Stagnation, Productivity, and Writing Like No One’s Watching


I had touble in River City, I tell ya. Stagnation moved to town and hunkered down. Here’s what happened. I fell into a writing rut about six months ago and lived there. Only recently was I able to pull myself out of that deep dark murky place. The problem was mystifyingly simple once I took a moment to examine my process and habits.

I had been chugging along, writing on various deadlines, and meeting most of them. I was never drastically late. But uncharacteristically, I lagged. I was distracted. I slept in later and later. Doing the whole bathrobe bit. No day drinking, though. I dragged myself to my office and plopped there.

Everything was blah. And this gray blah was killing my personal writing. Which was scary because I was about to start my first book and this was not the mindset for that.

I talked to my husband about it and after a few questions about how I approached each day (he’s great at getting to the root of an issue), I discovered a bunch of things I was doing and not doing. See if any of these apply.

Cat juggling is not as fun as it looks. Neither is juggling projects. Photo Courtesy: Universal Pictures

Doing Too Much

I make my living as a writer. These days, I write a bunch of content for various sites. It’s not going to make me rich, but it pays the bills. Maybe I’m doing it wrong but since rates vary, I have to write a lot of content to hit a financial goal.

The volume clogs my brain, chains up my time, and leaves me with little gray matter to sit down and write on my projects. Even if I write in the morning, I have this worry sitting in the back of my mind. That paid work is waiting there, breathing down my neck. Don’t get me wrong. I actually enjoy what I write for clients but too much of it and it’s a brain fogger and rut-creator.

So I got rid of a client. I was nice. Everyone was sweet. I’d be missed. Keep in touch, etc. Oh yeah, I freaked out a little, but my husband advised that I could be using that time for the book and even have more brain power to do less work for better pay. He must be psychic because a week later, someone asked me to do just that. The project allowed me to meet my goals on all of the levels. I just needed to make room for it. What’s that saying, “You can’t reach for something with your hands full?” I know that’s not the actual saying but I suck at remembering sayings.

Sometimes you just gotta stop down and take a dance break in the street. Photo Courtesy: Lionsgate

Not Taking Breaks

Even though I dole out this piece of advice like a wisened guru, I almost never take it. I sit down at my desk and grind like I’m paying off a loan shark. Taking breaks has not been a big thing with me. But now I see that it’s actually hurt my writing.

I forced myself to take breaks for a few days. I’d take the dog out on two walks. I’d go outside and look at the plants, the sky, or the lady who does Tai Chi in the park next to our house. I would NOT go on social media. That is another screen. I’d get sucked in. I always get sucked in.

The results? I got more done. Plain and simple. My brain craved those breaks and when I gave the breaks to it, it rewarded me with fresh waves of thoughts and ideas. It didn’t magically make my writing better, but I had the energy and the will to get things out.

I also took at least one weekend day off. I know other writers who hit it hard every day until a project is finished. My brain needs that one day to chill out. Again, it’s made a huge difference when I return to the keyboard. I think much more clearly.

Everyone’s seen that Chrissy Teigen post on Instagram but me. Photo Courtesy: HBO

Writing Distracted

I have a terrible habit of writing with the iPad on, streaming the latest episode of whatever cable show I’m addicted to, and with about 12 apps and browsers open behind whatever I’m writing. And the dock on the left of the screen is a bastard, too. Every time a red notification pops up on an app, I have to click on it like a good Pavlovian dog.

Yeah, I know. This is NOT the way to write.

I used to write on a Selectric on two egg crates in the corner of my cramped bedroom back in the day, smoking and occasionally sipping on some rum. I was a machine. I was into Hunter S. Thompson and I was much younger and my brain was much spongier. My writing sucked, but I sure had a lot of fun.

One thing I got right back then, though, was that I didn’t have the TV on. I didn’t even listen to music. I couldn’t Stephen King my way through, hammering out pages to Metallica.

In the here and now, I knew I had to make a change. I went to my office, hid the dock, put the iPad in a drawer along with my phone. Shut down all of the browsers and apps and pulled up my Final Draft. That’s all I could see. Just me and the cursor.

I struggled at first. Like, a lot. What was going on? Did North Korea launch a nuclear bomb? More importantly, what are they saying about Hulu’s version of The Handmaids Tale? What has Snoop posted on Instagram? Did Patton Oswalt see my tweet about cake?

Seriously, I am the worst. But… I have managed to curb my heavy social media problem. And it’s increased my productivity and calmed my brain way down. Turns out, it’s much more fun to spend the time at the end of the day, watching the parade of nonsense with a glass of wine in my hand, satisfied with a solid day’s worth of writing. Although I still have to stop down and blurt on Facebook every now and again. It’s a reflex.

Break free of your editor. Photo Courtesy: Columbia Pictures

Writing for Yourself

I don’t know if you can tell but I’m one of those people who has a problem with authority and rules. But there are some rules we must follow to make a living and to not go to prison. I’m not a maverick or anything but I just don’t like an excessive amount of constraints but I realize that every client has their own idea of a style guide and rules.

