When is it Time for a Writing Break?
Welcome back to Perspectives off the Page, and boy is it great to be back!
As some of you may know, I often like to set aside specific times in my year to unplug and step away from social media and other media outlets, just to gain a little perspective and give my eyes a break from the never-ending torrent of politics, world news, and status updates.
But while I stepped away most media for the better part of two months, don’t worry, this wasn’t a break from writing. There was still plenty of that going on. I just decided to step away from specific forms of media, including the blog, to refocus, prepare for the Fall semester, and recalibrate my creative process heading into the final stretch of this thoroughly bizarre and unpredictable year.
This year, however, my normal August tech shabbat (as I like to call it) spilled over into September and even the first week of October. And I’m glad it did.
It’s amazing what time away from the chaos of social media and American media in general can do for one’s mental health and clarity, not to mention one’s blood pressure.
Ironically, last weekend when I spoke about my summer tech shabbat at the Elevate Writer’s Conference, I received a lot of questions about whether or not I also recommend building intentional writing breaks into my schedule?
This inspired some really great conversations with fellow writers about their personal writing habits. And based on some of those conversations (thank you to all who reached out), here are a few perspectives on why scheduled writing breaks can actually be an important part of the writing process.
Wouldn’t It be Nice if I Had All Day to Write?
We’ve all had seasons in life where we struggle to find time to put words on the page. When those weeks come, setting aside an hour or two at the end of the day may feel paltry.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could free up our schedules and have all day to do nothing but write? If only we had more time, we’d finally be able to finish our work and do more as a writer. Wouldn’t that be nice?
So we tell ourselves.
While I’m all for personal writing retreats and the occasional writing weekend to crank out a heavy volume of writing, this method of writing isn’t really sustainable, nor is it that healthy in the long run.
Having all day to write doesn’t mean you will actually spend all day writing.
As it turns out, when people give themselves all day to do anything, they often take all day to do it. Procrastination becomes a much bigger obstacle to meeting your writing goal when all of your time constraints are removed, and deadlines absolved.
Whatever your writing day look like, I encourage you to set a start time, set an end time, and try and focus on getting as much writing done in that designated time as possible.
Even if it’s only an hour or two every day or a few hours on select days, small blocks, when stacked together, eventually become mighty towers. Words become paragraphs and paragraphs become pages if you put enough of them together.
Remember: if you can’t be productive with your smaller writing blocks, you won’t all of a sudden become more productive with the longer blocks you’re hoping will come.
You are More Than Just a Writer
While the characterization of the pipe-smoking, over-caffeinated writer, locked away in some cabin in the woods while he works to finish his magnum opus may seem attractive, I don’t think anyone really wants to live that life, no matter how much they love writing.
Most writers I know, however, live remarkably normal, balanced, and inconspicuous lives. They have families, kids, and parents they love and need to take care of. They take their dog for a walk every night, drive their kids to school every morning, and have hobbies and side projects they look forward to completing that have nothing to do with their writing. They take the trash out, wash their cars, and go to the dentist to get their teeth cleaned.
Yes, as a writer, you will need to get used to long hours of solitude and silence, where you learn to focus on your writing with no one to talk to but the characters on the page.
However, there are other people (actual people) in your life who need you too.
You are more than just a writer, and you have more responsibilities in life than just writing.
There’s a time and a place for everything, and writing should never fill every time slot in your day. At some point, you have to learn to put the pen down and look to the other joys, relationships, and responsibilities of life.
One of the greatest skills you will develop as a writer is knowing when to be done for the day and knowing how to be proud of your work for that day.
So here’s a trick: Set a page goal or word count goal and then set a time you will be done for the day. Even if you are mid-sentence or just shy of reaching your goal, when your alarm goes off, save your document, close your computer, and walk away! No matter what! Don’t stay an extra twenty minutes. Don’t try and squeeze in another sentence. Walk away, spend time with your family, enjoy your night, and come back to your writing again the next day.
It’s not just about taking a break, it’s about learning to break away.
I promise you, at first you will feel uncomfortable and maybe even disappointed that you weren’t able to reach your goal. However, in time, you will begin to approach your writing with new energy and focus, knowing that you only have so much time to get your work done before that final whistle blows. You will learn to be productive with the time you have when you remember it’s all you have.
