Emergency writing motivation techniques

Help is on the way!If you want to write right now but just don’t feel motivated, here are some immediate ways to get fired up. Any one of them might do the trick: pick whichever seems most likely or appealing and give it a try. If it doesn’t get you right on track, try another one. No self-motivation trick is sure-fire, and we often tend to feel that if we’re not motivated now, there’s no way to get motivated, but there’s strong evidence in psychological and neurological research that we can change our moods, focus, and motivation–in fact, our emotional and motivational states can change very quickly, given the right setup. [image by gruntzooki]

Keep in mind that just reading this list isn’t going to motivate you—it’s doing one or more of the things this section describes that will make the change. (See “Knowing Isn’t Enough: The 4 Steps Between Knowledge and Action”.)

Get a little exercise. It may sound unappealingly healthy, but research strongly supports the idea that even a 10-minute walk can make you more alert and energetic and improve your mood. It might help to glance over some notes for whatever you’re working on before you set out too, to let yourself mull it over while you’re walking or doing a few push-ups or hula hooping. (See also: “Nothing to Do With Weight Loss: 17 Ways Exercise Promotes Willpower and Motivation“.)

If something’s bothering you, fix your thoughts. Often we hold ourselves back by delivering a negative running commentary of broken ideas (see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair). If you’re thinking “My writing sucks” or “I’ll never finish this book” or “My agent should have done a better job selling my last project,” get your thinking back on track using some straightforward techniques borrowed from cognitive psychology via the link above or books like Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper’s A Guide to Rational Living or David Burns’ Feeling Good.

Visualize a result you like. Take a few minutes to picture what it will be like when your piece is finished and you can turn it in to your critique group or ship it off to your publisher or start querying agents or submit it to a magazine. Think about the best-case scenario: what if this turns out to be not just good, but exceptionally good? You can’t predict how things will turn out when you’re done, but you can browse the possibilities. Spend a little time in the future enjoying what you might accomplish, then come back to the present and start doing it.

Just start typing. Momentum can be invaluable in making progress, and sometimes we work hard trying to talk ourselves out of writing instead of simply starting to bang some keys and see if we can keep going. Try opening a document and typing a few words, or making that first edit, or brainstorming some ridiculous ideas about how to continue writing or about changing your outline. Sometimes a little motion is all that’s needed to shake off inertia. If it helps, pick a small task to get you started, like writing uninterruptedly for 10 minutes or brainstorming how the Dickens you’re going to get your hero out of that steamer trunk.

Meditate. Even if meditation “isn’t your thing,” it can pay off handsomely when you need more serenity or focus. If you don’t know how to meditate already, this post points you to online resources that can have you meditating within half an hour. You don’t even have to do a great job of it: even an amateur attempt at meditating can provide immediate benefits. Regular meditation is also a great way to improve mood on an ongoing basis.

Why did you decide to write this piece? Get in touch with your goals and inspirations for the piece you’re working on (or have decided to work on). Was there an idea that excited you? A publication opportunity? A scene you pictured that you couldn’t wait to get down on paper? Were you challenging yourself with a piece that required stretching your skills? Grab a piece of paper or pull up a blank word processing document and write out why you were interested in doing the project in the first place. (You can also do this in your head, but writing it down can have a stronger effect.) Alternatively, write out an explanation of what is or could be great about the piece you’re working on—why you would want someone to be interested in it, or what could make it special or appealing.

If you feel overwhelmed, focus on one thing. Our brains are only physically capable of focusing on one thing at a time. Therefore, even if there are a lot of things that may be clamoring for your attention, you will be rising to the greatest possible level of responsibility if you just 1) figure out which one is most important to do now, and 2) get started on that one. All the others can be ignored until it’s their time.

Write it out. Writing down your thoughts journal-style can help clarify what your obstacles are or what it is you really want to be doing, and why. Writing about your own writing is often an excellent way to work out both writing motivation problems and writing problems themselves, like plot difficulties or difficult decisions about how to organization of a piece.

