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. 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.

  2. 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!!

  3. 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

  4. @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.

  5. 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. 🙂

  6. 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.

  7. 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…

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

  9. 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! 🙂

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. Tom Youngjohn says

    I love K.M. Weiland.

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