Improving your writing when you’re not ‘Writing’

This is my way of saying ‘Sorry!” for not posting as much as I’d like to.

Over the last few months, I’ve committed to several different writerly things. I’ve finished structural edits on three novels (not mine), committed to making at least the 50% mark on my current WIP, posting a poem every week, and jumping in with the #6amAusWriters.

This is aside from my usual studies (a weird mix of poetry and theatrical monologues), volunteering at Conflux (which requires a significant amount of prep work)… and of course, my day job.

I knew I had a busy time coming up and was all prepped for it. Then life decided to kick my ass and remind me of my limits.

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Seems pretty accurate right now           Image:


Without going into too much detail in the interest of privacy for the rest of my family, a bunch of pre-existing medical conditions decided to flare up, another bunch decided that they would join the party and bring surgery requirements with them. Even as I type this, I’m absolutely wrecked from a couple of nights of heading to the ED. As usual, this was the time work decided to throw a bunch of curveballs as well.

As a combination of a workaholic, a writeaholic, and dedicated family type, I was loading up my plate with far too much, and desperate not to let anything fall by the wayside – which is basically the best way to make sure it does – and I couldn’t work out why I was always tired and wasn’t getting anything done.

Thankfully, I have friends. I know, if we believe all the memes out there, they don’t really exist for adults, right? But I have a few, and one of them sent out something of a desperate plea for advice on how to stay involved with writing when for a bunch of (very) legitimate reasons they were not able to prioritise writing.

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I’ve moved (on average) once a year for the last fifteen years. Kind of makes the friends thing hard.  Image:

It reminded me of something very important; that there are things out there that need to be prioritised above writing, and even though there is a lot of pressure to ‘just keep writing’, and ‘write every day’, to make those deadlines and keep all those commitments – sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is just relax, and step back a bit. Give ourselves a break from the pressures we put on ourselves.

But it also reminded me that even at those times that the writing might not be kicking along so much, there are still ways to incorporate it and stay in touch. That’s what my friend was worried about, that she would lose her way with writing, and so we discussed how to keep ourselves involved, even when those times when life was doing its best to get us away from the keyboard.


Make your opportunities . . .then turbocharge them

 This isn’t the same as writing every day or scheduling a block a week. For me, it was the one weekend a month I can sit down and focus entirely on the Australian Writers’ Centre’s Furious Fiction comp. I still write where I can in between, but this is the one weekend a month when Writer-Brain Nathan gets to run the show. In a hospital room? Whip out the phone. Need to go somewhere? Catch a train/bus, and use the laptop. Driving? Dictate to the phone. Watching Netflix? Analyse the story, the mechanisms, and try to work out the deliberate and unintentional consequences of each element. At work? Take a notebook. Label it work stuff. Don’t let the boss see the inside… and hope he doesn’t read your blog.

These aren’t new – they are things I often do anyway when I have the mental energy and space to do it (except, if you’re reading this sir, the ‘writing at work’ bit). With the situations here though, I’ve not been able to maintain it for extended periods. But I can turbocharge it for one weekend a month and use that to learn and develop my techniques with a ferocity and intensity that echoes throughout the rest of the month.


Remember those friends I mentioned? Use them, but in a good way

Writers won’t always ask for help, but if you can’t work on your WIP, guaranteed if you offer to help others people will generally take it up. Whether beta reading, critiquing, or even just troubleshooting some issues with them, its surprising how much can be learnt by the process, and how much that can improve your own writing. In short, it gives perstives, and the more of them we can consider as writers, the more informed writing will be.

By reading submissions and doing structural edits for Odyssey Books, I’m developing a skill set and an outlet that enables me to still contribute to writing and learn even when my brain is too exhausted to be creative. I’m lucky enough to have a fair bit of free will over which manuscripts I get to work on, and it’s been a great tool for me to learn the craft. For some others I know, their strength is in beta reading or cover design, or some other niche. I don’t think I’m alone when I say working on someone else’s work can seem much easier than working on your own – yet it can help develop craft, show techniques, and improve skills as much as writing yourself.


Find external ways to practice techniques

This is one I’ve really enjoyed. My work has a pretty high concentration of professionals in a bunch of different industries that require high levels of dedication, knowledge, and application. Within their areas, they are fantastic, but very few know how to write a novel.

