Motivation: Work Smarter not Harder

I always thought that the best way to beat writer’s block (of any severity) was to just keep writing.  (In fact, I’ve probably posted that here on the blog more than once.)  Sit down.  Force words onto the paper (or screen.)  Make your mind work its way to the promised land of renewed motivation by dragging itself along.

That always seemed like the responsible method for addressing the hot topic of motivation.  Just buckle up and buckle down.

But it’s not.

I did a lot of writing this Summer.  A lot of it.  Some days (most days, actually) I didn’t look forward to it.  For whatever reason, I wasn’t really ‘feeling it’ this Summer.  I made myself sit down and write anyway.  I kept on trucking.

Yay me.

I made a lot of progress.  I even settled into a rhythm.  Like I said, I got a lot of writing done this Summer.  But… it wasn’t fun, at least not in the same way it had been for years.  I did the hard thing and kept writing.  And the motivation never came back.

My good old landscaping supervisor had a phrase he had to repeat to me over and over and over through our late afternoons on the jobsite: “Work smarter, not harder.”  You see, whether I’m working on pulling out tree roots or hammering out an outline, I tend to bull-rush my way forward until the problem is tackled (and I’m exhausted.)  The problem with that approach is that sometimes you’re the one who gets bull rushed.

So, all that leads up to this: today I want to discuss how to work smarter, not harder, and get yourself remotivated.

Step 1: Take Breaks

Writing can thrive in your life as many things, a habit, a hobby, a job.  What it can’t be is a lifestyle.  Day in, day out, up early, in bed late, always writing.  I tried to do this last Summer as I hammered my way toward my unreachable wordcount goals.  It didn’t work.  I tried to bull rush my novel, and it bull rushed me right back.

Perhaps the most helpful piece of writing advice I’ve ever received came from author and GTW contributor Stephanie Morrill.  She said anyone who was serious about their writing needed to set their writing time.  She said to pick a time of day and every day sit down and write for an hour or half an hour or however long you decide you want to commit to your writing.  She said making sure that you sat down at that time every day would make sure that you did some writing every day.  What I didn’t realize though, was that by setting a time for writing to happen, I was also setting a time for it not to happen.  A time to hang out with my brothers or read a book or mow the lawn.  By picking my writing time, I was allowing myself to have non-writing times, and by taking those, I was allowing myself to back off the bull rush and catch a breath.

That breath, turns out, is the difference between enjoying writing and working through it.

Step 2: Vary Your Work

One of the hardest parts about writing a novel is the time commitment.  Writing a first draft takes a long time.  It’s not something you can sit down and muscle through in a weekend.  And, while you’re working your way through it, it can get old.

I don’t have to convince y’all of this.  You guys know what I’m talking about.  Avoiding this is key to maintaining your motivational energy.  You need to still love your story.  Unfortunately, many writers dodge this boredom by stepping away from their novel for one (three) week(s).  Or more.  Once they’re out of the game though, they’re out of it for good.  One week turns into three in the blink of an eye.  And once you’ve been out of a story that long, it’s really hard to get back in.

Instead of dropping completely out of the creative game for a significant portion of time, try varying your work by taking part in quick writing projects on the side.  Giving critiques is always a good place to start. Or writing a short storyReading some other fiction (or select nonfiction.)  (If you haven’t read Go Teen Writers, please do.  Really, you owe it to your writing career.)

Keeping your brain engaged with creative energy while letting it take a break from your own story is a great way to restore balance to your writing life and keep your motivation fresh.

Step 3: Keep it Real

Here soon I want to do a post on keeping emotions engaged in your writing, but for now I’ll just say this.  Some of the most powerful stories I’ve read are not all that ‘grand’.  They’re just down to earth narratives about down to earth people.  They strike close to home because they engage emotions that we feel in our everyday lives.  If your story is boring you, maybe you need to reevaluate its emotional impact.

Again, more on this later.

Step 4: Avoid Distractions While Moving Forward

The whole ‘get off facebook and write’ mantra is a little old so I want to add a fresh element here.  Staying away from distractions is great, but in this world, it’s also exhausting.  We are constantly battered by distractions and we’re used to responding to them.  It takes a lot of will power to tune them out and write.  Soon enough, the distractions will win again and you’ll be back online.

