I grew up learning the value that if you weren’t working, you were doing something wrong. This value isn’t all bad, it’s given me an excellent work ethic and a tendency to treat procrastination as the source of all evils. However, what do you do when you’re stuck on a difficult problem with your project?
This problem could be a tough calculus assignment where you just can’t solve question six. Or you could not know how to go forward in your scientific research – what technique should you use next or why is the technique you are using not working the way you planned? Or you could hit a plateau with your musical instrument where no matter what newfangled warmup or exercises you try, you aren’t getting better at the rate that you desire.
Writing problems aren’t any different. Despite sitting down at your desk every day at the same time and following your routine to the letter, some days you won’t see any progress. Maybe you can’t figure out a particular plot problem. Maybe your craft is suffering and every sentence sounds like it was written by someone in grade two. Maybe you just hate everything you’ve written and feel like you’d accomplish more if you spent your writing time writing CRAP CRAPPED A CRAP-CRAP-CRAP over and over again.
So what are your options?
1) Stick to the writing routine and hope it gets better.
2) Take a break.
Now, I see the first option championed everywhere across the internet all the time. If you stick to a writing routine you will see progress. You need to work through the bad days to gain bulk to your manuscript. Blah blah blah.
It’s very true. I didn’t see my book get bigger until I committed to working on it regularly. A writing routine does ensure that you will improve through consistent practice and build stamina towards completing your projects.
However, I’m not talking about those days where you’re like “Hmmm, I have some spare time should I write/play video games/watch TV and eat chips/read/clean the house/cook dinner/pick those socks up off the floor behind the table who put their socks there anyway/call my friend/watch youtube until my brain only outputs youtube videos instead of normal speech/tweet about writing instead of writing… huh I choose all the options that aren’t writing.”
Those days happen to me often enough, and yes, those are good times to fight and adhere to a writing routine. If you frequently give in to distraction, you won’t see progress.
I’m also not talking about when you are using the first draft technique where you just write ANYTHING no matter what and see where it takes you. That’s fine. Charge full ahead with the writing routine.
I’m talking about when you’ve been stuck on your manuscript for so long that it’s been weeks. I’m talking about when you think about your novel and you feel exhausted. I’m talking about when you’ve been editing and last month you wrote six chapters, but this month you can’t even finish chapter 13. I’m talking about when you really need to find a way to kill the villain but you don’t know where to begin and haven’t for months.
In this case, you’ve been applying the writing routine and it’s simply not working. Why not?
Because your brain is tired.
If you go to the gym and lift heavy weights one day, you can’t expect to lift a ton of heavy weights the next day. The rest and recovery is just as important to lifting heavy as the actual lifting itself. In fact, if you do, you’ll probably injure yourself. If you keep doing heavy lifting with your brain when you’re tired, you risk burn out.
Think about baking bread. You have to let that sucker ferment and rise for a couple of hours otherwise the final product is going to be flat and hard as a frisbee.
Writing is the same way.
If you adhere to your routine when you are stuck, and nothing has improved after several days, you are wasting your time. It’s equivalent to banging your head against the wall.
Take a break. Maybe a couple of days. Maybe a whole week.
Let your ideas ferment.
Afterwards you will have the added benefit of approaching the manuscript with fresh eyes. Your brain will have the opportunity to approach the problem at full power. You might find that your productivity increases after a break. In fact, you might find that the break doesn’t destroy your writing routine, but restores it instead.