Top Tips to Overcome Procrastination: A Writer’s Guide

What’s your writing process? If like me you’ve truly mastered procrastination, you spend a large portion of your writing time doing a lot of non-writing. That is, discovering creative ways to avoid your own writing. 

The Writing Process: or lots of ways writers don’t write

Forms of procrastination I’ve been known to spend a lot of time on include overanalysing other’s fiction, watching videos on social media, and getting distracted by various things out the window and/or clickbait. Possibly a streaming service. It’s not great.

Writing procrastination tendencies can often mean filling your time with busy work. It’s easy to get distracted by all the life-min. There will always be phone calls, emails to chase and bills to pay.

We can find a million things to do before putting pen to paper (pixels to screen?). After we get done with the to-do list, there’s just not much time left in the day for creative work.

The truth is you’ll never have enough time.

Still, whatever your writing project, You can’t beat that sense of achievement when you manage to get the first draft done. So with that in mind, I offer you a few ways to overcome procrastination and get you going when you don’t want to do the writing bit of writing. 

Read something and then write something

Tip number 1 is probably quite irritating because I’ve just told you to write when you were looking for ways to make yourself do exactly that.

Let me explain.

Reading is active (despite the biscuits, the mocha and all the sitting down). When you create another world in your mind with the power of the words in front of you, you engage your imagination and creativity in a way that doesn’t happen with other media.

Reading something well-written is a great way to improve your own writing skills.

Get over procrastination by free-writing

Although the book, Writing the Natural Way, came out in 2000, it still has a lot to offer. Nico uses a method she calls clustering, which is similar to mind mapping.

writer writing text in a lined notebook with a fountain pen

The technique uses word association, allowing the mind to go where it wants around a subject without stopping, questioning or editing until the desire to write takes over. Then you start free writing.

That’s it.

It wakes up the brain and has produced some of my best work. 

My favourite technique from this book though, is a kind of style by osmosis.

You read a passage and then rewrite it by hand. Then you cluster for a topic of your own, free-write from a hook or phrase and just watch these new elements of style appear. It’s all totally your own but wonderfully inspired.

And If you’re concerned about sounding derivative, amazingly, that doesn’t happen as there’s so much of ‘you’ in there. You can’t remove yourself from it any more than you can truly reproduce someone else’s work. unless you plagiarise it. Which. Don’t.

Try it. Read a passage from something that inspires you, free-write and see what happens. The brain is fascinating. If nothing else it’s a great exercise to get over procrastination and writer’s block and get the writing process back on track.

Writing habits of the rich and famous

Professional writers have just as many issues with getting started. Here are a few famous writers who have experienced writing procrastination:

old hardback books in a pile beside a note pad open to a blank page with a black pen on top

Victor Hugo:

  • French novelist Victor Hugo was notorious for his procrastination tendencies. He would give his clothes to his valet so he couldn’t leave the house. Just to be on the safe side, he locked himself in his room with his writing. While naked or possibly wearing a blanket, he wrote Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. So there’s that.

Just think, one day your writing may earn you a valet to give your clothes to.

Ernest Hemingway:

“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel, you will never be stuck”.

Ernest Hemingway

Douglas Adams:

  • The author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was known for his procrastination habits. He once said, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Despite his procrastination tendencies, he managed to produce highly successful and beloved works.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

  • The poet and author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was known for his struggles with procrastination. Coleridge often faced difficulties completing his projects, and his unfinished works are well-documented.

Truman Capote:

  • Truman Capote, the author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was known for his procrastination and perfectionism. He once quipped, “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy.”

I completely understand. 

Margaret Atwood:

  • For Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, the underlying problem is also perfectionism. She has openly acknowledged her struggles with procrastination, saying, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” Yup.

Mark Twain:

  • Mark Twain, known for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was another writer who faced bouts of procrastination. He once remarked, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.” 

As you can see, procrastination is a common aspect of the creative process, and many successful writers have dealt with it. Each writer has their unique approach to managing procrastination, whether through discipline, routine or embracing the occasional delay as part of the creative journey.

Experiment with writing prompts 

Let me start by saying that some prompts are truly awful. But sometimes you can find your way into something when you twist them around a bit. 

I.e. Imagine an alien has just landed in your garden and is looking for an unusual power source to get home, he needs all the cheese you can find. 

Yeah.

 A sci-fi writer might love that and if you can spin cheese into gold, have at it. 

I’d probably reframe it as finding yourself in a foreign country and your credit card is blocked. What do you do to get home? You can tell I watched Inventing Anna

This brings me to my next point:

‘Inspired’ fiction

Take situations from shows you love, movies, and real-life and spin them out. What could happen next? what would you do in the same situation? what would a character you created do? I realise this is more commonly known as fanfiction but before you turn your nose up it’s how many famous writers have gotten started. 

