Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Best Ever Hacks For Writing When You Don't Really Feel Like Writing

If a writer who looked like this was living in my house, all the writing hacks in the world couldn't save me.

There's something I inherently dislike about the word "hack". Perhaps it's because I'm a journalist and it's used pejoratively (and often unfairly) against reporters whose work people don't embrace. Maybe it's because I love horses and in the past, hack horses were frequently beaten and abused beasts of burden forced to draw heavy wagons. Whether it's someone trying to break into your computer, make you angry, or chop you to pieces, the word "hack" has few good meanings.

However, in modern parlance hack has come to mean "a quicker and easier way of doing things." While I still have my nose up in the air a bit over this (I'm a perfectionist who doesn't mind doing things the un-hacked way...) I know this new sense of the word is here to stay.

That said, I want to share some creative hacks for writers looking to improve their productivity, even when they don't feel like writing. But first I'll take a bit of a detour to let you know why I personally need these effective writing hacks.

I've made my career working in journalism and writing non-fiction books. But like many other writers, whether aspiring or established, I spend way more time thinking about writing than I actually do writing.

This problem began when a caveman chiseled the first petroglyph onto a rock and has persisted right up to modern times, even with writers toting around the slickest digital tablets and other tools that make the physical act of writing easier than ever. But fancy tools don't address the psychological aspect of writing and that is where I need help.

In terms of being a storyteller, I am very good. I would have been welcome around any campfire in any clan or tribe that passed its mythology and history orally from one generation to the next. Using spoken words alone, I can mesmerize a room by weaving a synopsis of my latest work in progress, even though it's technically only in progress inside my head and will die the moment I complete my recitation. I can rile up a room to the point where many people clamor to know when the book is coming out.

The sad truth is, the book is never going to come out. None of my fiction ever "comes out," because while I am an engaging and imaginative spinner of tales in the finest tradition of storytellers everywhere, I can never get any of those stories that spill so readily and convincingly from my mouth to flow from my brain down onto paper. There's some sort of barrier between my head and my hands when it comes to writing fiction. Non-fiction? That easily sorts itself into neat, ascending bundles within my mind. I just write down what's within those bundles and BOOM! I have a book.

But for fiction...I NEED hacks. I am determined to use these hacks to finally get one of my novels out of my head and down onto paper. Here are my favorites:

Up your self-belief
The original seed of any writing project lies in the belief that you can, in fact, accomplish that project. If you start with self-doubt, it soon becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that will doom your efforts to failure.

I write myself tiny, encouraging post-it notes that I stick on my computer. The messages are simple: Just write! You CAN do this! 100 words and then you can goof off! (And yes, I need all those exclamation marks!)

Some days this works and honestly, some days it doesn't. But if these notes can help me write even 100 words a day, that's moving me closer to a finish line I've yet to reach in a work of fiction.

Write in the same place every day
If you exercise discipline about where you write, soon that discipline will begin to exert itself in your work. Don't allow yourself to do anything else in your writing spot. Don't read. Don't work crossword puzzles. Don't watch TV and don't daydream.

Before long, your brain will come to associate that specific place with the act of writing and a sort of autonomic response will kick in. When you sit down in your writing chair, you will write.

This hack seems to work particularly well for me.

Put a pen and notebook by your bed
It's amazing what my brain can come up with as I am drifting off to sleep. Entire scenes write themselves, problems are solved, barriers are broken. But since I'm falling asleep, I just tell myself I'll remember everything in the morning and then off I go to The Land of Nod.

Of course, the next morning I can't grab a single thread of memory, much less the lively, perfect lines of dialogue that flowed so readily in my half-conscious state. I lost way too many wonderful scenes before I realized there was a low-tech solution. Now I keep a pen and paper next to my bed and as I drift off, I reach over and write down everything swirling through my brain.

The only thing I have to do the next morning is to translate my words from whatever obscure ancient language (usually Scribble-Scratch) I used to write them down. It's not 100 percent perfect but this technique has certainly helped me save many an idea that would otherwise have been lost forever.

Find another writer to hold your hand
As I've mentioned in previous posts, writing can be a lonely, isolating endeavor. Sometimes, you just need a bit of encouragement to keep going, to relight your creative spark and pump up your sagging self-confidence. It helps if the person you ask to hold your hand writes in the same genre and is in about the same place in their writing journey as you are. As much as I would love to call up Louise Penny or Martha Grimes and ask them for a cyber hug and advice on writing a best-selling mystery novel, something tells me it would be difficult for me to get their phone numbers. But someone working in my genre at my level makes a wonderful shoulder to cry upon when my book seems to be collapsing around me.

There are many other writing hacks you can try out to encourage yourself to be more productive. Some people suggest reading more, but I find reading when I am writing dilutes my voice. Other people say to keep two or three projects going at once so that if you hit a wall with one, you can hop right into another.

The suggestions I've made here are just examples of the many great writing hacks you can employ to propel yourself forward on your writing journey. These happen to be ones that work for me. Find a few you like, that feel comfortable and workable for you, and you'll soon find yourself writing more regularly and with more purpose.

If you still need more ideas, our own Ann Parker (author of the wonderful Silver Rush mystery series) has compiled a great list of websites loaded with writing hacks. There are so many good ideas there you could spend a couple of days reading them. Just be careful not to spend so much time reading about writing that you forget to write.

Patricia B. Smith is a journalist who is the author of 11 published books, including Idiot’s Guide: Flipping Houses, Alzheimer's For Dummies and Sleep Disorders for Dummies.

Pat is also an experienced professional developmental editor who serves as an Editorial Evaluation and Developmental Coordinator for Five Star Publishing. She works with private clients as well and has helped many authors land their first publishing contracts. Many of her clients have achieved notable success, including two winners of the Missouri Writers’ Guild Show-me Best Book of the Year Award.

Connect with Pat on Facebook, Twitter, or Linked In.


  1. You will get there, Pat. I wrote my first published novel 100 to 200 words at a time, with a toddler trying to poke the keys at the same time. I just caught a couple of "agkhdagjleyi" in time before the ms went to my editor!

    Have you tried dictating your stories using something like Dragon Naturally Speaking, or phoning a friend and recording the session, then transcribing it? Or you could even become a YouTube sensation, setting up fireside storytelling parties with an iPhone on a tripod to record it. And, again, you could have it transcribed - when the book comes out you'll have a ready audience :-)

    1. Thanks for all the great suggestions, Elle. I particularly like the fireside "chat" idea.

  2. Gotta keep up with modern vernacular, gal. Hacks are what they are called these days.

  3. Having a group or writing partners helps keep you motivated to produce pages for your meetings. Accountability is a great carrot/stick.

    1. You're right that groups or partners do help with accountability. And I need that!

  4. I absolutely relate to your MO, Pat. Age doesn't make it any better; in fact, it enhances the disconnect from focus, concentration, and determination to jump in and get the job (aka writing) done.

  5. I so agree with you, Linda. As I get older, I find I am much dreamier, not as in sleepier, but as in much more prone to spend pleasant time inside my own head without feeling any sort of need to connect to anything other than my own imagination. Now, if I could only get some of those imaginings down on paper!

  6. Since I've read some of your work in progress, I say, KEEP AT IT. You have a great idea and very timely.

    1. Thank you for the encouragement, Polly. I truly appreciate it.


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