That might not sound too important in a corporate environment, so let me rephrase:

They don’t know how to construct a document with thematic consistency, that is constructed to elicit a particular set of reactions, or that sets specific expectations and outcomes, and all the while remains engaging.

Policy, doctrine, business cases; these are things that no-one in my workplace wants to do, and when they do write them, they take months through a lack of interest and experience. Then at the end, after months of grinding away, they get rejected.

Even as an amateur writing, by writing and editing just a few documents (and taking a business writing course also with the AWC) I’ve been able to position myself as a go-to for writing documentation. Essentially, I’m hoping that its framing me as a specialist technical writer.

Just to be clear, I’m not insinuating that fiction and business writing are the same – there are vast differences between them – but there are techniques I’ve been able to practice across both.

For example, making the first line engaging. Whether for a business case or a an epic fantasy, if that first line can engage a reader, then a positive context has been set for the remainder. Likewise, introducing the theme or purpose clearly and up front has benefits for both. Ensuring the remaining paragraphs support or at least remain relevant to that theme or purpose is again a transferable skill.

Eliciting reaction; in fiction, do I want the reader to be sad, terrified, relieved etc can change to framing the text so the reader is excited, impressed, informed, or sometimes just comfortable that everything is under control. The amount of times I’ve seen a three-page email that outlines the problem, works people into a panic, and hidden away is a tiny line about how the solution is already in place – its astounding, and elicits panic. Not the desired outcome. On the flip side, an email of ‘FYI, please find below an outline of the current state of (project name). Please note that a solution by (methodology/brief summation) has been identified/enacted for the challenge noted (ID where the challenge is noted)” has a pretty good strike rate for supervisors noting the issue, and leaving it up to me to sort. Which is a good outcome.

Solution first, specific plan, then the problem is like backstory. It also means when I don’t have a solution, they’re more than willing to jump in and help.

Interpretations and outcomes: This is a little different. There are plenty of deliberate techniques in fiction writing that open up interpretation. There are also those that don’t. Writing a magic system, for example; ‘You cannot use more magic than you have or you die’ limits interpretation regarding expenditure, but allows a reader to interpret how that power can be used.

In a business document, that might equate to ‘The budget it X,’ deliberately restricting interpretation on the final amount, but giving plenty of interpretation in the details. As a deliberate statement, this give flexibility to the subject matter experts in the scheduling/financial teams – as an accident, it potentially puts decision making power into the hands of people not expected to make the requisite decisions. Having some level of experience with writing for expectation can help, and practicing that in a business document (even just in an email) can help keep those writing skills on the improve.

The best part? If you’re at the amateur level like my friend and I, then there is more of a chance the skills you are learning – like the ones I’m still trying to wrangle – are of a broader nature. And if you are a pro who has been doing this for decades, then, to be honest, you probably have a more creative way to keep a toe in the writing world

But either way, business writing and fiction writing are still two separate skills that require their own expertise to do well. That doesn’t make the individual techniques mutually exclusive, and it defiantly doesn’t mean that you can’t transfer skills from one to the other. If you can’t write a novel in your own time, developing those fiction techniques in other forms of writing can be just as effective, if you can find the opportunities, and when you do get back to writing, your skillset would have continued to improve.

But the best thing to do when life gets in the way of writing? Self-care. Whether the pressures are from yourself or external sources, the inability to pour from an empty glass still applies. You will not get the best out of yourself, and others won’t get it either unless you look after yourself. That might mean stepping away from pulling all-nighters trying to finish that edit, or accidentally letting a day or two of writing slip because you need that hour a day to not think, or missing that meeting of your local writers club even though you’re afraid they’ll look down on you for missing out (hot tip: they won’t).

Self-care is a thing. Stepping away from dedicated writing might be needed to make time for that. But that doesn’t mean you have to lose touch with writing entirely or worry about skill drop off. There are ways to work it into everyday life that don’t cause extra stress, don’t get in the way of important relationships, and allow you to continue to build the skills. It might not be actively contributing to the completion of your WIP, but it will make sure your writing keeps improving.

Because the tortured artist trope isn’t a requirement for success. Look after yourself and those who rely on you. Then get back to writing. But make sure you get back. You’ll always be welcome.

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