Six Steps to Start Writing Again

We all know what it’s like to wake up one morning in late September and think, “Man, I really miss summer.” Maybe it’s the quick-changing weather making whatever clothing choice you make at 9 a.m. uncomfortably hot or cold by the end of the day. Maybe it’s the bursts of panic that comes with starting several new classes and seeing the amount of work necessary for each one. Or maybe it’s just that you miss sitting somewhere quiet, reading in the sun; the feeling of grass between your toes; the smell of the ocean in the distance.

We all feel pangs of nostalgia for the summer, but unfortunately there’s no way to turn back time. September means it’s finally time to pack up our sunscreen and trade it in for textbooks. It’s high time we move on and get back to work, something much easier said than done.

As creative writers, we all know the feeling of writer’s block. There’s no switch we can turn on or off to jumpstart creativity. The same goes for motivation — if you found yourself wanting to write over summer, but instead binge-watched Mystery Science Theater 3000, you’re not alone. The pull of 60’s Danish B-Rated horror is too strong for even the best of us, so don’t feel guilty. All you can do is try to get back into the swing of writing, especially now that it’s for a grade.

These steps should help you get back into writing at any time of the year. Eventually, we all graduate and we need to be able to work without our GPA hanging over our heads.

1. Read

Nothing is more inspirational than reading books that nestle into your heart and make you wonder why you’re reading instead of writing. The kind of book that captures you from the get-go with its prose and plot alike. The times I get the most writing done (without any deadlines) are when I’m excited to write. If I’m reading a book with beautiful words and a story that comes alive on the page, it makes me want to write something that does the same.

I don’t want to simply consume good literature — I want to make it too. I think all writers share that quality, or we never would’ve picked up writing in the first place. So when you’re stuck, read widely and voraciously. Books to writers are the fountain of youth; they rejuvenate our passion and inspire us to create.

2. Research

Some breaks in writing have less to do with a lack of motivation, instead stemming from the dreaded writer’s block. Look, writer’s block is real. Don’t listen to Oldman McSticklerface when he says, “I get ideas all the time! It’s finding the time to write them down that’s the tricky part. People without ideas shouldn’t be writing anyhow,” while he twirls his mustache and laughs pompously in front of a fireplace burning hundred dollar bills.

Yes, writer’s block can make you feel like you might as well throw out every notebook and turn to a life of crime, but don’t do that just yet. Writer’s block is never a lack of ideas. Writer’s block happens when you convince yourself every idea you do come up with is garbage and deserves to be put on trial for public endangerment. Think about it: the last time you felt stuck and like, were you literally staring at a wall with no thoughts in your head? Or were your fingers hovering over the keyboard, starting a sentence and then deleting it every time you thought something good had finally come to you?

Those ideas are still there, you just gave up on them before they had a chance to flourish. Any successful author will tell you that their biggest hit started out as something miniscule. A first sentence, a character name, even just an image. Ideas don’t come fully formed, and no one should feel they’re a bad writer because they hit a roadblock.

Sometimes though, when every idea seems terrible, it can be hard to get out of that self-destructive rut. When that happens, there are things you can do to spark inspiration. However, writing prompts and generators only go so far. I’ve found that the best way to spark creativity is research.

Good ol’ Google. Or Bing, I guess, if you’re an alien.

The simple act of taking in random knowledge about interesting subjects can get story ideas flowing like no man’s business. Play the Wiki Game. Challenge your googling powers. Watch videos and listen to podcasts on obscure phenomena. Put all those hours of procrastination during past finals weeks to use. Learn random facts and eventually all of that new information will stew into a story or character or a powerful image you can’t rid your mind of. Every short story, essay, and novel begins with a spark, and the best way to prompt that spark is to feed your curiosity.

3. Don’t Multitask

This might seem like a no brainer, but the best way to stay focused, is to… stay focused. Turn off your phone, close social media, put away all other assignments, and stop yourself from peeking when things are tough. I say this because human brains are simply not made for multitasking — we can only do one task at a time. Though we think we’re doing two or more, it’s just our brain switching back and forth really fast.

Here is a great video about focus and concentration, but the gist is that when you “switch your brain from one task to another, you incur a cognitive switching penalty.” Every time you switch tasks, it takes away time from both tasks and makes it harder to refocus on either. This isn’t just because it’s hard to focus, but switching tasks actually creates something called attention residue. Essentially, parts of your attention are stuck on the previous task for a certain amount of time after the initial switch, and this can make it impossible to get any real work done.

