From stone masonry to playing the banjo, the rule of getting good at something is universal: you have to do it, and do it a lot.
Why should writing be any different?
Many successful authors have suggested you’re not really “good” at writing until you start crunching words in bulk (for Ray Bradbury, it was at least a thousand a day.) Others would say it’s not about word counts, but simply getting your thoughts down on paper and soldiering through that rough draft.
In either case, te advice is clear. Being a competent writer necessitates the physical act of writing. Like any other craft, artistic or otherwise, no substitute will do.
While that’s all well and good, following the “just write” mantra will only get you so far.
Hammering away for hours on end at a keyboard will no doubt improve your grammar, sentence structure, and economy of language. What it won’t do is improve the content of your words.
Polishing the intangible qualities of our writing — the characterization, the plotting, the thoughts and ideas contained therein — is another challenge altogether. How do we, as writers, improve our creativity along with our technical form? How do we make our writing meaningful?
As counterintuitive as it sounds, for the ideas in your writing to have any depth or profundity, you’ll probably need to turn off the monitor, step away from the desk, and get inside your own head.
Seems strange, doesn’t it? That one of the most essential steps to improving your writing is taking time to step back and think, rather than type. To any deadline-driven writer, this sounds illogical, maybe even downright silly. To many outside observers, it looks no different than goofing off.
But goofing off (I would suggest calling it daydreaming, or creative self-reflection if you’re looking for something more respectable) is absolutely vital to meaningful writing, and not just when you’re caught in a fog of writer’s block.
Jeff VanderMeer, author of the Nebula Award-winning best seller Annihilation, practically swears by the stop-and-think approach and even suggests that day-to-day contemplation of your work is far more critical to your success than putting words to page.
“The amount of time you spend writing isn’t necessarily as important as the time spent thinking about what you are going to write,” he writes at the Chicago Review of Books, describing how he pieces characters, ideas, scenes, and other narrative bits together before he even starts marking up a page.
He adds that immersing yourself in the world of your writing “is not just something that happens because you’re writing…it’s important to the actual creation.”
In his four-part series on writing, Silo author and self-publishing virtuoso Hugh Howey hits on a similar idea.
“Knowing how your story unfolds requires time away from the keyboard,” he suggests. “Quiet time. You may need weeks or months of daydreaming about your story before you’re ready to write.”
Kicking up ideas
In truth, both VanderMeer and Howey’s tips are good at just about any point in the writing process, even if you think you’re already at the finish line.
I had a short story written, revised, and in the can for a few days when I decided to take a breath before plunging ahead with submitting it for publication. I went for a walk, worked on my taxes, ran some errands, basically any activity that didn’t involve noodling around with my prose.
And it was a good thing I did. Even though I wasn’t actively writing during the pause, the creative tailwinds kept churning, pushing me in new and interesting directions. I hadn’t stopped thinking about the story. On the contrary: the very essence of the story itself (and possibilities I’d left unexplored) filled my head.
Absurd as it sounds, by ignoring the words on the page, I became more immersed in my narrative, letting the impulsive (read: creative) side of my brain kick up ideas that mere word craft doesn’t always encourage. When I finally returned to the text, not only could I see what had been missing before, I was able to smooth out all the story’s wrinkles: plot holes, extraneous details, purple prose, and so on.
It took distance for me to see these faults. What’s more, that story has been published in two different outlets now¹, and the additional downtime between the first and second publication has allowed me to revise the piece even more effectively.
A pause, not a stop
The key here isn’t to just stop writing and wander off. It’s to have enough discipline to keep at it, but not so much that you’re locked in 24/7. Whether you want to call it daydreaming, idle time, or creative self-reflection, it’s best if you approach this period as a pause, not a stop.
Think of it as catching your breath before the next race. Inspiration and breakthroughs abound away from the blank page, when you’re able to relax and not obsess over word counts. The best ideas, the most fascinating plot developments, the real nuggets of creativity — they can emerge at any time, in any place. The non-writing part of your day can be your muse.
So whether you’re polishing a new listicle or slogging it out on the next great American novel, give yourself a break. Click out of your word processor (after you save, of course!) and goof off. You might just find that, when you return, you’ve become a more effective writer.
 You can read the newest version of that story here