Being a Better Writer: The Importance of Taking the Occasional Break

Morning readers! Well, actually, afternoon. Today’s post is later and a bit shorter. Because … I’ve had a frog in my throat since Friday evening, and while I’m doing pretty well to kick it out, that also means doing what I can to kick it out, and so today after arising and doing my usual morning … I was tired enough that I said “forget it, naptime” and crashed in my living room for another couple of hours.

The good news is that alone left me feeling a lot better. Sleep is powerful when you’re ill. And a frog in the throat isn’t anything deeply worrisome, but it is annoying, and left on its own it can get a lot worse, so I’m doing what I can to kick it out. I can hit midrange notes now (I was restricted to nothing but low tones Saturday evening and Sunday) so bit by bit I’m getting better.

I almost made today a sick day, but let’s be honest, if I was aware enough to read a book while Factorio finished my rocket yesterday, I’m aware enough to do a quick short post for Monday. That, and once I had looked down the list, there was a topic that was definitely worth posting about for today.

But really quickly, before we get into that, I do have some good news from the weekend: Colony picked up a fairly lengthy review on Goodreads! They loved the book, referring to it as an “underdog” that people had clearly slept on, and hoped more people would give it a chance.

Especially nice as the last “review” someone posted to goodreads admitted that they actually hadn’t read it, and just rated it based on what appeared to be some skimming of the first half and the synopsis. Yeah, real professional there.

Anyway, if you want to check out the newest review Colony has picked up, you can check it out here. And yes, the discord channel was amused that the reviewer did get a few early-story details wrong (like the team being hired by SoulComp, not the UN) but it is a huge book with a lot to keep track of, and they still liked it so … whatever!

Speaking of which, if you’d like to join the official Unusual Things Discord Server, The Makalay Camp, you can! Just hit that link there and say hello!

With that all said, let’s talk about today’s topic. Let’s talk about the importance of the occasional break.

Breaks are … tricky to talk about. Especially in the context of encouraging writing. Join any writing class, and the ground rule will be something along the lines of “Always keep writing!” A lot of show will be made out of keeping people writing, with constant assignments and requirements … And there’s good reason for this. It’s hard to make a habit out of writing. One of the largest issues faced by new, would be writers is almost always the act itself. This is why there are so many memes and jokes out there in the writing world that are all variations of “Well, I’ve got all: my characters, my villains, my world, my setting, my history, all of it. I’m just stuck on this one part: Writing it!”

So yeah, breaks are hard to talk about because ninety-five percent of the time you’re talking to new writers, you’re trying to get them to not take breaks as often as possible. Otherwise many will. They’ll write until something gets tricky or only slightly difficult, then decide “I need a break.” That break will very likely stay a break until the writing stops being difficult … so in other words, forever.

As part of teaching people to write, one of the large hurdles to cross is keeping people writing even when it does become difficult. Which it will with astonishing regularity. And so the idea of breaks becomes something you push away from young writers in order to keep them writing even when it’s hard, difficult, or they’d rather find any other excuse to stop.

“A writer writes, always” is a joke, yes … but also in a way true. It’s one reason why so many distinguish between “writer” and “author,” with the former often being corrected by many authors to “author.” Far too many people who never actually “write” anything save maybe a paragraph a year will happily tell someone that they’re a “writer,” thus diluting the term from those who actually do spend their hours writing story after story and publishing.

That whole mindset, of “I can be a writer even though I’ve never written anything” It’s something writing classes work hard to break would-be writers of, and why they focus so hard on getting young writers to learn that writing means writing. It means no breaks, but constant, dutiful, dedicated effort.

But … like the old and incorrect but oft-used teaching method of “show don’t tell” (which, again, is incorrect, but used as a teaching method; see this post) there’s a bit of a lie to the mindset of “never take a break.”

Because honestly? Though at nowhere near the frequency (or length) that a newbie writer may assume a “break” to be, writer and authors do need breaks.

“But why?’ some of you may ask. “If you’re a professional, shouldn’t you be fine never stopping?” And lest you think that question ridiculous, I have on multiple occasions been told by internet know-it-alls that I must not be a real author because I don’t work (ie, write for books) on Saturdays or Sundays. No joke, as sad as that might sound. I’ve been told multiple times that because I take those two days off, because I am not 24-7 writing books to sell I must not be a “real” author because “real authors,” apparently, live an existence shackled to the keyboard with no secondary concerns from household chores to eating.

Now, it’s likely that some people posting commentary like that are just trying to cast jealous shadows, and given the identities of some of the people they’ve come from, I’d be willing to believe that. But that’s not all of the expanse of the people I’ve heard giving commentary like that. I’ve even had ordinary people react with confusion when I say “No, I wasn’t writing today” as if they’re stunned that someone who sells books for a living isn’t writing every moment of their time.

Statistically, that’s not really possible, if simply for the fact that editing is a thing, and if I did nothing but write no editing would ever actually happen, save unless I was one of those rare trad-pub authors who never saw the book after the draft was completed until it was in print (and those these days are all but invisible).

