Why do you write?
This may well be the most important question a writer can ask themselves. Why do you write? Your answer is the root of your motivation – the force that pushes your pencil across the page, words settling into paragraphs, becoming scenes, piling up one after another until a story emerges.
Motivation is stronger than inspiration or “the muse,” both of which tend to be fickle, but motivation can also fail. Typically, this happens when we are either overwhelmed – when we have too many motivations competing with each other – or burnt out – when our reason Why is not enough.
How strong is your Why?
What if your Why isn’t strong enough to keep writing as a priority in your life?
If you write to escape the stresses of real life, then when life gets even more stressful it will be all too easy to escape into Netflix instead.
If you write because you dream of becoming a best-selling author, that dream may fizzle out when you’re forced to get practical – especially if you don’t have a clear idea of what that looks like or why you want it.
In contrast, consider the example of author Toni Morrison. While juggling her job, caring for her child, and handling the inescapable chores of daily life, she still made time to write. What was her Why?
“What was driving me to write was the silence—so many stories untold and unexamined. There was a wide vacuum in the literature.”Toni Morrison
Ms. Morrison was determined to fill that vacuum; to tell the stories of Blackness in America as only a Black American woman could. Thanks to that motivation, that Why, she sat at her typewriter day after day. What she created left the world richer than it was when she started.
Motivation becomes infinitely more powerful, more meaningful, when it is connected to a person or cause that is important to us. Then, when life challenges you and your priorities are rearranged, you are less likely to give up your writing time – because there is someone who needs your stories. So, who do you write for? Who is your audience, and why them?
Low motivation is not a sign of failure
It’s important to understand that motivation doesn’t automatically remain at a fixed level, regardless of how you feel or what you might be dealing with. Motivation has much in common with the sea – it moves, ebbing and flowing in response to so many factors that we can’t easily discern.
That’s okay. It’s normal. It doesn’t mean that you have failed or aren’t meant to be a writer. When you begin to feel like your well of motivation is running dry, take some time to replenish it. That might mean something as simple as taking a five-minute break to grab a snack and rest your eyes, or as basic as getting a good night’s sleep. Sometimes, though, you might need a more in-depth strategy. When that happens, consider the following techniques.
Ways to replenish your motivation
Learn something new. Writing regularly is a critical piece of becoming an author, it’s true. However, just writing doesn’t guarantee that your skills are improving. We are curious by nature, and our brains love learning new skills and techniques. If your motivation is running low, use this to your advantage! Start by reading a craft book or blog post (like this one), or listening to a podcast or webinar by an author you admire.
Don’t stop with just reading something new, though. In order to truly understand something, we need to ponder it, turning it this way and that in our minds until each facet is clear to us. Finally, we need to use it, to apply it to our writing and grow from it. Try finding a writing exercise tailored to the skill you wish to learn. Here are some ideas:
- Strengthen your creativity by taking a writing prompt and running with it. There are many prompts to be found on Pinterest. You could also start with this list, or this list.
- There are certain basic elements that make up every story: descriptions, dialogue, narration, backstory, and transitions are just a few. This list of element-specific exercises is a good place to start honing each of these skills, helping you grow into the best writer you can be.
- Writing poetry can teach you to be precise, use metaphors effectively, eliminate unnecessary words, and pay attention to the sound and rhythm of your words and sentences. If you’re not very familiar with poetry, start by just reading some – perhaps the short poems found here. You could also try following the #vss365 hashtag on Twitter, and, when you’re ready, contributing some poetry of your own.
- Copy the work of great writers. Now, I do not mean you should plagiarize. That’s never okay. However, to really get a sense of what great writing is, copying great authors is a good idea – word for word and by hand. This article explains how this technique works.
Tell your story to someone. What’s the first thing someone asks when they learn that you are a writer? Most of the time, it’s some variation of “What story are you writing?” So tell them. Introduce them to your characters, show them around your world, and walk them through the plot. By doing so, you just might fall back in love with your story. You might also work out the solution to some story problem or discover something new about your characters and the world they live in. Most people are excited to get an inside look at the writing process!
