15 Productive Tasks You Can Still Do Even When You Don’t Feel Like Writing

Don’t feel like writing right now? Or maybe you don’t have the time? Or maybe you’re just blocked as all get out at the moment? Whatever the case, there’s no reason you can’t still use what time and motivation you do have to feel productive about your writing—because “writing” is really about a whole lot more than just the writing.

I’m often asked if “write everyday” means you actually have to, you know, write every day. What about all the other important tasks you have to accomplish as a writer? What about outlining, researching, note-typing, editing, proofreading, browsing Pinterest, and all that other vital stuff?

First off, everybody’s mileage varies on this. However much writers sometimes want there to be Ten Commandments of How to Be a Writer, there really aren’t. There’s only what works for you and what doesn’t. But for my money, any task that is directly contributing to the creation of a story counts as “writing productivity.” This includes all prep work such as outlining and researching, and all editing work including proofreading. (Personally, I do not include publishing and marketing efforts in this category, since they’re more about product production than story creation.)

This broadening of the definition of “writing” to include all parts of the creation process is, I think, valuable for several reasons.

For starters, it eliminates one of the many possible self-recriminations with which writers like to flagellate themselves. We put so much pressure on ourselves. We tell ourselves we must write so many words a day, so many days a week (and they better be good words), or we’re failures. But realistically, daily productivity is about much more than just high word counts. In fact, sometimes the reason the words won’t come is because we haven’t put in enough time on other parts of the process.

Second, it allows us to better manage our time and energy. Sometimes it’s hard enough to find a solid chunk of writing time every day, much less additional time for the outlining, researching, editing, and Pinterest browsing. This is why I recommend devoting your daily writing session to whichever single part of the process you’re currently working on. If you have two hours a day set aside to work on your book, then you’ll use that time for outlining when you’re in outlining mode, research with you’re in research mode, and writing when you’re in writing mode, etc. This helps you better organize your process, combats the distraction of “monkey mind,” and takes away some of the pressure of thinking you have to “do it all.”

Finally, recognizing the equal validity of necessary “non-writing” tasks can allow you to tap into a powerful feeling of productivity even when you’re not lining up words on the page. This realization can be especially valuable in times when you don’t feel like writing, for whatever reason—as many people don’t in these ongoing weeks and months of quarantine.

15 Productive Things You Can Still Do When You Don’t Feel Like Writing

I have to admit I haven’t done much fiction writing these last weeks. But I’ve shown up at my desk every single day and moved the needle on my story projects in some way. I may not be tallying record word counts, but I feel good about what I’m doing because a) I enjoy it and b) I know I’m contributing to my ability to write later on when when the time comes.

If you find that you don’t feel like writing right now—or perhaps that you just know there are other things you need to do first in order to be able to write—here’s a list of important writing tasks you may be more in the mood for. Not only can you honor your own energetic needs of the moment, you can do so without slackening your productivity and in a way that still lets you foster a daily habit of showing up at the desk and stewing in your story juices.

1. Journal About Why You’re Personally Blocked

Sometimes there’s a lot to be said for making yourself sit there and stare at the blinking cursor until finally the words come. But sometimes the more productive route is to stop long enough to figure out why the words aren’t coming. If the reason you don’t feel like writing has more to do with life than with the story itself, try devoting at least a couple writing sessions to journaling. See if you can work through your emotions and fears until you get back to a place where you’re happy to be working on your story again.

2. Brainstorm Solutions for Why Your Plot Is Blocked

If the reason you’re unable to write your characters out of that fix you got them into is because there doesn’t seem to be a way to get them out—you’re probably dealing with good old-fashioned plot block instead. This too can be helped, once again, by journaling. My outlining process basically is journaling—a stream-of-conscious conversation with myself on the page about whatever’s not working. If I get really stuck in the middle of a story, I’ll return to this same process—sometimes by typing in a new doc on my computer, sometimes by returning to pen and notebook.

3. Create Something Else (a Story or Not)

Maybe you’re currently stuck because the story in front of you isn’t the right story for this moment. If you’re an obsessive “finisher” like me, switching horses midstream can be tricky, but sometimes a change can make all the difference. Moving on to a new novel or perhaps a short story or poem—or even a new medium, such as painting or crafting—will help you return to a feeling of productivity. You never know—it might be just the ticket for giving you a new perspective on the old story as well.

4. Read About Writing

For most of us reading is so pleasurable it almost feels like a cheat. But it can be so productive. You may be blocked because you’re lacking specific information you need to find in a writing guide. Or you may have a backlogged TBR pile of writing books full of inspiration and motivation you didn’t even know you were lacking (this happened to me a few years ago). If the actual writing just isn’t happening for you right now, give yourself wholehearted permission to use your writing time to read about writing. This time will not be wasted.