But there’s another reason that one needs to take a break: Stress.

Look, though some who don’t write (or who are “writers” in self-claimed name only) may say differently, the truth is that writing is stressful no matter what. Whether its gong well or getting bogged in rough patches, writing is a form of mental pressure that’s always going to be exuding that “pressure” against the rest of your brain. And eventually, that pressure needs a release.

I have a friend who works for a store that sells hose products. Think “hydraulic hose” or any other form of hosing and all the connections that come with it. These are hoses that are going to constantly be under pressure, and high pressure at that, whenever they’re in use.

A lot of their business? It’s repeat business. People who come in once a year or every two years to replace a hose or a connector that, having been under that pressure for so long, finally wore enough to crack or break.

“But wait,” you might say, “couldn’t someone simply buy a connector or a hose meant for even higher pressures and then never need a replacement?” Well … maybe. If they had the money. But even then, as I understand it a lot of the stuff meant for higher pressures will still face regular wear and tear, and some even needs to be under that higher pressure or it grows weaker over time.

The end result, in other words, is that everything eventually needs a break. Parts have to be swapped out and kept maintained lest they come apart at a critical moment. Or, if the company isn’t to concerned about the downtime, they’ll let the part break and just get a replacement the next day.

It varies. But the point is that these are high pressure systems, and they have scheduled maintenance checks, breaks, and time off to replace burned out parts that have been ground down by the wear and tear of the day to day.

And a writer’s mind? It’s their most valuable tool next to their fingers. I’d still place it ahead of the fingers, since there are other ways to tell a story, and the fingers have nothing to do without the mind telling them what to write.

But all that writing? That’s mental pressure. Figuring out how to make a scene land just right? That’s mental pressure. Hitting a sweet spot and writing a few chapters in a blitz? That’s mental pressure (and pressure on your writing tools, like your fingers). Pressure that builds, and builds … and if you don’t take time to let it off, leads to problems. Problems as simple as finding one’s head strangely foggy or lethargic while working on a scene … or as complex as a slight mental breakdown.

Neither of these are good. At all. And if you don’t take the time to let that pressure ease off, one way or another, you’ll find out what that pressure can build up to become.

At the same time, we can’t just stop anytime the going gets tough. So how then do we as writers and creators “always write” while still giving ourselves the stress valves we need to let that pressure evaporate?

Well, we’ve spoken before on the site about having stress-relieving activities in one’s life, like hobbies and outside interests. But sometimes these regular stops to breath aren’t enough. Sometimes, they can’t let off enough pressure.

Sometimes, we need a break. Not just an interlude before getting back to the keyboard that day. Sometimes we need to step back, maybe for a few days, maybe for a few weeks, and decompress, before our mind hits critical levels.

And it can. Last year, as I was about three-quarters of the way through the draft of Starforge, I ended up needing to take a several week break to decompress. I’d started working Saturdays in my haste to finish the story, and when someone flat-out told me “You need a vacation” very literally multiple other people chimed in, having not wanted to be the first to speak up, but all aware that I’d been very out of it over the last few months as the pressures of writing around 20,000-25,000 words a week caught up with me.

But here’s the thing: That time it took someone else pointing out to me (well, multiple someones) that I needed to take some time off. That the pressure I was under was starting to make me act odd and out of place. Looking back, it was.

Sometimes, we need breaks. We should always be writing, yes … but not always. We should never get so in the zone that we can’t pull back and take a day or two for ourselves and for our mental health.

How you take these breaks? That’s up to you. Maybe you’ll write on a schedule. Maybe you’ve got a significant other who can warn you that the maniacal giggling or groans of pain have reached critical levels. Maybe you’ll just eyeball yourself in the mirror and see how bad the eye twitch is getting.

But we should take breaks when we’re not always writing. Not only are they valuable for letting us decompress, they also work as moments to step back and take a wider view of what we’re working on. Sometimes letting all that pressure out enables us to see things that were hidden by the mists that, without the break, would have remained hidden.

There you have it! I know, it was probably a bit of a long-winded way to say “Take breaks, everyone” but there was that angle of “But keep writing” to consider. We want to keep writing. But we can’t do it all the time. We need to take breaks to keep our minds and our sanity (what’s left of it as an author, anyway) intact.

Let the pressure off. Take a holiday vacation. Pace yourself so that the pressure doesn’t become insurmountable. Whatever means you find, take some time off here and there.

Just, you know, don’t stop writing. If you stop and never start again, it’s not a break. It’s an end.

Don’t go that far. But when the pressure is building, and you need a day to let things fall back into place?

Take it. You, and your readers, will be grateful that you did.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: The Importance of Taking the Occasional Break

  1. What a timely post because I’ve been writing daily, only to be derailed by a recent fever, which forced me to just chill for a couple days. And it’s heartening to see that maybe I could use a rest. Thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

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