Be competitive. Nobody likes to lose, and you can use this to your advantage. If you have an author website, try the My Book Progress plugin – it lets you display updates on the status of your book, and allows readers who want your book to send you encouragement. If you’d rather your progress be a bit less public, find another writer to be your accountability partner. Perhaps challenge each other to see who can write more words in one week, or who can write the most days in a row.
Be spontaneous. Spontaneity is exciting and can shake up a stale routine. You don’t need to go wild – change something small, like the color of the pen or the font that you use. Sit outside rather than writing in your bed. Try hand writing instead of typing, or vice versa. You can also reward yourself with something new, like different music, an unfamiliar food or drink, or a fresh and colorful background or theme for your favorite writing program.
Limit yourself. This might seem counterintuitive, but it works. Tell yourself you only get to write 100 words, or for 10 minutes. Then do it. Our brains love rebelling against the rules – just like our sudden need to get outside when we’ve been told to stay at home. So only allow yourself to write on the computer for 10 minutes a day. The rest of the time, write by hand or use a voice recorder like the Otter app. This helps get you out of your rut and plays on our inherent fear of scarcity.
Make it a game. Who doesn’t love playing games? Maintaining your motivation to write is easier when you use that enjoyment to fuel your writing habit! Here are some ideas:
- You know that game where everybody takes a turn adding one sentence to a story? You can adapt that game for yourself by adding 100 words to each scene in your outline every day.
- If you don’t have an outline, try incorporating a new word, or create a scene by making a list of characters, settings, or objects and rolling a die to choose one of each.
- Try getting to know your characters through K. M. Weiland’s Pizza Test.
- Play with metaphors and analogies. Your characters behave the way they do because of abstract concepts like fear, love, greed, empathy, and so many others. In a good story, we need to be able to show these traits. To practice this, choose an abstract idea and compare it to a concrete object. Look for a connection, then explain why the comparison works. Try starting with the lists from a Scattergories game. This is a good workout for your brain even if you never use the comparisons you’ve come up with!
- Describe a sense that’s often overlooked. In my opinion, sight is probably the most common sense described in literature, but touch, hearing, taste, and smell also pop up occasionally. Try describing how you experience these less-common senses.
Get visual. Find a place, character, or emotion you like online or in a movie. Study it. Now write a scene featuring that place, person, or mood. You might overdo it, but that’s okay – come back to it later, find the gems, and tuck them away until you find the right place for them.
Another good visual technique is creating a vision board – a collection of photos, quotes, and other items that help you visualize what you want to accomplish, whether that’s a goal or a story. This might be a physical collage on a corkboard, a Pinterest board, or a digital collage set as your desktop background. The key is that it needs to be editable, so that you can add things and drop things as you develop your idea. A vision board will probably be most useful to you when your goal or story is still a vague idea, to help you brainstorm and then narrow down exactly what it is you’re looking for. Be cautious, though – it’s easy to fall down the vision board rabbit hole, spending many hours daydreaming about your idea rather than actually working towards it. This creative exercise is best used in moderation.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
In the wise words of Julia Cameron, “In order to do something well we must first be willing to do it badly.” It’s perfectly natural to want to be good at something. Perfectionism, however, is the enemy of progress.
To fight perfectionism, give yourself permission to write badly. In fact, if perfection is interfering with your motivation, try writing badly on purpose. Have fun with it! Make it awful. Make it cheesy. Choose all the wrong adjectives. Let your run-on sentences run a marathon, and mix metaphors like your life depends on it. Then, when you’ve had your fun, go back to your story and contrast it to with you’ve just written – your story will look like New York Times bestseller in comparison!
To maintain your motivation, first understand your Why and make sure it’s personal. Realize that it’s okay for motivation to come and go, and that a lack of motivation is not an indication of failure. Be gentle with yourself and refuse to let perfectionism paralyze you. Finally, when motivation is running low, take some time to refill it – perhaps by referring back to this article!