How to get back into writing after a break

Reading time: About 5 minutes

Writing is always going to be harder after a holiday. But taking a break isn’t a mistake! Here’s how to get back into writing after a break…

Are you planning on eating too many chocolate-dipped shortbreads this Christmas? Drinking lots of glasses of eggnog or mulled wine? Nipping out of town for a brief sun holiday? Totally ignoring your writing for two weeks or more?

Huzzah! That’s a great plan. But come the beginning of January, I’m guessing you’ll be beating yourself up for being a “bad” writer. Today’s post is my pep talk for you.

Getting back into writing after a break — while not as tough as starting a new writing project — is harder than you think.

So, here are seven tips describing how to get back into writing after a break:

1. Understand that you’ve lost your writing conditioning

When you’re trying to redevelop your writing skills, it’s important to understand that you’ve lost your conditioning, and that this is NORMAL. If you were a runner who just finished a marathon and then took off six weeks from exercise to celebrate, you would not expect to run another marathon right after your break, would you? Of course not!

You’d implement a training program where perhaps you’d start with a three-mile run and then gradually ramp up to a 10-mile one. You’d probably add some weights at the gym, as well. And you’d undoubtedly do some stretching both before and after your runs. After six months of this, you might be in shape to run another marathon. But you wouldn’t beat yourself up for not being able to do it sooner.

Writers lose conditioning just like runners. This principle doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with breaks and holidays. (Runners take breaks and holidays, too.) The Dean of the Global School of Writing will not put you into detention for taking a hiatus from writing. Nor should anyone beat you up for having a hard time figuring out how to get back into writing again.

Instead, expect this transition. Your first writing session after a break is going to be challenging. That’s entirely normal. The only mistake is not to plan for it to be difficult.

2-Create a modest plan to get back into writing

While you want to write, view your first day back on the job as mostly a write-off (ha ha – get the joke?) It’s kind of like the first day of school or the first day of a new job – your main responsibility it simply getting “settled,” and figuring out the lay of the land.

Don’t think that, because you haven’t written for X days, you need to produce a minimum of a thousand words today. That would be a huge mistake and would risk turning writing into a job you’d dislike. Instead, take a small and non-threatening first step to reintroduce yourself to your most important writing project.

What this first step will look like depends on you, but here are some ideas:

  • read something you wrote before your break
  • read a small piece of research relating to your project
  • write one sentence
  • edit one paragraph
  • open the document (yes, this super-small step counts!)

I know these steps probably sound pathetic and half-hearted to you, but they’re crucially important. Why? They help reconnect you with your writing project. Losing familiarity with your writing work makes it seem daunting to you. More daunting than it needs to be.

Once you’ve taken an initial baby-step, make a plan for the next four weeks. Your early goals should be modest — only 15 to 30 minutes a day for writing (and even less is okay, too). You can ramp up these writing goals after you’ve hit a comfortable plateau.

how to get back into writingAgain, think of writing like running: You wouldn’t expect to run 15 miles unless you could run 10 comfortably. Don’t write for two hours a day until you’ve hit 30 minutes — then 45, then 60, then 90 — before you try for 120. And this assumes that longer writing sessions are your goal. But if you don’t have that kind of time, writing for only 15 minutes a day is also perfectly okay.

And if you’re returning to work only to face a big writing project with an urgent deadline, resist the urge to spend vast swaths of time writing. Instead, break your writing duties into small, manageable chunks.

If it’s a two-hour project, for example, spend four 30-minute chunks of time writing. But in between those chunks of writing time, ensure you pursue other interesting distractions — such as phone calls, talking to colleagues or reading.

3-Keep yourself accountable

This rule sounds easy, but it’s actually pretty hard. Develop a way to hold yourself to achieving your goals. Accountability is especially important if you have a long-term academic project (hello, 100,000-word dissertation) or a book (I’m looking at you 70,000-word novel), both of which have few writing deadlines except for the big one at the end.

Here are some ideas for how and where you can report your writing:

  • to colleagues at work or classmates at school
  • to friends and family members
  • on a spreadsheet you keep for yourself and make public via Twitter, Facebook or some other social media platform
  • by using my Get It Done writing accountability group

Be sure to block the time for your writing in your calendar and then record whether you actually achieve it. Time blocking is a wonderful way to squeeze more juice out of every day.

