How to Write When You Don't Feel Like it
As a writer, I hear a lot from people who are interesting and smart and have a lot to say, and yet they have so much trouble getting words on the page. Often they had really mean English teachers or someone else in their past who convinced them they could not write. But they can write. The trick is to come up with a process that will enable that, and to find workarounds for issues that arise and that sometimes pull people back into that headspace where they're convinced it's something they can't do.
But that's not the only issue. There are experienced writers facing burnout or non-writers who have no issues with their confidence but have been tasked with writing a report for work and are just not in the mood. Here are some strategies I've used—some for over a decade—that have helped me get the writing juices flowing. Hopefully one of them will work for you.
Strategy 1: Set a timer.
When to use it: This strategy works well when you already have a good idea of what you want to say but keep getting distracted with other things.
How to do it: You can use a mechanical timer, but there are also various Pomodoro apps and browser extensions that will kick you off social media for 25-minute increments, followed by a five-minute break. Another option is to meet with a friend (virtually or otherwise), tell each other what you want to work on, and check in after a predetermined amount of time. You might not finish the entire project but will likely wind up with way more than you had before you started.
Strategy 2: Switch locations.
When to use it: If you're feeling stircrazy at home, keep getting up to fold laundry or answer the door or put away dishes, or just need a change of scenery.
How to do it: Find a coffee shop, a coworking space, a library, a friend's house, a park bench, or a well-lit bar. Make sure you're all charged up, have a backup Wi-Fi source (even if it's just tethering to your phone), and that you're dressed in layers in case your office away from home has broken air conditioning or decides to try to freeze you to death.
Strategy #3: Self-Bribery.
When to use it: Not too often! It works well if you are feeling a little sorry for yourself and really just need the day off, but have been putting off this work for a little too long.
How to do it: Set your terms and conditions in advance. This might combine well with strategy #2: you can go to your favorite coffee shop and have a cupcake, but you can't leave the coffee shop until your report is done.
Strategy #4: Write the worst crap ever.
When to use it: If you can't start writing because you're worried that you'll be writing garbage, giving yourself permission to write absolute drivel can be quite freeing.
How to do it: The secret here is that even if you do get some real garbage on the page, once that's out of your system, some of the good stuff will show up on the page. Let it.
Strategy #5: Start in the middle.
When to use it: This strategy is for those times when you keep writing and crossing out your first sentence or headline over and over again.
How to do it: If you can’t think of a good intro, don’t. Go into an area that you feel strong in, and build around that. Nobody will know what order you constructed your piece in as long as it all gets written.
Strategy #6: Switch fonts or formats.
When to use it: It's pretty low risk, so just test it out when you feel like you're in a rut.
How to do it: Switch from Word to Google Docs to .txt to your CMS. Switch to pen and paper. Change fonts from Arial to Helvetica to Garamond, or whatever floats your boat. I experiment with writing in the font of the site I'm writing for sometimes. Sometimes changing colors also helps. I've even put things in bold as I rewrite them into simpler text, and then remove that formatting once I'm finished with that section.
Strategy #7: Change the music.
When to use it: This is another one of those low-risk strategies that you can just stop doing 30 seconds later if it doesn't work.
How to do it: It takes a bit of experimentation, since everyone responds differently to different types of sound. I like using upbeat music for brainstorming and sad music when I'm editing or refining my thoughts, but I've also tried to play music appropriate to whichever topic I'm covering. (If I'm writing a profile of someone, I try to listen to the type of music they like.)
Strategy #8: Organize your thoughts.
When to use it: You have so much to say about something that you don't even know where to start, and keep ruminating over which parts might not work.
How to do it: Write down all of your ideas on a piece of paper. Then, circle similar themes in the same color. When you're done, you'll have all circles in all sorts of colors all over the page. Each color is a paragraph or a section. And you can remove the paragraphs or sections you decide won't work in this particular piece.
Strategy #9: Make an outline.
When to use it: Do this if you think an overview and a structure will help.
How to do it: This actually combines well with strategy #8, but you can do it on its own. Just jot down what you want to write in the order that you want to write it. If you don't know how you'll structure it, think of your article as a pearl necklace. Figure out what the string is that would tie the different pieces or pearls together. You can even decide what you need in each section, whether that's an anecdote or a reference or a screenshot to illustrate your point.
Strategy #10: Add the quotes or cites first.
When to use it: I used this trick in college when writing research papers, but it works for profiles or anything quotation-heavy or citation-heavy as well.
How to do it: Type up all the quotes you want to use. Then you can either figure out the major themes around those quotes and add those as subheads, or you can just start writing and clean it up into some kind of structure later.
Strategy #11: Do something repetitive.
When to use it: When you're desperately in need of ideas, repetitive motion can get the wheels spinning.
How to do it: Wash dishes. Take a shower. Water your garden. Scrub the tub. Hop on your bicycle. Keep your project in the back of your mind and see if anything useful comes up.
Strategy #12: Do something unrelated.
When to use it: This can be used interchangeably with strategy #11 when you're stuck brainstorming an idea.
How to do it: Go on a walk, paying attention to sights and sounds. Spend 15 minutes listening to Taiko music. Eat a piece of fruit, slowly. Get out of your head and in touch with your senses. Then go back to the page and start over.