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!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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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. Thanks for your encouraging post!

    One thing I’ve recently discovered is helpful for me is impersonating my characters to someone else, mostly via text or email. Writing-buddies and best friends are great for this, and another upside is if they’re a writer they can impersonate one of their characters back, and both of us are benefited. Plus it’s just plain fun. 😉

    I look forward to reading about your writing theories. Thanks again for all your encouragement.

  2. This is disturbingly accurate, because I’ve been doing all of these things for the past couple of months, except for #8. I can’t write at all until I know the characters a bit, but the rest of this is bang on for my activities lately. A few weeks ago I had a breakthrough with respect to an important plot hole, a plot hole which kept me from writing. The breakthrough led to me having to do some edits and revisions, which are invigorating and energizing, but it came because I’d been doing the stuff on this list.

    Going back to #8, Phyllis Eisenstein gave me a breakthrough in her sci-fi writing class. She had us roleplay as characters in a scenario — a star ship captain and her crew, under attack by an alien ship — with the goal of having us put ourselves in a character’s shoes. The idea was that we’d think of “what’s my motivation, what’s my goal, and how do I solve this problem?” We came away from the exercise with a deeper understanding of how to make our characters living, breathing people. They weren’t just game pieces on a board that we move around for the sake of the plot. They had motivations, goals, and agency, and reacted according to those factors. It was off to the races after that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A sub-thread in last week’s comments was about the value of writer’s learning a little bit about acting. I’ve got a starter book on the subject in my wishlist as a result.

  3. Thanks, Katie. Really loved this post. I love giving myself permission to engage in “creative lollygagging and use it as daydreaming time.”

    “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.”

    This has become, without a doubt, the most fun for me in the writing/creating process. My characters in my 2 current WIPs have revealed secrets that build fascinating layers into their stories. I highly recommend it. The way I do it is “ask a character to have coffee with me.” Then, I let the character lead the conversation. I title each document “Coffee With ____”. I can’t think of a more fun way to get to know my peeps.

    And there’s an added bonus: being a highly-developed introvert, I get to sit face-to-face with empty air, and still get know the person on a deep level. Ha!

    • “Coffee With _____.” I love that!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As if writers need encouragement to daydream more. 😉 But then again, maybe we do…

    • I love talking with my characters. I’ve published interviews with them on my blog, and others’. You certainly do get a lot of insight into them doing this, as well as finding out about their backgrounds and why they are like they are.

  4. Hey KM, thanks for another one of your helpful posts. I’ve done almost all of the 15 tasks you mentioned and often felt guilty for not getting words on the page or just rationalizing away those other tasks. Thanks to you I can now let that guilt go.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s a time when these things *do* become procrastination tricks, but they’re also all things that need to be done. So there’s no reason to feel guilty. We have far too much of that in our lives anyway. Much better to feel rightfully productive!

  5. Eric Troyer says

    Good suggestions! Some of these are in my toolkit. I’m currently “stuck” on my WIP because my laptop died. I have my work backed up and an older computer to work with, but I don’t have Scrivener on my old computer. The debate: should I try to download Scrivener to my old computer and deal with all the inevitable hassles (long download time, old OS, etc) or should I do other things? I’ve chosen the latter, like working on an opinion piece for the local newspaper, and reading about writing (which gave me a great idea for my WIP). One nice thing from this enforced break from my WIP is that I’m now missing it. Working on it had gotten a bit tedious, but now I want to get back to it, but the darned computer is still out of commission!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sorry about your computer! But, yes, I definitely think there’s something to the old saying about “absence making the heart grow fonder.”

  6. All excellent suggestions. I can personally attest to number 8, Interview your characters. Learning more about them not only makes them more real to you (and your readers) but also gives you ideas for more conflicts and complications.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s my habit to interview my characters after I finish the initial brainstorming of the basic plot and before I write the scene outline. I *always* learn things that end up being crucial for moving into the scene outline.

