our fellow PhD survivors and authors, we’ve discovered that we’re really, really not alone in this feeling. Especially for looong projects, like novels, dissertations, and screenplays. The projects where you just can’t knock it out in a day or a week or a month, meaning you can’t rely on brute enthusiasm or inspiration to carry you through the whole process.
Writing fatigue can also be especially overwhelming when you’re editing. Because, on the one hand, you’ve done the thing! You have a whole draft! You wrote and wrote your heart out! But, on the other hand, the thing is kind of a mess. Your plot is riddled with holes or your footnotes are a hot mess or all your sentences start with “This is.” So you have to go back into the manuscript, even when you desperately don’t want to look at it anymore, and polish and polish, even though, in your heart, you mostly just want to set it on fire.
This kind of fatigue can also pop up on shorter form work: a poem you’ve been starting at too long, or a short story that you just don’t want to workshop again. And, of course, these feelings aren’t unique to writers. Creators of all kinds go through cycles of energy and exhaustion.
This is 100% normal.
If that’s the only thing you take away from this blog post, we’ll be happy. Know that not feeling profoundly inspired all the time is not a failing or a sign that you’re not really a creator. It means you’re a human, not an energizer bunny on 12 shots of espresso.
So how do you get through the fatigue? How do you keep writing or editing, even when you’d rather throw your laptop out the window than write one more paragraph?
Here’s how we do it:
(Note: This list is geared specifically towards writers, but there’s stuff in here that can be useful or adapted for creators of all kinds!)
- Break the work you have to do into very small, bite-sized chunks.
This is something we learned from one of our PhD committee members, and it’s ridiculous how much it can help you psychologically reframe the task in front of you. Instead of “finish dissertation by July 2018,” we started coming up with tasks like “format footnotes for chapter 3” or “proofread 10 pages” or “free-write for 15 minutes.” Take the monumental task in front of you and break it into 10 pieces (or 20 or 100). Write them all down, and assign yourself just one or two tasks a day. And then CROSS THEM OFF as you go! There’s nothing like the rush of slashing a line through a task that you’ve just CRUSHED.
(Or, if you’re like Brittany, you can completely obliterate that to-do note by scribbling it out entirely… sometimes one line is JUST NOT ENOUGH!)
- Do not try to do everything all at once.
We alluded to this in the previous tip, but it’s important enough to amplify. Do not look at your list of tasks and try to burn through all of them at once. Assign yourself humane, doable daily (or weekly) goals. If you try to take on too much at once, you’ll burn out. But if you consistently make progress, even if it’s just a little, you’re more likely to actually do the work instead of getting totally overwhelmed and abandoning your project/ slipping into the Pool of Despair.
- Switch things up.
Do you usually write on your laptop? Try writing long-hand in a notebook instead. Do you mostly work at a particular desk or table? Go into another room, or even outside! When Sara was working on the last chapter of her dissertation, she kept feeling writing paralysis. So, for a few days, she left her laptop inside and took a notebook out on her apartment balcony, where she was allowed to write whatever she wanted, as imperfectly as she wanted. She was pretty sure that everything she wrote was terrible, but a lot of it actually made it into the final chapter.
- Know that perfection is your enemy.
This is especially true when you’re still getting words on the page. Tell yourself that you’re going to write 300 terrible words and then write them. They will almost always be way better than you think they’re going to be. So just write. Give yourself permission to be terrible. Embrace terrible, if you can! We know, this sounds ridiculous. But this is the best way we’ve found to get past our perfectionist brain-filters and to get some momentum going. And you will edit and improve your words later…and you can’t edit or improve words that don’t exist.
- Make time your friend.
Believe it or not, we have vastly different writing processes. Brittany likes to work in massive bursts. Sara works in tiny segments, especially when she’s really stressed. What does this look like in practice? Brittany will block out many hours – sometimes an entire day – where she jealously guards her time from all interruptions like a majestic dragon guarding her hoard. And she will write her heart out, sometimes until four in the morning. By contrast, Sara will block out an hour (or, honestly, sometimes as little as 15 minutes), and that is her sacred writing time. Earphones on, phone silenced, internet windows closed. There’s no one right way to do this. Experiment and see what works better for you, and then guard your writing time from others and, even more importantly, from yourself.
- Get another pair of eyeballs on the page.
If you’re feeling totally stuck or stymied, talk about it with a friend! Sometimes, just having to articulate your thoughts out loud can be astonishingly helpful. You can also enlist the help of a beta reader or find a writing buddy. We’re not going to lie – a huge part of the reason that we are so prolific is because we do so much writing together. Once one of us gets to an “I’m going to die if I have to look at this anymore” place, we hand off the document, and the other person can usually see what needs to be done to get it into shape. We’re not saying that co-writing everything is the answer, but sometimes a fresh perspective can do wonders for short-circuiting the circles brains are so good at getting stuck in.
- Get weird.
Lastly, we want to encourage you to get really, really weird. Sometimes, when words just aren’t possible, doing something totally unexpected can make a huge difference. So make a playlist about how one of your characters feels about another character. Grab some random toys you have lying around and play out a scene you’re having trouble with. Paint an abstract portrait of the non-fiction book chapter that’s making you tear your hair out. Do an interpretative dance version of your dissertation (yes, this is actually a thing people do, and it’s AMAZING!!) Make it ridiculous. Make it over the top. Make it weird, but also make it TRUE. You never know when something might unlock.
So there you have it, seven of our favorite tips for writing when it’s the last thing in the WORLD you want to do. But we want to know – what do YOU do when you want to elegantly toss your laptop/notebook/etc out the window?
E-mail us or leave your tips in the comments!!