are you stuck in a writing rut

8 Signs You’re Stuck in a Writing Rut—and Why You Should Care

8 signs your writing is in a rutLaziness and fear—a writer’s two great nemeses—do their best to keep us stuck in the writing rut.

Usually, it’s a very comfortable rut. All our characters are down there with us, keeping us company, cooking up tea, playing chess, and just generally having a happy ol’ time.

Life isn’t very difficult, since we never have to force ourselves to reach higher or stretch farther. We get to sit in our comfy swivel chairs and watch our stories replay themselves, with slight variations, over and over again, like TV Land marathons.

Actually, you say, that doesn’t sound so bad. What’s the big problem here?

Well, I’ll tell you. The problem, in a word, is: stagnation. And where stagnation lives, art dies. As Writer’s Digest editor Jessica Strawser pointed out in February 2011:

…the best writers are the ones who never stop trying to get better—the ones who set their egos aside, no matter how successful they are, and challenge themselves to push the limits of what they can achieve.

Challenge Yourself to Tell Each Story Differently

Whether they consciously realize it or not, most writers have one particular story they’re meant to tell, and they tell it over and over again all their lives.

For example, Charles Dickens’s body of work represents a deep concern for the poor and indebted.

My own fiction often carries a theme of redemption through self-sacrifice.

It’s important to recognize and understand this inevitable repetition—but it’s also important to understand that these repeating themes are no excuse not to push the boundaries of our craft.

Novelist Joe Meno, in an interview with Mart Castle, explained the difference:

The thing I love about [Dave Eggers and Denis Johnson] is their willingness to try and reinvent themselves from book to book, especially Johnson, who’s written crime/noir books, science-fiction-inspired books, books about drug experiences, spy-influenced material. I’d hate it if someone read one of my books and thought, this is exactly like the last thing he wrote. … It’s a goal I have, writing books with very different styles and tones.

8 Signs You Might Be in a Writing Rut

Thanks to laziness and fear—and often obliviousness—it’s much too easy to fall into comfortable patterns that eventually descend into blatant repetition (both signs you’re stuck in a writing rut.

So how can you know if you’re teetering on the edge of a writing rut? Following are eight signs:

1. You find yourself reusing familiar phrases.

2. You write stories that fit only into one particular niche.

3. Your stories return to the same thematic arc over and over.

4. Your writing is no longer challenging.

5. You never experiment with POV, tense, or style.

6. Your characters are all the same person (except maybe they have different hair colors).

7. Your stories all begin and end in basically the same way.

8. You’ve stopped studying the craft.

Identifying one or two of these symptoms in your writing life isn’t necessarily indicative of a problem. But if you find yourself nodding your head at three or more, it may be time to take action and evaluate how you can push yourself out of your comfort zone by making your next story an exciting new adventure—for both you and your readers.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever been in a writing rut? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I love fantasy and first person perspective. I read a challenging essay by Harlan Ellison that a good writer wrote in every genre and every perspective.

    So I tried a Noir crime drama … in first person … didn’t want to get a creative hernia or anything like that. LOL. It was fun.

    Then, I tried third person … in a fantasy (still cautious of those creative hernias). And that is how my book on Amazon came about.

    You’re right, K.M. We need to walk along the edge to build our creative balance and muscles. Great post, Roland

  2. I’ve definitely hit Number 6 in the past. I remember realising I was bored of writing because my characters were clones of each other with different names and appearences. Breaking out of that rut was so liberating.

  3. @Roland: I love Ellison’s challenge. I don’t think it’s necessary for us to write in every genre – simply because not all of us can summon interest in every genre. We will be limited by our own sphere of interest, but that doesn’t mean we can’t always be pushing the boundaries of that sphere.

    @Miss Cole: It opens up so many creative doors, doesn’t it? Sometimes we fall in love with our characters so much that we don’t want to let go of them from book to book. But summoning the courage to say goodbye and seek a new love is always a new and exciting adventure.

  4. I don’t think I’m stuck in a rut, but I can see how this could be a problem in the future. My novels are all about ancient women who fought their way to power- that’s just who I like to write about.

    However, that’s the only box I can tick off right now so I think I’m good!

    Great post!

  5. Continually writing about the same type of character means you have tread carefully. But you can still write completely different personalities.

  6. Everyone has moments where they fall into a rut but as long as you can recognise it you can fix it 🙂

    The Arrival, only .99c on Amazon
    http://www.damselinadirtydress.com

  7. It’s too early in my writing career to be in a rut, but I see some promising signs: I have five story ideas, and one is women’s fiction, one is an edgy YA, one is a thriller (I think), one a ghost story, and one is literary fiction. I thought I was breaking all the rules by not settling into one genre — but perhaps I’m just preemptively avoiding the rut!