  7. Very good post Weiland! I needed that!

  8. These are some excellent ideas! I do most of these. Brainstorming is the one I do most often. It’s amazing what can come out of a deep brainstorming session. Sometimes just writing even though I don’t feel it triggers my inspiration.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Absolutely. Writing generates more writing. It’s one of those “an object in motion stays in motion” kinda things.

  9. Journaling feelings and frustrations about story really works! I took this up earlier this year when I hit a wall and surprisingly, I worked out whatever the issue was and got back to writing. I also found using voice recording/notes works just as well. Having someone else to bounce your ideas off of or even yourself can really work wonders to get your creative brain back in gear 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s amazing how our unconscious usually has all the answers we’re lacking. We just have to give it time and an opportunity to talk to us.

  10. Outstanding list, thank you! Until late last year I didn’t believe in writer’s block, but then it hit me when I was suddenly confronted with some family health issues and could not concentrate on my new novel. These are terrific suggestions for bringing creativity back to the fore.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I hear you. I didn’t believe in writer’s block for a long time either. Experience is a great teacher though. 😉 Sorry about your family’s health issues!

  11. Paul Taylor says

    My “real” job is as a product designer, so sometimes I will take a break from writing and work on designing the objects in my story. My stories typically have sci-fi elements which can lead to some interesting tech and gadgets. Sketching and then creating them in 3D CAD has been a great way for me to better visualize the device which then makes it easier to describe them in the story. I will also create photo-realistic imagery of gadgets which may end up in my cover art. It’s a win-win for me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great. I’ve often wished I had a little talent in the drawing department. It would be great fun to be able to visually create some of my story ideas.

  12. Nice post! I love that I get to do many things as a writer (says former retail clerk). It just took a while to validate all these aspects of writing as work. My current wip involves woodland animals, so I watched a nature show the other day, with pen and notebook, and enjoyed every moment on the job!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Absolutely. It’s like being a carpenter. There’s way more involved than just hammering. 😉

  13. Thanks K.M.! This will help me so much!

  14. All great tips. I am a firm believer in number two: brainstorming works. Especially if you try to connect the dots after you brainstorm.

  15. Jon Spell says

    These are some good tips. For me, reading is what gets me back into writing. Whether I’m reading a polished best-seller or a diamond in the rough for a friend (as in your suggestion) something about it motivates me to want to write.

  16. Brilliant tips. I only just bought your book – conquering writers block- and it has already been of great use. i haven’t journaled my block though so i will be doing that next time. Thanks always for your encouragement.

  17. I love this post! I’m making sure I blog at least once a month and schedule posts in the author’s group I’m an admin for. And I’m stealing point 8 for a scheduled post just so you know. Lol!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, yes, blogging. I forget to count that as writing sometimes. :p I don’t count it for fiction writing time, but it is certainly a creative endeavor in its own right.

  18. Lori Zinn says

    Thank you for all your ideas and suggestions. I appreciate them all.
    Every now and again I’m asked to please read through and edit one of my online English learners’s writing. I’m happy to do it for them but have difficulties knowing the best way to physically do the job – how to show mistakes in where to put or not put commas, for example, or to replace a comma with a semi-colon – it’s difficult to make them show up as corrections.
    I ask that the writer use double line spacing so that I have somewhere to make corrections or notes, and I make my typing a different colour so corrections show up. But still I find the whole exercise is a slow, laborious and frustrating process.
    Please, do you have any suggestions on how I can edit a piece of text more easily and quickly? If a copy of your reply could go to my email address it would be very much appreciated.
    Thanks, and blessings.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If you have Microsoft Word, the best solution is to use the Track Changes tool. It records every change you make, so the other person can review them. You can also add comments.

  19. These are all great ideas. I think participating in writing communities is another good thing to do. Good to do and it can give you an itch. A nice long walk with a book tape, particularly a book tape on writing, can be restorative. And not every time, but sometimes, you just have to make yourself work, or I do anyway.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      True. Especially in times of social distance, tapping into the energy and enthusiasm of other writers can be a great inspiration.

