Do Good Excuses Exist?: Procrastination, Priorities, and the Magic of Setting Your Own Deadlines

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: ANY writing advice you read or hear is not universal. What works for one writer may not work for you. Stephen King and Anne Rice might both be big name best-selling authors, but I have no doubt in my mind that their writing techniques are different from one another. And even if you read two writing advice books by two different authors, you would find some differences — and maybe even some conflicting tips.

Of course, a lot of the advice you find might sound very generic, one of the most “universal” tips being that a writer “MUST” write every day in order to be a “true writer.”

Frankly? I’m calling bull on that one.

I’ve spent the past six months or so putting any and all creative writing endeavors on hold so that I could finish graduate school. Much as I love writing, we writers know there is no guarantee of being published and making a living off of what we love to do best. So I picked a backup plan: Library and Information Science. The first two semesters I was able to balance creative writing, a part-time job, and schoolwork; I even participated in National Novel Writing Month in 2015, and successfully finished a rough draft of a full-length novel. For a few months I took a break from original fiction to write some fan-fics before revisiting my rough draft to start editing.

But then this past summer I took an intensive study abroad class — and THEN, I went almost straight into what turned out to be my toughest and final semester. I took four of the most difficult classes in the program and had to create a portfolio on top of it all. I also kept my part-time job that requires me to work late hours. When I wasn’t doing homework or working, I was sleeping like I’d just run a marathon.

It was grueling. It was exhausting. My sleep schedule is monumentally screwed, and it’s gonna take quite a while to get back into the swing of things. And as a result my writing had to be put on hold, which made me pretty miserable.

Did this make me any less of a writer? Of course not. The fact that I was miserable because I couldn’t find a balance in my schedule or the energy to write was a sign enough for me that I am still very much a writer at heart. Plus, I knew I would come back to it the second I was free from the hell of graduate school.

Believe it or not, there are very good reasons to put your writing on hold, whether that be for a few days or even a few months. Graduate school is one of them. We’d all love to be published, sure, but most of us aren’t so delusional that we think we will magically be accepted by a big-shot publisher on our first try, hit the best-seller lists, and make millions. Most of us know you often have to find another means of income until you make enough as a professional writer to quit your day job. For some people, Plan B is simply working one or two retail jobs to support themselves while they write on their days off. For others, Plan B is a job that requires a Bachelor’s degree. For me, it just happened to require a Master’s — and not in Creative Writing, but rather Library and Information Science (and yes, librarianship DOES require a Master’s). Because if I was going to do anything besides write, if by some chance writing never paid off for me, I wanted to work closely with other readers.

This isn’t the only “good” excuse out there for not writing every day. Some writers suffer from mental illnesses such as depression that often interfere with their writing, their self-confidence, and their motivation. Others may have family emergencies or some other crisis that forces their writing to take a back seat for a while. Still more may even just need a break and take a long vacation; writing is hard work, despite popular belief — just like any other job!

You do not have to write every day to be a good writer. Hell, you may even go a week or two without it. Or maybe you have two jobs and children and can only find time to write on the weekend, when you finally have a Saturday off and your parents-in-law take the kids overnight.

The only thing that makes you a writer is that you want to write — and that you do write, somehow, some way. And you never give up on that. It doesn’t even matter if you only write fan-fiction, or if you write original fiction with the intent of sending your work out to agents someday. You don’t have to publish to be a writer; you have to write.

However!!!!

Writing is like mental exercise. And like any exercise, if you go a long time (in my case, practically half a year) without practice, you’re going to feel out-of-shape when you finally do come back to it. Such is the case for ALL writers, published or otherwise. It is going to take time to get back into the habit of writing regularly, and maybe you’re going to be a little scared and a little discouraged, and maybe your writing will even suck on the first few attempts to get back into it.

Guess what? That’s okay!

You will eventually pick up where you left off and continue to grow as a writer.

Wanna know a trick to getting back on track? It is the only one that works for me. And again, this may not work for you, because we may be writers, but we are humans first and all humans are different!

After a break, there are a few quick and easy steps you can take to whip yourself back into shape:

  1. Create/download/purchase an agenda. You can use a simple notebook or a piece of paper or even a stickynote! Or if you want to get those creative juices flowing, you can even create your own using paper and staples and markers — whatever works for you! There are plenty of free apps out there that allow you to create a To Do list. Personally, I find that I will only adhere to an agenda if I write my To Do list down physically, so I buy myself a planner every year and make checklists every day. For some of you, maybe a digital agenda would work just fine.
  2. Set a daily or weekly word goal and write it in your brand spankin’ new agenda. Start small. Right now, since I am only just getting back to writing, I’m happy if I reach 100 words a day in my actual manuscript (this doesn’t include any outlining and brainstorming I may do as an exercise to get into Writing Mode). 100 words is nothing — it’s a paragraph or two at most. Oftentimes, if I’m writing a good scene, I’ll even exceed that goal, and that feels pretty great. I might write 500 words, or even 2,000. Sometimes 100 words is too easy, and sometimes I need to drag those words out of myself kicking and screaming. But having that daily or weekly word goal gives me a focal point, a target to reach.
  3. Write. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Try to reach your word goal. If you can’t, don’t stress. You made some progress at least, and you’ll just try again tomorrow/next week. Brainstorm if you need to, or even do some atypical writing exercises, like creating a character biography or throwing a new conflict into the plot to see if it’ll help you keep moving. But, bottom line is: Write!
  4. Go back to your agenda and up the ante. Each day or week, you could try to write a little more. Maybe you can’t; maybe you’ve only got a half hour to yourself a day and 100 words is the best you can do. Or maybe you simply fear that if you keep setting higher goals for yourself, you’ll be unable to achieve that goal and the failure will set your confidence back, which may in turn affect your writing. Again, that is fine — everyone is different! But for me, having a higher goal each week gives me something to reach for. I am very driven by solid ambitions, and I like to challenge myself. But if you would prefer to strive for the same word count every week, that’s great too. As long as you get the words on the page, you’re a writer.
  5. Check off your To Do list! This is my favorite part, personally — next to the writing itself of course. Nothing feels better than going back and making a checkmark next to that goal. It’s just so satisfying! Plus it’s physical proof that you are achieving your goals. (Again, this is another reason I prefer physical agendas over digital ones, but maybe making a digital checkmark is just as satisfying for you!)

So that’s it. Deadlines work like magic for me. I have motivational issues, so unless I set a deadline for myself, I’ll often procrastinate. Grad school was a good excuse because it was physically and mentally taxing to the point where it affected my health in more ways than one. Frustration at how slow and labor-intensive a task writing is and downright laziness are no excuses at all.

Now that I have nothing holding me back, it’s time to start setting deadlines! And if or when you are ready and rearing to get back in the game I hope you start setting them too, and I hope it helps.

Happy writing!

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