Getting Back on the Creative Horse

I often hear people say “I wish I had time to write,” usually from people who have written before, at least in high school and similar situations where they had both structure imposed upon them and a comparative abundance of free time. And I hear the same typical advice that has been said since it seems like the dawn of time, and will be said until the heat-death of the universe: “Just get your butt in that chair.”

That’s not useful advice. Saying that sounds like actionable advice, but it’s really a shaming technique. Sure, some people are temporarily motivated by shaming, but I think it’s crap to suggest that.[1] Instead, I’m about suggesting tools that work and can adapt to individual people and situations. The one I always start with, to help people get back on the creative horse, is something that combines structure we used to have with acknowledging that we’re busy people who don’t have the free time we used to.

  • Every day, write at least 250 words on something. Not “sit down for 15 minutes,” because it’s easy to have nothing at the end of that time. That’s especially true if you’re counting down the minutes like this is some form of torture you have to endure. No, base it on words, and see if you can get 250 of them down. Now, don’t necessarily stop at 250 words — if you feel like you have more to write and want to keep going, do it. And even words you hate enough to crumple up and throw away count toward the goal, because 250 words is about getting something out of your head in the first place, not about making something inherently publishable.
  • It doesn’t matter how or on what. You can write 250 words on a couple pages of a steno pad, or on your tablet. It would be nice if it could be all one piece (or part of a larger piece), but sometimes that won’t be the case and that’s okay.
  • There is no such thing as a “make-up” day. If you missed a day, you missed it; there’s no “I’ll write 500 words tomorrow instead” at work here. And that’s because it’s too easy to let that snowball into something daunting, like feeling like you need to write 1000 words because you missed three days in a row. And when it snowballs, it’s easy to keep letting it snowball until you give up completely. Instead, just reflect on how often you don’t do it and what excuses you give for not doing it. Likewise, you don’t get a pass on the next day just because you happened to write 500 words on this one. All days are independent.
  • You get one day off a week. Life happens, so take a day off each week without feeling any guilt. Pro writers do it. (Though, many of us also feel guilty for taking time off, so don’t model yourself after us in that regard.)
  • Vary the time of day. If you’re finding a time that you thought would be a natural fit doesn’t work for you — typically people look at doing this when they get home from work — vary it up. I’ve done this exercise as a before-work, during-commute, lunchtime, after-work-but-before-going-home, and upon-getting-home thing. And none consistently worked 100% because life is crazy and dynamic, but I was more successful because I varied it up when one wasn’t working during a given time of my life. (Right now, writing when I get home is hard because it gets dark before I leave the office, and I feel tired by the time I get home.)
  • Reflect. How often are you able to hit your goal? Do you feel like you could raise it (not that you necessarily should)? What reasons do you give yourself for skipping? Is there a time of day that’s working better for you? A place in or outside your home that seems the most or least productive? Any days of the week that are better or worse — not just for the quantity of your writing, but how you feel about its quality? Is there a particular time, condition, or subject where you find yourself blowing well over 250 words? Most importantly: do you actually enjoy doing this?

It’s a simple structure. It’s something you can do with a sense of small but consistent milestones, whereas “put your butt in the chair and write” is actually daunting as hell. It sounds monumental, because there’s no structure — there’s just a reason you’re writing, and often that reason isn’t as small as 250 words, so that mantra instead feels like “put your butt in the chair and write a sizable chunk of your future masterwork,” which has no structure.

This is, incidentally, one of the reasons I recommend blogging. This method worked for me, though I fell off the writing wagon on many occasions. That I could come back to it and say “screw it, let’s do 250 words today” always got me going again, until I no longer needed that structure because it got replaced with being a freelance writer on deadlines working for paychecks.


Folks who have been successful at continuing to write: what structures or situations have you used to get yourself back to writing?

– Ryan

P.S. Some awesome people started a Google+ Community called the Creative Horse spawned by this post. Maybe you should check it out, for encouragement and discussion?

[1] However, if I say “You know what you need to do, right?” and you answer with “Put my butt in the chair?” I’ll nod, because I’m not offering you advice — I’m making you offer the advice you think you need. Then I generally follow up with something structured.


8 Responses to Getting Back on the Creative Horse

  1. Josh says:

    I found myself following the wisdom of Neil Gaiman when I’m trying to write something… if you can’t write about X, then go ahead and work on Y instead. There is no writer’s block or lack of creativity, or else you just don’t want to try and do it.

    And last October I started posting my daily musings on a blog, ’cause people like you inspire me to do it. Infectious habits, more or less.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Sweet! I hope the habit keeps up, and that you enjoy what you’re doing.

      I overall avoid talking about writer’s block because I see most people using it like a shame cudgel (which I wrote about in 2012). But I do appreciate that what Gaiman is saying is tangible advice: try to do something different just to keep writing. That’s one thing I’ll do when I find myself frustrated by a particular project.

      – Ryan

  2. Johnstone says:

    I have a pretty concrete technique for switching to something new when I feel blocked. I write up a table of unfinished contents, then I roll dice to see what part I work on next. Then I work until that section is done or I hit a block. Then I go back to the table.

    Another thing to do that is kind of the opposite is to decide what you are going to write about ahead of time. Then the topic can roll around the back of your mind while you do other things. When you finally sit down to write, you may have a lot more to say than you thought.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Totally. Once you know you can sit down and do the work — which is an early hurdle — each person will build up tricks to continue doing the work. Often I’ll get stalled on something I’m paid to make, so I’ll write something tangential to it just to get my mind going (frequently including my blog posts). But that’s the effect of tangible external pressure. Years ago, I didn’t have that, and didn’t have confidence.

      This trick helped me build confidence in my ability to write. Not necessarily to write well — that came later — but to have something to say in the first place.

      – Ryan

  3. Rasmus says:

    Very good advice in this post. Thank you, Ryan! I am definitely guilty of using the “not enough time” excuse, when the truth is, it doesn’t take that long to write 250 words. Congratulations on successfully making me feel ashamed and inspired at the same time (and I don’t think of it as shaming, in this case).

    As far as inspiration goes, I’m a big fan of creative writing exercises. Several years ago, I took a 6 month, full time writing class, and most days would begin with some sort of exercise, like: write for ten minutes without stopping to think or edit, inspired by this photograph, painting, a single sentence, or a person on the street. After the class ended, I missed those challenges and my writing suffered as a result. I felt uninspired, or like a broken record. In the end, I made software that can generate endless exercises for me, which is *almost* as good. Even if I don’t always stick to the prompt given, at least it gets me started – and that’s what it’s really about, I think – starting.

    Easier said than done, of course. Which is why having some sort of parameter helps. Word count is a simple and effective way to do it. In fact, this comment is 219 words long. Almost there!

  4. Andy says:

    Y’know, the fact that this followed up my read of FILM CRIT HULK’S book “Screenwriting 101” was impossibly good timing.

  5. Joshua Unruh says:

    This is good advice and I’ve implemented it for myself without naming it or being this specific. Even game prep counts for my words. If I’ve got a game to run, that stuff has to be prepped at some point and if it’s writing things up, then I should count it. It’s certainly creative.

    The sheer volume of writing things also can’t be discounted. Just doing something a little at a time over and over will make you better. You might never be “good” but you’ll at least improve! That’s why I thought this post was also useful as far as perspective on quantity versus quality: https://medium.com/better-humans/3bc2b16fe3f5

    Good stuff, Ryan.