Posted in Writing

Taking Breaks From Your Writing Will Improve Your Writing

Recently I tweeted the following writing tip:

It seems so contradictory, doesn’t it? To write well, you have to allow for periods of no writing, or, better yet, a halt to the writing of your current project and the beginning of writing something completely different. It sounds unnecessary. And sometimes you love a project so much the thought of abandoning it for a month or longer seems impossible.

But trust me. This works.

I’ve written many novels over the years. Eighteen, in fact. The first half or more I would work on nearly every day for months, through revision one, revision two, and on and on, until I got the manuscript to its best possible place. I queried these novels… and nothing happened. My problem was that I wasn’t really revising the books. I was so close to the story, and to the characters, that the revisions were basically glorified copy-editing, changing words and sentences around, but never really addressing problems with the big picture.

What’s changed me a lot, along with a kick-ass MFA program, a helpful thesis advisor, and an unbelievably smart literary agent, is taking long breaks from my works-in-progress so that when I return to them I read them with fresh eyes. I’ve made a practice of late to write a first draft of a novel, let it rest for at least four weeks, and during that break time, write a new short story. I’ll do this after the second draft, too. And the third. And the fourth.

You should try to turn your attention to a new creative project, preferably something totally different from your novel. Maybe a story of a different genre. Or a non-fiction piece. Or a group of poems. Something to keep your creative juices flowing at the same you’re able to remove yourself from the world of your novel.

I’ve used this practice for the last three years or so, and now I’ve written both a middle grade novel that got me a literary agent and my MFA thesis novel my agent loves and wants to work on. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I kept up the practice of never giving myself breaks. I’d probably still be perfecting a previous manuscript that had no shot at being represented by an agent.

In his amazing non-fiction work On Writing, a craft book I try to read once a year, Stephen King recommends you take at least six weeks between drafts. This is even better than four weeks, but I do still think a month is enough to do the job. That’s enough time to keep you excited about the next revision of your WIP while you still have room to play in a different creative project.

Granted, I understand you might not always have the luxury to rest between drafts. Sometimes there’s a magazine contest that’s perfect for your story, and the deadline to submit is twelve hours away. And of course there are deadlines in the publishing world, like when you’re under contract and have only so many days to get your manuscript to the editor.

But if you have the luxury of time, take breaks between drafts, at least four weeks, if not longer. I once let a novel of mine sit for 14 months, and when I came back to it, it was like looking at the work of a different writer — I was able to approach the book as a ruthless editor, and I had a blast. You probably won’t have 14 months, but at least give yourself a few weeks, and your fiction will be all the better for it.

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