Typewriter typing, 'the best way is just to start!' in black ink on a white page

Paradise Lost is based on the bible, The first Pride and Prejudice sequel (of the many, many sequels) was written in 1907. You can also read P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, or how about Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys- the renowned prequel to Jane Eyre.

 We can also add this from Neil Gaiman- When asked if he thought fanfiction was legitimate writing, he replied:

I won the 2004 Hugo Award for Best Short Story for an H. P. Lovecraft /Arthur Conan Doyle mashup fiction, so fanfiction had better be legitimate, because I’m not giving the Hugo back.

Or the 2005 Locus Award for Best Novelette. I’m not giving that back either.

Let’s just all awkwardly step around E.L. James though.

Is writer’s block real?

There are some writers who will tell you that they’re too busy working to have writer’s block. 

While it’s amazing what a deadline can do for your ability to sit down and write, writer’s block can be a very real part of the creative process. 

Edmund Bergler M.D. an Austrian psychiatrist, coined the term in 1947 to describe a “neurotic inhibition of productivity in creative writers”. However, its nature and severity can vary widely from person to person.

Some can’t seem to start (me), while others struggle with generating ideas or lose focus. 

Writer’s block causes

We may all experience writer’s block at one time or another, but if you’re aware of the underlying problem you can nip it in the bud. 

Writer’s block is often caused by:

Perfectionism: 

The desire for perfection can be paralyzing, as writers we fear that our work is not of a high enough standard. See also comparison.

Fear of Failure: 

Again, the fear of not meeting expectations rears its ugly head. Also getting criticism at the wrong time, in the wrong way can hinder the creative process and generally make us feel like we’re rubbish at writing.

Lack of Inspiration: 

When you can’t find any new ideas and you’re staring at the blank page of doom, it makes you wonder what on earth you’re doing with your life and if you could ever write at all. Try moving forward after that.

External Pressures:

Deadlines, external expectations, pressures and too much stress are a great way to hinder creativity and stop you writing.

Writing Burnout: 

Exhaustion, both physical and mental, will also lead you down the path of lack of motivation and creativity.

Overthinking: 

Overanalyzing or overthinking the writing process can create mental barriers that impede progress. I refer you back to Margaret Atwood: If you obsess about every word, you won’t write any.

And if nothing else works you could always do a Charles Bukowski and write about it: “Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all”.

Getting over writer’s block is a personal journey and different strategies work for different writers.

Whether you consider writer’s block a psychological barrier or a temporary challenge, it is a phenomenon that most writers encounter, and there are strategies and techniques to help mitigate its impact and resume the creative process.

What to do if you have writer’s block

If you really are stuck here are a few more things you can try:

  • Take a Short Break:
    • I know, I know, stop writing is not advice anyone wants. But, sometimes, stepping away from your work for a short time can help clear your mind. Go for a walk, get the body moving and give the brain a break.
  • Mind Mapping:
    • Create a visual representation of your ideas using mind maps. This can help you see connections and spark new thoughts.
  • Accept Imperfection:
    • As I and Margaret Atwood keep saying, forget perfection. Your first draft is going to be an [Expletive]. Give yourself permission to write poorly initially and focus on refining your work during the editing process.
  • Seek Feedback:
    • I know this is hard. Believe me, But someone has to read your work eventually. Why not start with someone you know and trust?  Someone else reading your work can give you valuable insights and help you see it in a new light.

And if you happen to know an actor (like yours truly) who can perform it for you all the better.

Experiment with these techniques, and find what works best for you. Remember that writer’s block is common, and it’s okay to experience it. Be patient with yourself and trust that your creative flow will return.

Still hesitating? Edit your writing project

Black Typewriter on white background with blank page

Being a writer is labouring over one paragraph for 3 days before recognising you don’t need it. And deleting it. Then rewriting it.

My way around the problem of not wanting to start is to remind myself that I’m not rubbish. The way to do that is to spend a couple of hours going through a draft, something you’ve been working on previously and tweak it until the inspiration starts to flow.

It can be uplifting as well as useful. You start to see that actually, you’ve done a lot of pretty good work already. It’ll also inspire you to write more. 

Suddenly without bothering your over-long to-do list, you’ve got a writing plan and something to work on. Also, you don’t stink at writing. 

There is tons of software out there to help you edit. Here are some of the best:

Hemingway Editor

Notion

Scrivener

Prowriting Aid

Novel Pad

Take a small step forwards

I have a Confucius quote for you: 

It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.