5. Read Your Research Pile

By the same token, you may have a pile of research books waiting for your attention—or maybe just a list of research questions you know you have to figure out how to answer. Whenever I’m in research mode, I joke that I get to sit around reading all day and call it work. But it’s true. Many stories can’t move forward until you’ve learned a great deal. When the words won’t come, make use of someone else’s.

6. Learn About and Apply New Story Theory Systems

There’s always more to learn. Whether it’s the principles of story structure, the foundational elements of character arc, a specific system taught by writing guru, or a new theory all your own, you can vastly advance your storytelling abilities by mastering a new perspective on story itself. This is how I’ve been spending much of my writing time during the quarantine—working through ideas about a progressive system of archetypal character arcs, which will contribute to a future blog series and will also, hopefully, help me move forward with my own novel-in-progress.

7. Devote Some Time to Prep Work (Even if You’re in the Middle of Your Novel)

Sometimes we get this idea that the only “real writing” is the writing we do in the first draft and beyond. But outlining is totally writing. Whether you prefer Roman-numeral outlines or stream-of-conscious brainstorming, it’s all story development. Even if you’re halfway into the first draft, you may find that one of the most productive things you can do is return to do some prep work, such as developing your story’s structural beats or double-checking the progression of your characters’ arcs—or maybe just re-working your way through some stubborn plot holes that have cropped up in the first draft.

Returning to prep work can feel like taking a step back, but (I speak from experience) it’s often much more productive to swallow your pride, screech a recalcitrant first draft to a halt, and go back to shore up the entire outline before moving ahead.

8. Interview Your Characters

Although generally considered a part of prep work (for me, a vital part of the outlining process), it’s never a bad time to stop for a chat with your characters. You can do this in a formal way, using a list of questions to make sure you know everything important about your characters. Or you can do it in a more freewheeling fashion, just throwing out questions on the page and seeing how your characters respond. This can be a great (and fun) method when the characters seem as blocked as you do. Asking them about their motivations can be especially revealing.

9. Analyze Your Story’s Scene Structure

If you’re not in the mood to write a new scene, you can feel just as productive (maybe more so!) by stopping to map out the scene structure of your existing (and future) scenes. Proper scene structure asks that each scene offer six specific beats (goal, conflict, outcome, reaction, dilemma, decision), which then lead seamlessly into the next set of beats in the following scene. Analyzing and double-checking your scene structure for weak links in the chain can be game-changing both in terms of tightening your manuscript and even in showing you plot holes and blocks you may not have yet recognized.

10. Type Up Notes

If you’re a slave to your notebook, like I am, then you know the creative power of writing by hand—but you also know the drudgery of having to type up your notes. This is often a chore that gets put off and put off, until you hardly remember what’s in your notes to begin with. But if right-brain creativity just isn’t happening for you, you can make great use of your time by taking care of boring busywork like notekeeping.

11. Organize Your Notes

For many, organizing your notes may go hand in hand with typing them up. But if you have a lot of notes—whether from inspiration, outlining, or research—you no doubt know how easy it is for them to somehow sprawl their way all over your computer. Even the mighty organizational powerhouse Scrivener can quickly turn into a rabbit’s warren of random files and folders. At a certain point my brain explodes, and I have to take the time to consolidate and reorganize notes so I can easily make sense of them when in a more creative frame of mind.

12. Spring Clean Your Story Folders/Computer/Office/House

Technically this doesn’t meet my initial qualification that a productive writing task must directly contribute to the creation of a story. But if you’re one of those people (ahem) who need an orderly environment in order to concentrate, then putting some time into cleaning, tossing, and organizing anything from your Scrivener project to your entire house may turn out to be a very creative use of your time. If nothing else, consider it “creative lollygagging” and use it as daydreaming time.

13. Edit Your Story

There is always more editing that can be done. If you don’t feel like writing, you can always scroll to the top of your document and start reading. Or return to a shelved project and start tweaking. A change of pace can shake up your creativity, and you’ll never regret putting a little more polish on what you’ve already written.

14. Edit for Someone Else

Again, this doesn’t explicitly qualify as productive creative work on your stories. But if you just can’t write anything right now, then offering to read and/or edit another writer’s story will allow you to at least keep yourself in a writerly atmosphere while also doing good for someone else.

15. Dreamzone

Finally, don’t forget that sometimes the most productive thing you can do is… just stare into space. Put on some music, go for a walk, lean back in your chair and close your eyes, build a campfire—and work on your story via mind pictures rather than words for a while.