  8. @Nicole: Recognizing the problem is always key. In comparison, the remedy is often easy.

    @Shelli: You go! I always enjoy seeing authors exploring various genres – possibly because I lean that direction myself!

  9. This is a very good challenge. There’s no question fear is something I need to overcome. Sometimes fear holds me back from trying something new to improve my writing.

    Fear says, “Don’t try that! If it doesn’t work out, then you’ll experience even more despair about your inadequate writing!”

    Fear says, “Don’t read books that are way better than yours. You won’t learn. Instead you’ll become depressed when you see how badly your writing compares to theirs.”

    Stuff like that.

  10. Fear can be a writer’s greatest enemy. But it can also be an ally, if we learn to use it as a catalyst. If we can learn to embrace and even seek it – knowing that if we fear writing about something, it’s likely something that offers all kinds of potential – we can keep our writing fresh and brave on every outing.

  11. Interesting post. What’s the difference between being stuck in a “rut” and building a recognizable “brand”? Won’t our readers have expectations when they read our books? This is very interesting, because often you hear of agents/editors who don’t like to see an author who dabbles in various genres. I’m chewing over a LOT as I type this comment. In fact, I think I’m going to write a post on the distinction between the two things I mention in my first question.

    Thanks for the stimulating post!

  12. At some point, you definitely run into the fork in the road between the demands of art and the demands of the market. Every author who wants to sell his work *must* be aware of the market, but if I have to choose between one path over the other in that fork, I’m always going to take the one that serves the demands of art. I’d rather stay out of the rut and sell fewer books, rather than cave to the demands of the market and write something that isn’t up to par. That said, I absolutely believe we can serve both purposes. We need look no father than the wildly creative minds of people like Margaret Atwood and Stephen King to see how we can both satisfy our audience and keep stretching ourselves out of confines of potential ruts. (I discuss this in more depth in the post “Why You Should Write More Than One Genre“.

  13. Fantastic post … and my first question was the same as Katie Ganshert’s. I am struggling right now with that tension between brand and rut, particularly when it comes to agents. I’ve encountered the expectation from agents particularly that I must “pick something and stick with it” rather than dabble between contemporary realistic fiction and fantasy/sci fi.

    I an happy to encounter encouragement to explore creatively rather than simply “stick to a niche” only. So thanks for that. It was sorely needed.

  14. Some authors find success in writing different genres under different pen names (and sometimes different agents), so multiple genres absolutely *can* be done. I would always, always, always encourage authors to write the stories that call to them – even if they seem to fly in the face of the market. We’ve all heard it before, but it bears repeating (this time in the words of Oscar-nominated screenwriter Steve Kloves): “…don’t write to the market. That is an absolute path to disaster. The only thing I would say is be bold and to really write what you want to write.”

  15. I’m guilty of #1, but I also am aware of it and try to watch for it. This writing game is still very new to me so I’m still learning.

  16. It’s inevitable that we all do that to some extent. After all, we only have so many phrases running around in our heads! But, if we can recognize the problem when we’re guilty of it, we can use it to push ourselves to create new and exciting ways of phrasing things.

  17. My main genre has been science fiction and fantasy. With the Coalition Trilogy, I delved more into mystery and detective work.
    Every story brings new challenges, including the one I impose on myself: include things that are both familiar and different. That’s not easy, but it keeps me out of a rut. Even when I do something familiar, I can’t help put a bit of the wild unknown into it.

    I’ve got some ideas for my next project, inventing a series of space colonies right here in this solar system, but until I finish The Wild Green Yonder, I’m not taking many notes yet.

    ~ VT

  18. Great point. One of the easiest ways to bring fresh life to the same ol’ genre is to stay true to the genre tenets while introducing elements from other genres. Noir sci-fi, for example, is poised to be big.

  19. I definitely find myself in a writing rut pretty often. But part of the problem is the industry wants us to do just that–produce a product that’s “consistent.” You read about famous writers who got totally bored with their characters but had to keep writing the same stuff to keep up their careers. Arthur Conan Doyle even killed off Sherlock Holmes to get out of his rut–but was forced to bring him back. So I’m not sure if I should try to knock myself out of my current rut, or go with it.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post!

  20. Ultimately, it depends on what *you* want from your writing. Sometimes we have to compromise (to one degree or the other) with the market in order to see our work in print. Nothing inherently wrong with that, so long as you’re aware of what you’re doing and why. But if you’re forcing yourself to write story after story that fails to offer a fresh and interesting experience for you, as the author, you’re probably tiptoeing on the edge of losing the passion that sparked your interest in writing in the first place.

