#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.”

What does that look like for you?

Fast and good: You keep to your butt-in-chair schedule to produce words quickly, and then you sweat over editing them. For this approach, you are investing effort.

Fast and cheap: You produce words quickly and put minimal effort into editing them, abandoning perfectionism and settling for “good enough.” For this approach, you are investing willpower and discipline.

Good and cheap: You write only when inspired; creating a complete draft takes a while, but editing it is easy. For this approach, you are investing patience.

Does any of these immediately sound like not what you want to be doing? If so, you can cross it off the list.

From your letter, I’m guessing that you’re mostly torn between fast-and-good and good-and-cheap. They scratch different itches: fast-and-good gives you a feeling of post-facto accomplishment, and good-and-cheap gives you a feeling of in-the-moment joy. (If you tried the fast-and-cheap method, you’d probably get a somewhat different feeling of accomplishment over the quantity of your productivity, but your perfectionism may make it too emotionally expensive.)

One option is to make an executive decision about what you’re going to prioritize for each project. (It’s good to remember that you’re never locked into this decision, and can always adjust if you need to.) Maybe you alternate between one where you prioritize joy and one where prioritize accomplishment. Maybe you decide that one of those matters more and that’s what you’ll go for every time. Maybe you write a joy-project in parallel with a speed-project.

Another option is to consider a different factor, one not addressed by the Design Triangle dynamic. There’s a different triangle called the Project Management Triangle that replaces “good” with something called “scope.” Rather than saying you can pick only two of the three elements—speed, cost, and scope—it advises adjusting them individually to achieve balance and produce the highest-quality product possible given your limitations.

That sounds pretty good! So what does factoring in scope mean in terms of your writing projects?

  • You could write a short story or novella rather than a novel, or work with a familiar setting and characters rather than develop new ones, so that even if you only write when you’re inspired in order to have more fun, produce a better-quality first draft, and reduce the effort of editing, you’ll still finish it in what feels like a reasonable amount of time.
  • If you’re committed to a novel or a very challenging project, you can accept up front that that commitment requires a greater investment of time, and higher costs in editorial effort or emotional self-management.
  • If you’re feeling especially impatient, you can write something more quickly by reducing the project’s scope and accepting higher future costs.
  • And after that, if you need a low-cost project while you recover, you can set up something broad-scope to explore at your leisure, in bursts of inspiration that bring you joy.

In other words, don’t get too hung up on how you write if you aren’t also considering what you write. And don’t be afraid to adjust any of these factors as you need to. The Design Triangle assumes that you’ve been given an assignment and have to figure out how to make it to the client’s specifications given your own limitations. But you are your own client. That’s what makes the Project Management Triangle so powerful: it reminds you that you are entirely in charge.

I factor your emotional state into the costs corner of the triangle because your mind is the resource that’s being invested in this project, and how you feel affects how much and how well you work. As any good project manager will tell you, human resources are your most important resources. If you were an employee working for a writing company, how would you want to be managed? Manage yourself that way.

A last handful of suggestions:

  • Since you’re part of a workshop, ask for second opinions on those drafts you write during your mandatory writing times. You may find that the quality difference that’s obvious to you is much less obvious to anyone else, and that those drafts don’t need nearly as much editing as you think.
  • Look for ways to be your own muse and increase the odds of getting into that glorious words-pouring-out headspace.
  • You mention really enjoying editing, so look for ways to increase or amplify that enjoyment. That way editing those rougher drafts will feel lower-cost to you.
  • Accept that every writer has days of just not being in the groove, and that’s normal and okay. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad writer or that writing is not for you.
  • Keep taking care of yourself, listening to your feelings around your conflicting priorities, and searching for balance rather than either/or solutions.

You’ve made a big change to your process and taken time to see how it works. Now you’re taking stock of the pros and cons of that change, and looking for ways to make further changes that amplify the good and minimize the bad. That’s exactly what you should be doing. As you improve your writing skills and push yourself to try new things, and as other parts of your life change, your writing habits will continue to evolve. These times of transition and consideration can be tricky, but persevere. You will gradually iterate your way to the best possible process for you, and will learn so much about yourself along the way.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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4 thoughts on “#111: Habit and Quantity vs. Inspiration and Quality

  1. Thank you so much, this is great advice! Seeing it all broken down and analyzed like this is absolutely invaluable. I can already tell I’m going to refer back to this post a lot in the future. When I wrote this I felt so irrevocably stuck, and I’ve got so many plans on how to proceed now. I can’t thank you enough!

    -LW

  2. Hi Charlotte,

    If you can’t get around the feeling that the stuff you’re writing on your “forced” days doesn’t feel worth the effort of editing later, what about writing something else on some of those days? You wouldn’t be contributing to your word count on your main project, but you’d still be working the writing muscles and maintaining the habit of daily writing. The something else could be almost anything–a journal, a drabble, a to-do list that turns into a drabble, a letter to a loved one, a detailed description of your dog’s daily walk.

    I have an old writers’ group friend who kept a book of writing prompts and exercises. She would bring it out at meetings when we all showed up saying “I was too busy/unmotivated/uninspired to write anything new this month!” I would start the exercise thinking I had nothing to say, and finish it thinking, “Lookie there, I can still write paragraphs I’m proud of, even if I have no intention of using this!” It helped bring the energy back after a slump.

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