In one case, an editor’s notion of style and voice was confusing. She loved to rewrite the crap out of me. She went into every piece I wrote and killed any trace of humor or snark or personality. Ironic, because we were encouraged to establish our own voice on the site. She’d drop in $11 college words and change a punchline to a humorless anvil. Some editors are a bummer.

But she did inspire me. With ‘ol Word Killer McGee in mind, I sat down to write my book with the mindset that it would be messy and fun. I had a rough outline. Had done my research and all that but I didn’t want to think about who was going to see it in the end. And I didn’t care if parts of it were wonky. I just wanted to regain my true love for letting the cursor rip with no care whether the story was good or not. Again, “good” happens during the rewrite.

It’s still fun. I’m still writing it. And I only went on Twitter twice while writing this piece.

What causes stagnation in your work? How do you pull out of it? Please share in the comments.


Lisa Waugh worked her way through six years of a state college and then decided to work only one job in radio as opposed to three to get a degree that would help her land a job in… radio. She then moved onto TV news, then cable news, and then a fun-filled place that made cartoons. There was a ghost involved. She’s been paying the bills as a writer for over two decades. Screenwriting, copywriting, script doctoring, tons of web content for startups that are digital dust by now, joke writing, and a lot of entertainment writing, mostly about TV. She loves writers and wants to see them succeed because writers rock.

10 Replies to "Stagnation, Productivity, and Writing Like No One’s Watching"

  • comment-avatar
    Jean May 2, 2017 (7:16 am)

    Well, hell’s bells. I’ll be the first to comment. First, thanks! I am working my way through a corporate hangover. My last job as a marketing communications director for an insane nuclear energy firm has left me feelings like a drunk who can’t remember where the refrigerator is. I always told people that what I really wanted to do when I had the time was write. Well, here it is. And am I writing? A little. But it is creeping back. Slowly. One cat paw at a time. Dusted off Final draft. Wrote a short essay on what it feels like to get laid off at 63 after owning my own agency and being a rock star in the work world. Only to stumble to the curb in the last mile of the marathon. You inspired me to drop the heavy bagful of excuses and knuckle down. Namaste baby.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh May 2, 2017 (10:16 am)

      Oh, man. Namaste back at you. Judging from this comment, you need to be writing, Jean. Welcome back!

  • comment-avatar
    Charles Rule May 2, 2017 (8:07 am)

    Not having any pundit one-liners nor any ‘wise’ observations, it is an inspiring read.
    Thank you for that. As soon as I finish the ‘House of Cards’ show, I’ll get back to writing.
    Chief of Insecurity

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh May 2, 2017 (10:19 am)

      Yeah, between American Gods, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Leftovers, The Americans, and ten other shows, I’m going to have to lock the flat screen in the closet. Thanks for the comment, Charles.

  • comment-avatar
    Paddy Alexander May 2, 2017 (8:08 am)

    Lisa I enjoy your blurbs!

    I once gave the character one of my favorite scenes the subtext that he was a former composer. Just hearing any piano caused apoplectic seizure because of the unfinished musical he was composing when everything went to heck in his life!

    After his confession to the main character of the film, they made a pact to complete the musical – post film story structure!


    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh May 2, 2017 (10:19 am)

      Love it.

  • comment-avatar
    Brandon May 3, 2017 (1:37 pm)

    Great article Lisa! As writer’s I think we all fall prey to these things. It’s good to know other people suffer the same distractions (not that I like people suffering!!), but it’s even better to know that we can change our patterns… as soon as right NOW. Happy writing everyone.

    I’ve been writing on legal pads more and more, although I must say, my handwriting sucks! There is also a great app on Macs called “SelfControl”.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh May 3, 2017 (2:22 pm)

      Thanks, Brandon! I used to write on legal pads but I couldn’t read a word of it after. But paper doesn’t crash, right? Also, there’s something freeing about writing on paper. And you’re more portable. Thanks for the comment and advice.

  • comment-avatar
    Anton S.Jayaraj May 15, 2017 (8:41 am)

    Thanks for an inspiring and encouraging article, Lisa. I am at present writing two screenplays for feature films. Stagnation troubles are always there and I have to look after my two naughty and always fighting grandchildren further to my part time content writing jobs. But, I take my screenwriting job for special and I write at any time available. When the grandchildren sleep after the lunch is the most time I get to write my screenplays. I have already finished index cards and sorting them out. So, now I am writing the actual screenplays which belong to two different genres. I don’t care whether I succeed or not, but I am determined to finish both in due course. Thanks a lot for your essays. They are great.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh May 15, 2017 (11:25 am)

      Thanks, Anton. We write when we can. And we finish when we can, right? I get sidetracked by life daily, but I get back to it. Even that act makes it easier to dive back in every time. Happy writing.

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