As a child, I never stopped writing — and I’m sure many of you were the same. Sitting at our desks at school or sprawled across the carpet at home, No. 2 pencils making a mad dash across the dotted lines. Creative writing was a way to escape, or simply to make our small worlds feel a little bit brighter.
But as we approached adulthood, a sense of pessimism set in. We decided our work wasn’t original, sophisticated, or interesting enough to continue. We went years without picking up a pen (or opening a new Google Doc, as the case may be).
Until one day it returned — that stirring of imagination, the urge to write. But by now it’s been so long since we produced anything creative, we’ve forgotten how to even go about it!
Luckily, even if you’ve been out of the creative writing game for years, there are plenty of things you can do to get back into it. I found myself in this position in early 2018; now, less than a year later, I’ve written several short stories and even begun a novel.
In my own personal experience, here are the five best things you can do to recapture your motivation and get writing again.
1. Enter short story contests
This is my absolute top tip for getting back into creative writing. As hard as it is to admit, many of us writers are great at starting projects, but terrible at finishing them. It’s especially challenging to persist to the end of a story when your skills are rusty and your words aren’t coming out right. You think “what’s the point?” and the whole thing ends there.
Short story contests give you a prompt, a hard deadline, and — best of all — a tangible reward for finishing something. They also tend to have very manageable word requirements, typically around 2,000 to 5,000 words. That’s just a couple days of writing, a week at most! Even someone who hasn’t written anything in years can do that much.
Some short story contests require an entry fee, like NYC Midnight’s contests that crop up every couple of months. It might sound silly to spend money on what’s essentially a prompt, but an entry fee can be great motivation! As with any investment, you’ll likely feel more compelled to follow through on it because you paid, and you don’t want to have wasted your money.
If you’re strapped for cash but still want the motivation of a reward, try a short story contest like Reedsy’s weekly competition (at the top of the page, but there are plenty below it too!). They send five writing prompts straight to your inbox and you can choose whichever you like best, then enter your story free of charge.
2. Follow the “500 words a day” plan
Many pro writers sing the praises of writing 500 words a day, every day — they say it’s long enough to make pretty substantial progress, yet short enough not to be overwhelming.
I agree that 500 words is the perfect daily goal; I’ve never been one for the NaNoWriMo philosophy of “write as much as you can in very little time.” Though it works well for some people, it’s definitely not the tack to take when you’re just dipping your toe back into writing.
500 words a day is enough to consistently flex your writing muscles, while still being able to turn out decent work. In addition to the stress of having to write 1000+ words every day, I also find that it’s almost impossible to write well in such large blocks. You don’t really have time to think carefully about what you’re writing, and you definitely don’t have time to edit.
Basically, 500 words a day allows you to favor quality over quantity and regain confidence in your writing before attempting to do more.
3. Ask friends for ideas or use writing prompts
Besides pure motivational issues, many long-hibernating creatives also face the problem of what to actually write! It’s always a strange, frustrating feeling when you know you want to write something, but you don’t have any specific direction.
Luckily, other people and resources can help you out. Talking to friends, especially other writers, can be an excellent means of coming up with new ideas — even if it’s just you asking, “Hey, what’s something you’ve always wanted to read about?” Consider bouncing any half-baked ideas off them too, in case they can help you turn it into a concrete plot.
You can also use writing prompts for inspiration, which is great for when you have a genre or general feeling in mind, but not a particular topic or story. This writing prompts directory allows you to search by keyword and genre, or you can visit the writing prompts Reddit page for new ideas every day.
4. Cancel out distractions
The initial burst of creative inspiration is all well and good, but it’s no use if you keep getting distracted! Taking breaks is one thing — you definitely want to get up and stretch every so often, in order to keep yourself fresh and focused. But if you find your attention being compromised by your environment (or by checking Twitter every five minutes), it’s time to reevaluate your work habits.
First of all, make sure you know what physical setting works best for you. Everyone has different preferences and requirements for their own work setting — some people need total isolation and silence, while others benefit from a bit of background noise. Figure out your ideal situation and try to work in that environment as much as possible.
Second of all, lay down hard-and-fast rules when it comes to social media (or whatever else might tempt you on the Internet). Again, you know yourself: are you a Twitter fiend or an Insta fanatic? Whatever distracts you the most, consider blocking it on your phone or laptop.
Or if downloading a blocking app or extension is more effort than you want to exert, simply log out; even that can go a long way toward helping you avoid distraction.
5. Write your own story
Writers often use other people’s work as a source of inspiration, especially when just starting out (or jumping back in). However, this can backfire on two levels: one, you try to mimic another person’s writing style, and the resulting product sounds inorganic and false. And two, when you model your writing after a bestselling author’s, it’s easy to feel discouraged by their talent.
To truly flourish as a creative writer, you really do need to write your own story. You can draw certain elements from other things you’ve read, but it can’t just be a carbon copy of something you like. I know this from personal experience; after reading Gone Girl in 2013, I was so enthralled by Gillian Flynn’s prose that I decided I wanted to write like her. Exactly like her.
Alas, two pages into my own mystery-thriller novel, I realized that a) this writing style didn’t come naturally to me at all, and b) I didn’t even want to write a mystery-thriller; I just wanted to write something great.
But greatness doesn’t stem from a certain subject or style — there are best-selling and well-loved books in every genre and voice imaginable. The key to great writing is passion, tempered by discipline and determination.
Luckily, with these tips in your arsenal, you should already be that much closer to getting back in the creative writing game… and this time, I’m sure you’ll follow through on your goals.
Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.
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