  20. Always look forward to your posts! Sometimes my son will ask if I’m alright because I’m sitting, staring out the window. I smile and say, “I’m fine. I’m writing.” It all happens in the head (and the heart). I’m a pantser, so I carry on conversations with my characters all the time, like “Wait- you’re going to Africa? When did that happen?!” But being a pantser also means doing some of the research on the run and re-tweaking. I’m visual, so I go on-line and find pictures close to what I see in my mind and I put them in my research book. I recently re-read “Writing a Fiction Series” so I can avoid info dumps. Do you have a book or blog on that? If so, I’m definitely interested. It’s hard to get each book in a trilogy or series where each book can stand alone. One good thing – spending time in another world has helped immensely during this pandemic thing. I definitely recommend it.Thanks again.

    Caden

    • Another great post Katie. This may sound boring to you by now, but you are a constant companion to my writing. I have an early morning writing routine and this explains why I’m always late with commenting your posts: I happen to be wriiting 🙂

      Freewriting is always a best idea but I’ll try out interviewing my characters. I love Scrivener, where I pull down all my support stuff, my plabbed chapters, etc. Then I use iThoughts for planning the big picture. Both tools I use both on my Mac and on my iPad,which never leaves me. But the writing I do it on paper, with my favourite fountain pens (part of the enjoyment) and, to share it all, I use a writing book where I write from both sides, one for freewriting and the opposite one forp the story itself. When I’ve done some writing of the story, I transfer it to Scrivener, often with changes and integration.

      Thanks so much for your invaluable posts.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Thanks, Piero. 🙂 I would love to believe that everyone who doesn’t comment is off writing instead!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve written about series in the following posts:
      How to Write Character Arcs in a Series
      How to Outline a Bestselling Series of Books

      And about info dumps here.

  21. Ingrid Bouldin says

    Fantastic post, Katie!

    Here lately and I think for most of us, life had been all around nuts .
    At least for myself, it’s downright impossible 99% of the time to carve out chunks of time and place solitary enough to actually DO some of that writing stuff I remember from once upon a time.

    It’s actually not been that long.
    But it sure as heck seems that way here lately. That putting together of words and actually WRITING. It definitely wasn’t my most intelligent idea to go full steam ahead with an April NaNo commitment, either… what the heck was I thinking?
    Ah, well.

    But, your wonderful post!
    Full of great ideas and inspiration. None of which is related to chaining myself to keyboard w bread/water while ignoring all the pounding on the locked door. You’ve brought some real world solutions to gently slip writing back into the middle of my new-norm mayhem.
    Once again, thank you for saving my writing self and soul, Katie! I got this now.

  22. I was fifty thousand words into my first novel when I realized I had a mess. That’s when I started reading about writing (#4) and found your site. I started my book over with a fresh understanding of story structure and POV issues and finished. I have since then searched out other resources (some that downplay story structure) that have been invaluable.

  23. I so needed to hear this. My current novel has been stuck in outline mode for four months — I am used to going from start to finish in like two. I haven’t been avoiding the book, but I have been seriously stuck every time I pick it back up.

    During this time I have found myself returning to drawing and started creating a new comic strip instead. On one level, I tried to tell myself that writing comic scripts counts as writing. But on another, it’s writing that isn’t being directly applied to this stubborn novel. It’s reassuring to be told that these side activities are beneficial by keeping my juices flowing, at least.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Eh, mine has been stuck in outline mode for over a year now, so… don’t feel bad. 😉

  24. I enjoyed listening to your post today. I am going through the frustrating practice of querying and just needed to breathe. Yesterday I planted new flowers and took time to hand sew a mask. Now I can go back to my outline of the biography I have been writing. Strange times call for strange crafts.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great. I just came in from planting broccoli starters. Being out in nature is a *great* way to recharge our creative batteries.

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