  21. Great question to ask. Thanks for the prompt.

  22. You’re welcome. Hope it leads you to some exciting new places!

  23. Great post! I’m often a victim of stagnation… not because I’m lazy but definitely because I’m afraid or uninspired. I always want to be doing more, but I often don’t know how to do it. This is a helpful post and a good reminder to ceaselessly challenge ourselves.

  24. Don’t let fear cripple you. Face it and conquer it! If it helps, you can always remind yourself that nothing you write will be seen by others unless you decide, after writing it, that it’s something you want to share. That knowledge always inspires me to take risks I might not otherwise.

  25. Great post as always. When I was at the AWP writer’s conference in DC recently I heard a complaint from some authors, namely that they were trying to shake up their writing, but their publishers were resistant to their moving too far away from what their audience expected. Dave Eggers is a great example of someone who is able to move his audience in different directions.

  26. It’s so easy to let yourself fall into that rut, but so empowering when you stretch your limits without fear and grow as a writer. It’s soooo worth the effort!!

  27. Great post. I love how you distinguish between having themes that reverberate through your writing and just being stagnant. I think there is a difference, and you’re right–some of us have one story we are meant to tell. The challenge is freshness in the telling.

    I hate flashbacks. I hate writing them, and I’m not fond of reading them. But I started writing a story that ended up with a couple of flashbacks eary on, so I decided to tell much of it through flashbacks of men who were dying. It was also a bit of a dark/horror fantasy, which was a stretch for me. Oddly, people have really praised this piece, and seem to like it better than my fantasy novel! Go figure…

    Sometimes I think when we’re focused on a challenge, we put effort in where we might not otherwise. When we’re retelling the same thing, we can get a little lazy. Throw a twist in, and we pay attention.

    Thanks for this post. I’ll be thinking about it all day. 🙂

    amy

  28. @artistsroad: The publishing industry is getting shaken up right now, whether it likes it or not. Major publishing houses are going to have to change with the times, or they’ll struggle to maintain their hold the on the market.

    @Lisa: As I’m fond of saying: The struggle is the glory.

  29. Good post, K.M. These words especially stuck out to me: “most writers have one particular story they’re meant to tell, and they tell it over and over again all their lives.”

    I’ve seen that in books from the same author, yet they were creative enough to make the story unique. I am picking up on common themes in my own writing, so I hope I can consciously make choices to mix things up.

    Thanks for the self-assessment questions. Something to come back to over the long haul. 🙂

  30. Gaining an awareness of the themes we’re passionate about is helpful since it allows us to make conscious decisions that will keep the particulars of our work fresh and original in each new story.

  31. Seems true, what that old joke says:

    A rut is just a grave open at both ends.

    It actually hurt when I read: “We get to sit in our comfy swivel chairs and watch our stories replay themselves, with slight variations, over and over again, like TV Land marathons.”

    Living death…

  32. Don’t get me wrong, I like TV Land marathons! But living life on rerun means we’re missing out on a lot.

  33. Do you have any advice for developing and maintaining better study habits? I feel stupid for asking but I’m writing a historical piece set in 1800s America and I am just having the most difficult time staying focused when I try to read my source material. All the mundane things around the house seem like they become the most appealing things ever as soon as I sit down to read some history and I struggle so much to stay focused. Any advice a seasoned veteran on the topic could offer would be much obliged! 🙂

  34. Been there, done that! I adore research, but even still it’s one of the more tedious aspects of the writing process. Ultimately, self-discipline is the only answer. Either we sit down and do it or we don’t. But to gain that discipline, I’ve found that tricking, bribing, and threatening myself often work wonders. Dividing the work into small sections (say fifteen minutes at a time), then getting up to do something else (check email, walk the dog, get a glass of water) or rewarding myself with chocolate or fifteen minutes of Castle can do wonders for keeping my attention for wandering. And then, of course, there are the threats: if I don’t finish this book by this evening, no dessert and no movie!

  35. I’m only writing my third book which is my first fiction book so I haven’t encountered the problem yet but I have read so many books with this problem. The last book I read the author used the same phrase seven times on one page. And this author is a huge best selling traditionally published writer too. I felt disappointed with her publishing house really as their actions just show what is wrong with the industry nowadays and their willingness to publish rubbish just because the author is famous. There’s so many better writers out there without her fame and fortune who don’t get a look in.

  36. Commercialism and art will always be uncomfortable bedfellows. But their union is inevitable. It produces both good results and bad. One of the saddest is what you’ve mentioned. If nothing else, the rush to get books published as quickly as possible can often prevent them from receiving the thorough editing they need.

  37. Tom Youngjohn says

    I love K.M. Weiland.

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