4-Promise yourself some rewards

Never skimp on your rewards! They’re not childish or silly, as some people seem to think.

The ultimate reward for writing a long-form project like a book or dissertation may be years away. But there are markers or punctuation spots along the way, and you need to celebrate each of them! (How are you going to keep yourself motivated if you never allow yourself to celebrate anything, except at the end?)

Getting back to writing after a break is definitely an occasion you should mark.

It’s hard work to regain your conditioning. If your first writing sessions feel horrible and uncomfortable, you can ease the pain by rewarding yourself with a nice latte, a mug of special tea, a favourite magazine or a movie ticket for having the stick-to-it-ive-ness to persist.

You won’t need to continue to reward yourself for every writing session indefinitely, but go over the top — especially for the first really challenging days.

5-Always stop writing on time

Much as I believe in priorities, however, I also believe in stopping when you’ve finished the small amount of writing time to which you committed. There are two reasons you might find it difficult to stop:

*If you’re lucky enough to be blessed with flow

…that ecstatic state when words seem to pour out of you. If this little miracle occurs, you will undoubtedly feel a powerful urge to continue writing until it runs out. “Flow almost never happens to me,” you’ll tell yourself. “I need to take advantage of it while it’s here.”

how to get back into writing

Even so, I encourage you to stop writing when your bell rings. Writing is not about inspiration. It’s about showing up to write, day after relentless day. If you write too much today, you’ll have a harder time convincing yourself to write tomorrow.

And remember, you need to be sure to leave yourself enough material for the next day. Hemingway used to stop his daily writing in the middle of a sentence so he’d have an especially easy place to resume the next writing day.

*If you feel your word count is too embarrassingly small…

We all want to feel smart and accomplished and if you write for five minutes and produce only 13 words, that total is likely to feel unacceptable to you.

Something inside you is going to INSIST that you sit in front of the damn computer screen — even if it remains blank — until you can get a far more respectable number of words. But that’s not writing. That’s punishment!

Instead of writing for longer, use a timer to limit your time. Typically, I enjoy using the Pomodoro routine, which requires me to work for only 25 minutes (with no multi-tasking allowed) and then take a five-minute break. But when I’m returning from holiday, I recognize that even 25 minutes may be too much and I’ll be content to resume with just five or 10 minutes.

6-Tell your Inner Critic to buzz off (for now)

Many of us derail ourselves when we listen to the bossy, nasty voice of our Inner Critic (IC) who likes to assail us when we’re writing.

Your IC is probably the harshest editor you know. By your standards, your writing is never interesting enough. Or persuasive enough. Or well organized enough. In fact, while you’re in the middle of the act of writing, a voice inside your head is often saying things like: “My boss/supervisor is going to go crazy when she sees this article.”

In truth, our IC is pretty smart and may be able to make some useful suggestions — eventually.

But this voice is counterproductive when we’re writing. Keep reminding the IC that you’ll listen to them later when you’re editing.

7-Make enough time for reading

If you were travelling or attending too many parties over the holidays, your writing is likely not the only task that suffered. I bet your reading fell by the wayside, too. Remember that we become better writers in only three ways: the amount we write, the amount of time we spend editing and the amount of reading we do.

If you want to increase your reading, there are several strategies you can use. But the most useful one is to choose your material carefully. Don’t regard reading as a vegetable that you have to choke down because it’s good for you. Make it cheesecake by focusing on books that you LOVE. If this limits you to books your high school English teacher would have pilloried, so be it. Read only what you enjoy and then reading will never be a chore.

You should also make reading your “default” position by always having a book handy in your purse, briefcase or glove-box. If you always have something on hand to read, you will do it more often.

It’s time to start writing again!

Holidays and breaks are almost never a mistake. They give us a useful perspective on our words and research. They allow us to relax and recover. And, they give us a new energy. The only wrinkle is that they take away our conditioning. But, no problem! You can learn how to get back into writing and regain your conditioning.

Just make a plan to do it.

This is my last post until January 3, as I’ll be taking off some time to celebrate Christmas. I hope everyone who reads this blog has a very happy holiday and a splendid new year. (An earlier version of today’s post first appeared on my blog on Jan. 16/18.)

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My video podcast last week addressed improving your writing focus. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.  

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Want to start the new year with a better writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.

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What are your ideas for how to get back into writing after a break? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Dec. 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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