Talk with someone who supports your writing. If you can easily recall times when talking with someone about your writing project got you fired up to work on it, then you (like me) can probably use that approach again and again. And while it’s not true of everyone, a lot of people—both writers and readers—feel flattered to be asked to talk with a writer about a work in progress. There’s a very complimentary implication that just talking to that person is inspiring, which is in fact the case when this works.

Find inspiration. If you’re like many writers, you decided to start writing (or were recently inspired to write more) by reading something incredibly good (making you think “I really want to be able to write like that!”) and/or by something that you were surprised was successful at all (making you think “Hell, I could do better than that!”). Go read a brief passage from one of those works, or spent a short time online perusing recent books that have sold, or look at a magazine you want to sell to and think about having your work in there.

Alternatively, if there’s something that tends to get you fired up to write—a particular kind of music, an activity that gets you thinking, browsing random pictures on Flickr, etc.—try that now (but don’t get so wrapped up in it that you don’t come back to writing soon.) Yet another way to get inspired is to reminisce about past successes for a bit. Have you written something you’re really proud of, or made a great sale?

Skip ahead. If you’re stuck about writing the next thing in front of you, ignore it for now and try skipping ahead to write the next piece you’re excited about. You may find you don’t even need the piece you were hung up on, or if you do, you can come back to it later when you’ve figured out what you need to do with it.

Come up with something new. If the piece you’re writing isn’t inspiring you as is, come up with something new to add to it that does inspire you. Add a character or a scene, think up a completely different approach to writing the next part, or do more research until something gets you lit up.

Take a short time to organize. If you’re having trouble getting excited about writing the piece itself, spend some time writing about what you’re going to do going forward or what the implications are of what you’ve already written. If you don’t like to plan or outline, you can do this just as a throwaway brainstorm session if you like. If you do outline, go back to that outline and play with it, or brainstorm how it might change. When you’ve gotten into the groove, switch to actual writing.

Warm up. You don’t have to start with productive writing work immediately if you don’t feel ready. Instead, prime the pump by doing some warm-up writing that appeals to you: describe something incredibly disgusting, write complete nonsense, write a quick piece from the point of view of a piece of gum, execute a vivid bit of scenery description, start an argument in dialog, etc.

Work on a different project if necessary. Don’t keep abandoning projects to start up new projects that seem temporarily more appealing, but as an occasional jump start technique it can help to switch to a different project, especially one you’ve been neglecting. It’s better to be writing something than nothing at all.

Use external motivation. While external motivation has its problems and limitations, it can be better than not finding a way to write at all. Create a writing challenge (including deadline) with a friend, offer yourself a reward if you have to, or try “Write or Die”.

If all else fails, do writing support work. If you’re not getting fired up to actually write, is there some writing-related work you can do? This might include research, finding markets to write for, writing query letters, organizing submission information, sending out submissions, reading writing books, critiquing, discussing writing in online forums, etc. Keep in mind, though, that it’s possible to spend all your time doing writing busy-work and never writing, and also keep in mind that if you really want to write at the moment, there’s almost always a way to motivate yourself to do that. With that said, if you’re going to avoid actually writing, doing so by furthering your writing career is a lot better than playing video games or raiding the cupboard.

This section is an expanded, writer-specific version of a general motivation article on my site entitled “Don’t Feel Motivated? 10 Ways to Find Motivation Right Now. This version first appeared in my eBook “The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation,” available as a free PDF book or for the Kindle for $0.99.


Luc ReidLuc Reid is a Writers of the Future winner whose fiction and nonfiction have also appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Abyss & Apex, and other venues. He’s the founder of the Codex online writers’ group; author of Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures (Writers Digest Books, 2006); a founding member of flash fiction group The Daily Cabal; and a former radio commentator. He is currently combining his writer site, writing blog site, and psychology of habits sites into a single entity at www.willpowerengine.com . His eBook The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation, is available for PDF download on his site (free) as well as for Kindle. His new book is Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories, available for Kindle on Amazon and for all eBook formats on Smashwords, with a print edition expected in February.

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