Five Tips For When You’re Struggling to Write

At one of our recent Angles meetings, some writers said they’d been struggling to write regularly. Reasons varied from lack of time and motivation to life just generally taking over. For what it’s worth, here’s what I do to get words down when it doesn’t feel that easy or free:

1. Show up every day

I have a time every day (even just 15 minutes is fine if that’s all I can manage) during which I will be writing. It’s time to show up and write. I don’t speak of it as ‘making’ or ‘stealing’ time. We can’t make time. It just is. We don’t need to steal what we already have – i.e. our own time. Maybe it’s that I claim my own time.

2. Practise your scales

The writing during this time doesn’t have to be on a big project. Actually, this time is usually not devoted to any particular piece of writing. It’s just to write whatever comes to mind. In a way, it’s like when a musician picks up their instrument and plays some warm-up scales and etudes. They don’t plan on performing those scales to great acclaim at a concert. But they still play them to keep their technical fluency in their fingers, ears and mind. That’s what this writing is – scales and etudes. I might think of something to do with a bigger project, but I might not. I might just list what I see in front of me and then, if I run out of things, I turn around and list what I see behind me. Usually something becomes interesting enough that I want to say more.

3. Draw inspiration from those you admire

If I’m really stuck, I pick up a favourite book – usually poetry is easiest for this – and copy a passage I admire. It counts. It’s a way of trying on someone else’s syntax and sentences. It really doesn’t matter that it’s not my original, pristine, crystal clear piece of prose on the page. It matters that I slowed down enough to really think about how another writer has put together a sentence or a stanza. There are so many choices that I notice when I copy someone else’s words. This kind of writing is a very intimate kind of reading.

4. Start with words or phrases you like

Sometimes I just collect words I like. I just list them. Or phrases. And then I free associate – not in full, coherent sentences, but other words or images or sounds.

5. If you’re bored, move on

If I am working on a bigger piece, I skip the boring parts. If I don’t want to write them, then probably no one else will want to read them.

It really doesn’t matter WHAT I write each day during this time, only that I write. All these puzzle pieces find each other eventually. But first I have to show up and let them appear on the page.

More about Angles Writing Group, Cambridge

Who’s in our group?

Angles is a group of creative writers who live in and around Cambridge. We include novelists, short story and flash fiction writers, poets, biographers, playwrights and script writers, journalists…and anything else we care to turn our hands to. Some of us have MAs in creative writing, some of us are currently studying, some have no literary qualifications at all. One or two of us are professional writers, one or two of us are still unpublished, but most of us are somewhere in-between. We write, we try and make our writing better, and we try and find a home for it when we think it’s good enough. And we  have fun along the way.

What does being in a writing group entail?

Well, mostly what we do is discuss and critique each other’s work. A session will generally look at work from two writers, each submitting up to 3000 words – though this is only a guideline and if one person is submitting less, we’re happy to be flexible. And what you submit is entirely up to you. We get a lot of the obvious genres – novel extracts, short stories, flash fiction, poetry – but in the past few years we’ve also looked at scripts for children’s picture books, journalistic articles, travel writing, various forms of creative non-fiction, blogs, radio play scripts, synopses, covering letters and bios, and even funding applications. Basically, if it’s something you’ve written, we’re happy to look at it.

 But there is so much more to Angles. If no one has anything to submit we fill our time with writing exercises, or led discussions on various aspects of the world of creative writing. Recent topics that spring to mind have been; how to get more out of poetry, how to write for competitions, being a writer in residence, the benefits of working with a mentor. Sometimes we invite guests. These have included a tv script writer, an agent, a crime novelist and the founding editor of a literary magazine.

 And if all else fails, we occasionally meet up and simply get on with our own work – because creative writing really doesn’t have to be a solitary business – or just talk. We share news, discuss authors and recommend books, suggest competitions and journals – anything that might help make us better writers.

Why join a writing group?

Because it’s interesting. Because it’s fun. Because it’s helpful. Because it pushes us. Because it gives us our very first readers and critics. Because it broadens our literary horizons. Because it keeps us writing. Because it helps to make us feel more like writers and less like people who write in their spare time. So many reasons.

When and where do we meet?

Wednesday mornings from 10:30 to 12.30ish. We like tea and coffee with our lit-crit so it’s always a cafe. We’ve had several previous homes, and several peripatetic periods of exploration and discovery around central Cambridge, searching for that perfect combination of large and available tables and little in the way of background noise. For now we’ve settled on the Whale Café at the Museum of Zoology, just off Downing Street.