If you want to get work done, set aside time where you can turn off all distractions and do one thing. Not a couple of easy homework assignments while you knock out that story due tomorrow. Not a research paper plus a quick text conversation with your friend. One. Thing. Only.

I know this is hard to do. We’re all busy and it can seem like the only way to get anything done is to multitask, but give it a try. See how much is completed during the focusing period, and if that amount works, do it often.

NPR wrote this article suggesting a few web browser limiting apps you can check out. Otherwise, just do your best to ignore your phone. Sending your friend that picture of a really attractive TV character is important, I get it, but save it for after you’ve finished your work.

4. Review your old writing

This is both my favorite and most dreaded piece of advice. Sometimes, when you really can’t form a new idea, or feel stuck on the one you’re working on, the best thing you can do is go over something you wrote in the past. Firsthand experience has taught me that reading something I wrote over a year ago is the most inspiring and horrifying experience imaginable.

At first, it’s almost discouraging to read something that old. It can be stiff and boring, especially if it’s an unedited first draft. But that’s the thing with hindsight — it’s 20/20. When you read something old, you start rewriting it as you go. I know I have a hard time not rewriting as I read. The dialogue comes so naturally. The internal monologue is spot on. All because we already know where the story is going. The hard part of being creative is already out of the way and all you have to do now is fix it! That’s the fun part anyway.

This works on another level too — if you read something old and wind up editing, then you’re already done! Or, at the very least, you have something readable now you that can keep working on. And sometimes just the act of rewriting can spark a new story. You’ll find yourself imaging a new situation that would never work for this story or these characters, and now you’ve got yourself a whole new idea.

5. Stay Organized

For some writers, organization comes naturally. They keep detailed calendars and make thorough outlines for their stories, writing piece by piece until finished. Some writers do the exact opposite. They keep journals in every nook and cranny and furiously scrawl out ideas into the margins as they come. These writers will sit down for six hour stretches when the mood strikes them and knock out half their book.

Neither kind is better, but there are benefits to staying organized when you’ve spent the last three months sleeping until noon. Getting your thoughts into an organized system helps set your creativity on a scheduled track. Without having to worry about what goes where, or which paper is due when, you can focus entirely on writing the stories rattling around in your head.

Here’s a good video/article that discusses some tips about getting organized. Some of the information is better to have before the start of the semester, but you can still apply it four weeks in.

You’re also going to want to organize your writing life. Like I said before, we’re not all major planners when it comes to stories. Even if you don’t plan out a story beat by beat, you can collect any notes you have into one document or journal. You can also schedule out times to actually write. You could even schedule out a little time in the day to go for a walk and wonder. No pressure, no deadlines. Just… thinking.

6. Set Goals

Arguably the most important step is to set some goals. Whether you set week long goals, semester long goals, or year long goals, it’s really helpful to know what you want and when. If you’re working on a big project, like a novel or short story collection, you can set some short term goals to finish up outlines or chapters, as well as long term goals for when you want to have a first draft done for editing.

But you can’t just say, “I want to finish this book by March,” and call it a day; there’s no real way to keep up with that. It’s too hard to predict what might get in the way, and then suddenly it’s April and you’ve got two chapters and a heck of a lot of doodles.

This might sound set off flashbacks from high school, but there’s a great acronym for this: SMART. Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timed. Give your goals strict deadlines and specific details you want to follow through on. If you said, “I want to have 90,000 words done by March,” then you can actually measure that. A couple thousand words here, a few thousand more there, and bam! First draft done. Yeah, it might be terrible, but then you start setting editing goals and one day, you’ll have a finished book ready to show off.

Get back into the flow

Writing can be really hard. People think that all writers need is our brain and something to write with; that it’s the easiest thing in the world. But that is so far from the truth. It’s always a struggle to pick up steam after long breaks, and it’s no easier when that break is from school. As soon as you are inspired to start writing for classes, you get bogged down by your laundry list of other responsibilities. It’s not impossible though.

Don’t feel you’re not meant to be a writer since you took some time off. We’re all humans (probably) and our brains need time to process things, especially taxing things like creating worlds and characters. Take the time you need, but remember there are always tips and tricks to get back into writing. We’re a creative bunch, after all. Even without help, we’ll always figure it out eventually.

Author: Anna Moritz

Anna Moritz is a senior at Columbia College Chicago studying Creative Writing and Biology. Currently, she works as a contributing editor for Columbia’s Publishing Lab and is a co-editor for The Lab Review. Immensely intrigued by the boundaries (or lack-thereof) between art and science, she strives to connect the two disciplines in her writing. Her work will be published in the forthcoming Hair Trigger 40.

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