Get A New Story: Stop Writing Even When You’re In The Flow

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“I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

One of the biggest myths about writing is that we should keep going when we get in the flow or on a roll.

Usually what this looks like is planning to write to a certain point — whether a word goal, page count, plot point, or time frame — but getting fired up, filled with ideas, bursting with creativity, and ending up writing in a big binge of time, often until the wee hours of the morning and/or until we’re exhausted.

Turns out, it’s actually better to stop writing when you’re on a roll and end your writing session on a high note.

What you unknowingly set up

Here’s why continuing to write past your daily goal isn’t such a good idea:

1. You break trust with yourself.

If you’ve made a commitment to work until a certain point and you don’t stop when you reach that goal, you’ve just broken the fragile relationship of trust you have with yourself. You made a deal with yourself to write a certain amount,  made the Herculean effort to overcome the resistance to even writing in the first place, and then tricked yourself into writing more. Sure, you felt good doing it at the time, but how do you feel afterward? It’s very much akin to overindulging in chocolate cake. It tastes good at the time, but it leaves your stomach feeling queasy and uncomfortable. We don’t want you to have that kind of association with your writing.

So remember, when you push past your goal — even when you’re feeling inspired — you’ll have less trust with yourself when you sit down the next day to write.

2. You create a punishment pattern around your craft.

When you write to the point of exhaustion, you create a pattern of negative reinforcement about writing. Again, not what we want.

As Gina Hiatt, Ph.D. and founder of Finish Agent (the underlying software system for my online Writer’s Circle) says, “This is actually bad for you psychologically. If you keep going until you’re tired out, then you’re stopping only when you start to feel bad. By definition that is negative reinforcement, or punishment. So it’s much better to do a little each day, and end on a high note, instead of ending on exhaustion. You’ll be more likely to come back to it.”

3. You set the bar too high for an ongoing, healthy writing habit.

If you’re writing daily (and I hope you are), once you exceed your daily goal, it’s easy to let the bar creep up for subsequent writing sessions. And what if you’re not “feeling it” when you sit back down to write the next day? You’ve just created a situation where you’re failing to meet your own expectations.

4. You work against your own momentum.

Robert Boice, author of How Writers Journey To Comfort and Fluency and a leader in academic writing research, finds that writing for hours (usually out of fear that we won’t be able to get going again or because we have a looming deadline) actually works against momentum. The target writing state we’re looking for — when it comes to sustaining our writing in the long term — is “mild pleasure,” and the hyper, exaggerated state that comes from manic and binge writing makes that hard to achieve — and maintain.

5. You develop an aversion to writing.

In combination, these patterns lead you to develop an aversion to writing, and increase the likelihood of procrastination and negative self-talk, leading in turn to further paralysis and writer’s block.

New solutions

Here are some new approaches to ending your writing sessions, even when you’re “in the flow.”

1. Use a timer for your writing sessions.

If you’re working day and day out on a long term writing project like a script, setting a time goal for writing, whether that’s brainstorming, editing, outlining, or writing new words, makes it much easier to be and feel successful. When the timer dings, you know you’ve met your goal and that it’s time to knock off for a break or for the day.

Plus, using a timer helps you stay focused on the task at hand, and you’ll be much less likely to go off surfing on Facebook or elsewhere.

2. “Leave yourself a rough edge.”

Cory Doctorow says, “When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you’re in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work. Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day’s knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the ‘hint.’ Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night — it’s hard to build on a smooth edge.”

Many writers use this technique. Though it may be hard to discipline yourself to do so, you will find it easier to get started when you stop mid-thought. This is because your subconscious mind keeps working on finishing that sentence until you sit down again to write. So you’re ready to go — no need to “warm up.”

3. Declare yourself satisfied.

Coach and author Jennifer Louden teaches the concept of “declaring yourself satisfied.” We advocate this technique in my Writer’s Circle, which involves meeting your goal, preferably one with a measurable time element. Be sure to select something you can easily attain on an average day, not as you on steroids. Then, STOP when you meet those conditions and declare yourself satisfied.

My writers like to throw their hands up into the air and shout it out loud, “I declare myself satisfied!” Then they call it a day, regardless of their level of completion.

4. Immediately reward yourself for writing.

Rather than creating a punishment situation around your writing, look instead for ways to create positive associations. After all, you’ve just overcome resistance, faced the blank page, and ponied up the good stuff. You deserve to celebrate.

This way, you’re positively reinforcing the act of writing, making it easier to come back to, and reducing the likelihood of writer’s block.

Here’s a short slide show of some simple ways to reward yourself without spending a ton of time or money, or expanding your waistline with calories as rewards. (“Don’t reward yourself with food, you are not a dog.“)

5. Pace yourself for the long term.

I know right now you’re reading this thinking, “Yeah, but what about when I have a deadline? I can’t just stop writing whenever I feel like it!”

You’re absolutely right, and in this industry meeting deadlines is a necessity. And, if you pace yourself well, not pushing past your regular goals into superhuman-manic-writer-turned-procrastinator you may just find yourself meeting your deadlines gracefully as time goes on.

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One thought on “Get A New Story: Stop Writing Even When You’re In The Flow

  1. Mona Karel

    Those rewards? In spite of the statement “you’re not a dog,” that’s exactly how to encourage a dog to continue a preferred behavior. And the advice? That’s how you avoid souring a horse or dog during training. Dang, I knew I should be treating myself like a dog, THANKS!