#111: Habit and Quantity vs. Inspiration and Quality

Dear Story Nurse,

I was wondering what advice you have for someone who knows she produces better writing when she’s “feeling it” but can’t force herself to “feel it”.

Background: I have finished a few novels and am involved in an online workshop. My process is usually a creative phase, where I create an outline, brainstorm ideas, tinker with the structure, determine pacing and so on. I write snippets of dialog to get a feel for the characters and create a basic synopsis. I usually give myself a lot of time for ideas to gestate and only work on them when I feel good about the process. It is not part of the “write every day” regimen.

After that, the second “write every day” phase begins. So I write, every day, even when depression gets the better of me or life gets in the way. I’ve got that part down.

Then, third phase editing, which I really enjoy. I finish my projects to my personal satisfaction. I’m not looking to get published at the moment (my personal life is too fraught lately to be able to emotionally handle the inevitable rejection treadmill) so I am content with finishing solid first or second drafts to keep in the drawer for later, when I’m better equipped to tackle the industry.

My problem exists in the second phase, and it’s becoming a real hurdle.

I have noticed a quality drop when I force myself to write when I’m not really feeling it. I’m glad the words are on the page, but I know the words could have been much, much better if I had been enthusiastically and emotionally involved rather than dutifully hitting my targets for the day. The reason I persist with the schedule even if it produces sub-par work is that “inspiration” and “feeling it” are unreliable things you can’t force. I’d rather get it done than wait around for a flighty muse. But I’ve hit a point now where I feel that producing rote prose is just me creating problems for myself in editing. It’s much harder for me to improve my writing during the editing phase than it is to just get it right the first time around. (I quite literally live for the moment when all the stars align and I just get engrossed in writing to the point of intense personal satisfaction, when the hours fly by and the result turns out every bit as good as I felt it was while working on it. It’s truly like a drug for me and I crave it like you wouldn’t believe.)

I’ve tried to follow advice to get around this: write the less important parts when you’re not feeling it, save the intense moments for when creativity peaks. But that clashes with another piece of writing advice I hold dear: if it’s not important or interesting, scrap it. Besides, I like to write chronologically and not skip around too much. I really need that self-imposed structure or I’d be off writing an encyclopedia of unnecessary fluff and create even more problems in editing.

Is this a situation where I just need to “git gud” and learn to produce quality prose on demand, even if I’m not feeling very connected to the material that day? Should everything I write be super engaging to me by default and is it a bad sign when I’m not connecting? Is “write every day” just not good advice for me? Is this a case where mental illness prevents me from gaining benefit from otherwise good advice? Or is this my well-documented perfectionism sabotaging me again?

After many years of buck wild pantsing and unfinished projects, I really, truly like having actual output for a change, so I hesitate to change my process. But I’m getting sick of reading back over my work and thinking “wow, this could have been so much better if I actually gave a crap that day.”

I’d love your take on this!

—Charlotte (she/her)

Dear Charlotte,

It sounds to me like the clash you’re having is a clash of priorities, where prioritizing any of writing speed, quality, and effort leaves the others wanting. In other words, it’s a classic case of the Design Triangle: “fast, good, and cheap: pick any two.”

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#110: Writing During Times of Life Upheaval

Dear Story Nurse,

For the past year or so, I’ve been making an effort to develop some good writing habits, progress has been mixed (this is just for framing). But I am now rapidly coming towards the very end stages of my Ph.D. I don’t really want any additional sources of stress right now, and I don’t want to just stop writing for months if I can help it, so I declared writing habit amnesty for myself and gave myself permission to write whatever I want, and take breaks when I need to.

I know this was the right choice for the circumstance, I can pick up my more serious writing goals later, and yet I still feel guilty when I don’t write for a few days or I sit down to write and don’t Focus on my Serious Projects. And that’s after I bludgeon the brainweasels that consider a Thesis a 24/7 project.

Any tips for silencing the jerk-brain?

—Aspiring Slacker (she/her)

Dear Aspiring Slacker,

If you’re feeling guilty and anxious when you don’t write, do write but don’t work on serious projects, or do work on serious projects but not on your thesis, it sounds to me like the anxiety is not about writing but is about you generally being anxious right now. This is totally normal and understandable for someone at this stage of a PhD, as I understand it, so please start by forgiving yourself for being stressed out by a very, very stressful situation.

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GYWO: Staying Strong While Writing Long

GYWO is Get Your Words Out, a wonderful writing accountability community. I joined this year and I’m really enjoying it. I wrote this post for the GYWO community, and the moderators have kindly allowed me to mirror it on Story Hospital. My last GYWO post was on why every writer needs a style guide.

The suggested topic for this post was “Plotting Out and Writing Long Things Without Losing Interest” but I want to write more broadly about staying interested in long works, because sometimes plotting them out is antithetical to keeping the momentum going.

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#109: How to Write Smooth, Satisfying Transitions

Dear Story Nurse,

How do I write transitions? I prefer airy prose and I’m often told my work is floaty. I worry that my transitions change the tone of my work or are jarring, so I was wondering if you had any tips for me.

Thank you, Story Nurse!

—L (she/they)

Dear L,

This is such an enticing question. Without seeing samples of your work, my guess is that your issue with transitions—from scene to scene, or from space to space within a scene—is that they can be grounding, reminding readers that they’re reading or anchoring a work to a particular physical space. But grounding isn’t contradictory to floaty, airy work; it’s necessary, and satisfying.

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