Quench Your Thirst
One of the best ways to stay productive, inspired, and creative on the page is to schedule time in your week to replenish and feed your creativity. Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way) would call this an artist’s date. You can call it whatever you want. The idea here is to make time to seek out inspiration and never allow your gas tank to run on fumes.
In a pure biblical sense, you might think of it like returning to the well or looking to heaven for your daily bread.
As a writer, you should be reading books and watching movies. You should be learning from the greatness of other writers and artists. Study what they do. Practice their techniques. Let their talent and discipline encourage and motivate you to keep writing. And don’t be afraid to make time to do things that may or may not have anything to do with writing.
Consider this set time as your creative cool down after a long workout.
Paint something, pick up the guitar, go for a hike, cook your favorite meal. Get some fresh air and sunlight for goodness sake.
Your passion may keep you in the chair and at the computer all day, but your eyes and hands will soon beg you for a break.
Find things that inspire you and make them a regular part of your writing process.
These activities should never distract you from writing, but when given the proper place and time, they can inspire you to keep writing and help in your recovery when you’ve been at it all week. And as any weightlifter will tell you, recovery is just as important as the lift itself.
Let it Breathe!
One of my favorite questions I get asked by writers is how long they should set their manuscript aside once it’s finished before they jump back into rewrites.
Now I'm not a wine drinker but I know there's something to letting a freshly poured glass of wine breathe before you take your first taste.
As a general rule, I try to give any project at least two to three weeks, maybe a week if I’m working on a short story, article, or blog post, deadlines permitting.
The goal here is to create some distance from the work so you can return to it later with a fresh set of eyes. At this point, you’re no longer driving the boat, which you’ve been doing throughout the writing process. Now you’re looking at it from the dock where you're looking for holes, flaws, and ugly spots that need your attention.
You shift from being a writer to a reader and eventually an editor. A brief sabbatical helps with that transition. And all great work needs to be reevaluated in time. Give it that time and give yourself time to reflect.
This isn’t to say that in these two to three weeks you stop writing. You should continue writing, but this is the time where you can play with new ideas or start working on other writing projects you have in your queue.
What About Side Writing?
I will always challenge the idea of writer’s block because I don’t believe there ever is such a thing.
Sure, you may get tired during the writing process or lose interest in your idea or get stuck on a tricky section of your manuscript, but to arrive at a point where you all of a sudden cannot write ANYTHING is nonsense!
You’re a writer. You can write. You may just be struggling with what to write in that moment. You haven’t hit a brick wall. You’ve hit a patch of mud in the race you’re running. It can slow you down, but it should never stop you.
Push through. Keep going. What you write next may be ugly. It may feel like muck and the words coming out of your mouth may sound like muck. But sometimes you have to write a couple of really bad scenes before you can figure out the right way to write that scene or chapter.
And you will push through. I promise you!
I also encourage writers to spend some time doing some practice writing before they jump into the day’s work. This is your warmup lap and stretch before the big race.
More often than not, a half hour of practice writing, where I allow myself to write three to four pages of absolute nonsense without censoring or editing myself, shakes out any stiffness I still have from the night before and helps me when I get to those unfortunate patches of mud.
And while turning to other writing projects or doing some side writing when stuck in a patch of writer’s mud may spark some fresh ideas or give you a moment of reprieve, I’ve often found that side writing during a rough patch can become an even bigger distraction or an excuse not to push through the patch of mud you’re currently in.
It’s always better to write something (anything) rather than just stare at the screen and write nothing. Jump ahead in your manuscript if you need to. Work on something else if you have to. Just keep writing!
Your progress may be slow some days. You may not hit your writing goals other days. But the more you write, the more creative muscles you’ll begin to develop. Just make sure you also give them time to rest and recover. Scheduled writing breaks don’t just help the process. They should be a regular part of the process.
Everything in its proper time.
Anyway, that should be enough for today. I’m nearing the end of my own time clock and have other projects to work on off the page.
Thanks again to everyone who attended the Elevate Writer’s Conference last week and thank you so much for stopping by today. If you enjoyed these perspectives, tap the heart below. If you loved them, don’t forget to subscribe for updates and new content. Pass the word along, share this post, and let me know if there’s any ideas or content you’d like covered. I look forward to hearing from you.
Until Today, Storytellers