Writing can do tons for your mental health. You can resolve feelings you can’t get past by journaling and coming to a better understanding of yourself.

I’ve written myself out of moods I couldn’t shift in the past. There have also been times in my life when stopping was absolutely the wrong thing to do, but moving forward seemed impossible. 

The answer has always been to take a small step. 

Moving slowly is still moving. You’re doing more than you know right now, even if you’re only reading this. Reading about the process of writing is inspiring. And I know some of you are thinking ‘Well, if she thinks that’s good I’m amazing…’

Go for it. I can’t wait to read your brilliant creation. That wasn’t sarcasm. Also thanks for including little ol’ me in your list of readable stuff. I’ll take readable.

Don’t stop doing the things you love even if you only have 5 minutes a day. The speed may be killing you and I understand that you want success now and not 30 years from now but we don’t know what’s going to happen yet.

What we do know is that as much as it’s sometimes awful, the writing journey is often the best part.

Blank page? Write for 3 minutes

Open notebook to blank page with pencil

There have been maybe 2 occasions where this hasn’t worked and most of the time I end up with a largely finished post and/or chapter. I may edit it to death later but still. The most important thing is words. On the page.

Look here’s some more. And all because I gave myself 3 minutes and if it doesn’t work you can stop and watch Russian Doll or something. Look, even more words. Also?

Count your Words

If you’re trying to reach a writing goal, this helps. Even if you’re randomly adding rubbish you will berate yourself for later. The volume of words proves that you can in fact produce words and they do in fact come together to create sentences and those sentences.. you get it.

There’s a lot of satisfaction in a good long word count. And because of the type of writer I am, (a pantser I’m led to believe) I’ll be overwriting that mother and editing it down, down, down until it’s coherent and won’t take my audience until they’re 60 to finish. (I know. Imagine how long this was to start with).

I have a problem with pith. Not the kind found on oranges. I’ll move on before I come across any more deranged.

So there you go. I wrote. I’ve also managed an hour and a half and researched new mics for my audiobook narration setup so I call that a job well done.

Time yourself

When you lack all motivation sometimes powering through an hour, 20 minutes, 3? (see above) on something that grabs your interest can do wonders for your wellbeing and sense of achievement. Using a timer can help. See how much you can write without stopping.

I tried it for 15 minutes when writing this. And yes I did keep checking the clock to see only that a couple of minutes had passed since the last time I looked. 

This, my friend, is the writing genius that such a technique produces. 11 minutes left. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love writing for you guys out there in the wide world and oddly Oregan, (um go Trailblazers? I’m British, I literally have no idea, but hello).

But sometimes It’s like: I are educated with words. The dog is brown. 

8 minutes. 

Yes, those two sentences did take a whole 3 minutes to write. 

also…

Don’t time yourself

Don’t look at the clock at all. Time may perform its terrible dance but you don’t have to look at it. As you can see from the above paragraph sometimes it really doesn’t help. Not everything is worth sharing unless, of course, you’re stuffing a word count. Which I’m not.  

Allowing yourself the time to dive into deep work without the pressure of time can be a good thing. Find a quiet writing space and immerse yourself. Preferably, somewhere that serves good coffee.

Call it incubating instead of procrastination

When I was studying music back in the dark, distant past of the early 2000s we would commandeer the ‘computer room’. A Magical space dedicated to computers where you could waste time work because the crack box attached to your hand hadn’t been invented yet. 

Although we could enjoy a nice relaxing game of Snake on a green screen while enjoying a Cappuccino for 50p. It was a different time.

Music study sessions in the Room of Great Computers involved looking up bands and printing lyrics because… music. It was related. Sort of. And thus the habit of messing about and procrastinating while calling it research was born. 

I think of this whenever I do something that’s meant to be writing but isn’t really. Non-writing writing. And that’s okay because science has decided that the non-writing part is essential to our creative work. We may not be procrastinating but rather, incubating.

I’m not sure what great work of art came out of all of the printed lyrics though… 

It’s your writing life: ignore all the advice

At the end of the day, you can only do what works for you. All of these ideas are designed to give you a gentle nudge but if they don’t work, don’t worry. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to just start writing. Even if you hate it, even if it’s nonsense. 

Sometimes you end up with a long ramble like this, but at least it’s something. I showed up today. Here is my evidence. So do the thing you know you can do, even if you feel you can’t right now.

And, as always, celebrate the small wins.

I’ve now made it a whole 3 minutes over my target. I’d ask what you do to keep writing but I’m out of here. Got to get back to Netflix.

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