***

It should go without saying that all these useful tasks can easily turn into procrastination gambits. But it’s vital for authors to be able to take their own temperatures and know the difference between an undisciplined dodging of the daily writing session versus a genuine need to take a break and focus on something else. If you identify with the latter right now, you can use any of the above tasks to stay close to your writing, feel productive, and still honor your need for a little creative rest.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s something productive you try to do when you don’t feel like writing? 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 the generous nature and spirit of this post. I mean this in the best way: it feels like the freewheeling nature of kindergarten. It’s been a while, but as I best recall, nothing is forbidden for kids that little. They aren’t boxed in at all. For that reason their creativity runs rampant like bamboo in the forest. This post has that ethos as well: if you’re writing, you’re writing, and if you’re dreamzoning, guess what? You’re still writing!

    So thank you for giving us permission to let our creativity get a little unruly.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. Love this. Returning to a creativity with a more childlike mindset has been (and is) a hard-won lesson for me. But writing is starting to be fun again.

    • Usvaldo, I totally agree, but I also want to say how much I like your phrase “runs rampant like bamboo in the forest.” Vivid turn of phrase. It jumped out at me.

  2. Love the ideas here.

    One might question whether tidying one’s desk is part of the writing process or a necessary chore. But most of the activities on the list, I’ve come to realise are part of writing.

    Whenever I find myself stuck in writing a story, I switch to plotting, research and the other things mentioned here. I’d recommend it as a way of “refreshing” one’s muse. Also, doing the “learning” of plot structure, and so on, is like the workouts an athlete will do to be sure to perform well in the competition. There’s no substitute for reflection on what one is creating.

    As an example of how this works, last summer, I found myself stuck in writing a story. I switched to something else and wrote a short story in a different genre (SF). I found myself writing this with a speed and abandon that astonished me. The short story just wrote itself. It was cathartic but, equally, I humbly think the story isn’t bad. It had been lingering hidden by what I’d been trying to do and had hit the proverbial brick wall. As of this post, I’ve ended up writing three stories with the same character and setting. And I’m dreaming of another one.

    The lesson and its brilliantly brought out in the introduction is to view everything related to writing as being part of the process and not to consider simply the written words as the only necessary focus. One may sum it up as: “It’s not just about the words, stupid.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      We live in an era that emphasizes forward movement. But I’ve come to realize that creativity (and life) is more like the ocean–it rolls in and out. We have to honor both phases in order to advance.

  3. Alice Kindl says

    One of the best post ever (and you did a lot of them!). I appreciated the humor especially, like the warning about procrastination. Thank you so much, Kate, you are a great menthor. I would have never understood story structure without your job.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great! Makes my day to hear you’re enjoying the info. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  4. Thanks for this great list and for the kind, gentle approach. I think we all need that right now. For me, anything that gets me into my story can and often does turn into something productive. Example: yesterday I felt lousy. So I opened up Scrivener and skimmed through my WIP for a note marking some research I need to do (I use comments to flag areas where I need to research, flesh things out, etc.) and spent a very pleasant 40 minutes researching desert plants in Winslow, AZ. What I learned gave me a small story idea, and all of it will help me set the scene for my story vividly and specifically.

  5. Margaret Watland says

    Margaret says
    I read a book – something light – something that will erase the words in my sentence that won’t drop into the right place. I sleep on it – 24 hours makes a big difference. I pray for help
    Then in a day or two, the words come to me in the strangest places. Like, at church in the middle of a sermon. I never throw away my bulletins without checking for scribbles.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sleeping on it is huge. So many solutions come to me a day after I decided they were never going to come. :p

  6. Great post! I know the need to take a step back from the page or the current project damn well. I usually try to use the time when I’m not actively working on a story to take care of some social media marketing or work on my website.

    As for the article, I love number three! As a short story writer, I love to jump between different projects. I finish a draft of one story, then go to the next before I work on the first one again. That way I can sort of take a break from it, get some new ideas and when I return to it’s with a pair of new eyes so to say.

    Outlining is another thing that I often do. I can’t help but agree that it’s VERY useful. When I finish a first draft that doesn’t feel right, I don’t throw it away or do a painstaking edit of it. Instead I go through the story and outline it and add all the things that are missing. When I then go back to rewrite it, I use the new outlining to improve on the story. It always works great.

    A last thing that sounds very interesting is interviewing your characters. I’ve never done something like that. In short stories there usually isn’t much room for characters to actually grow, especially in genre fiction. But I’m now traversing into novel territory and for that it seems VERY useful to get to know everything about your characters. Even if certain convictions or ideas of a character aren’t important to the story, I still feel it influences who they are, the way they act and especially the way they speak.

    Thanks again for this great article, I’ll definitely have a look at more of your content if the need to take a break from writing arises again!

  7. Really great advice, Katie….I know your thoughts are worthwhile to me, because I am constantly reflecting on them in relation to my own habits/strategies/etc. In this case, like you, I know that any time spent forwarding the manuscript in any way, definitely counts as “writing time.” It may not be as exciting as writing a great scene, but it’s stuff that has to be done, you’re doing it, so how could it not count as ‘writing time?”

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