How do you really get writing?  How do you really get rid of distractions for good?  Well, you can’t replace something with nothing.  If you’re going to get rid of distractions, you have to fill your mind palace with something else.  Your story, maybe?  Know what you’re sitting down to do before you turn your distractions off, then do it.  Are you going to write a chapter?  What about?  Are you going to work on a character outline?  What do you need to know about him?  Do you have a character sheet to help you round him out?

Getting your goals laid out before you start is always a good way to make progress.  And really making progress is a good way to motivated.

Step 5: Achievable Goals

Every year when I do NaNoWriMo, I scrape across the 50,000 word mark just happy to be alive.  But I always feel like I could have done more.  Like I was in a good spot to really hammer out some hard words.  That’s why last July when I did Camp NaNo, I set my word count goal at 100,000 words.  Go me.

I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it, but ‘hey, I thought, what’s the harm?”

Actually, the harm was a lot.  I realized very quickly that I really was not going to make 100,000 words, so I just started letting days slip by.  When all was said and done, I’d only recorded 30,000 words on the month.  My lowest total ever for any NaNo related month.

If you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll land among the stars.  Where you’ll freeze in the infinite vacuum of space.  And suffocate too.

Lofty goals which can’t be met are motivational killers.  Don’t be sucked in by their daring charm.  Set reasonable, small goals and meet them.  That will help you build your momentum.

That’s all for today, Woodlings.  I hope your motivated by this post (or at least by the methods in it.)  Have a great week of writing!


Photo: Direction, Pen Waggener, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Raised on C.S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend the physical reality to reveal spiritual realities which apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts and solar systems (including our own.)
When not writing fiction Brandon spends his time tending his blog The Woodland Quill, sportsing, or just struggling through that last-year-of-high-school/first-year-of-college which is really neither but is definitely both.


  1. J.A.Penrose October 4, 2017 at 11:08 PM - Reply

    Wow! A great post. And I’ve recently been going through a bit of a writing slump myself. Mostly because I’ve been writing and re-writing the same book for ages now. But now I’m thinking of perhaps doing something totally different this NaNo. Maybe something fantasy related.

    Glad to be back!

    • Brandon October 4, 2017 at 11:58 PM Reply

      I am literally in this exact same situation. I guess we’ll go it together then.

  2. Rolena September 25, 2017 at 10:23 PM - Reply

    My brother was just telling me how his boss tells him to “work smarter, not harder”. And I’ve just been learning this fall how I can truly enjoy writing. It’s so true that setting that time to write and the GUARDING IT WITH YOUR LIFE, is super helpful. I look forward to that time I get to spend with my story. And since I know that time is for actually writing (not browsing Pinterest for the closest look alike to my character) I also make more time for planning what I’ll write during that time, which makes the set aside writing time more enjoyable cause I’m prepared. (mostly 🙂 )
    Anyway, this has been long. But this is my favorite. “If you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll land among the stars. Where you’ll freeze in the infinite vacuum of space.” Is that copyrighted? :p

    • Brandon September 26, 2017 at 7:51 AM Reply

      “…cause I’m prepared. (Mostly)” The truth of that statement. 😛
      Also, yes it’s copyrighted, but we can discuss royalties?

      • Rolena September 28, 2017 at 4:36 PM Reply

        Bummer. I just spent all my money on books and coffee. (*goes to the bank to open another account entitled “For Royalties on Copyrighted Sentences of Mind Blowing Genius”*)

  3. Jenni G. W. September 20, 2017 at 8:02 AM - Reply

    I think this is one of my favorite articles of yours. 😃 Seriously, I needed to hear this super bad.
    I’m one of the writers that’s taken that one week *cough*its been four weeks by now*cough**cough* break, and one of the main reasons I stopped was because I got so bogged down by this feeling that I HAD to muscle through it. That there was something wrong with me as a writer because the “just write” mantra wasn’t working for me. But this article lays it all out and makes so much sense. I kinda feel like a weight has been lifted off me. I think you can consider me officially back in the game now. 😉 Fantastic article! Thank you. 😀

    • Brandon September 20, 2017 at 9:24 AM Reply

      Three cheers for “back in the game”! I’m super, super happy that my measly words helped you swing back into writing gear! I hope it goes well for you your writing rolls from here.
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Very encouraging to hear! 😀

  4. Victory Manning September 18, 2017 at 9:16 PM - Reply

    Sometimes encouragement comes in forms you didn’t even know you needed it in. Great post, Brandon! Thank you:)

    • Brandon September 18, 2017 at 9:45 PM Reply

      Sure thing. Glad this helped!

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