Encouraging Words for Writers: 3 Essential Reminders for Struggling Writers

by Jeff Elkins | 15 comments

There are a lot of things that stop us from writing. Fear of failure, discouragement, and exhaustion are my big three. Sometimes, what we need to push through those barriers is a reminder of who we are and why we do what we do. We need someone to come alongside us and speak encouraging words for writers.

Encouraging Words for Writers: 3 Essential Reminders for Struggling Writers

We need to be told again the stories that have led us to the place we are now.

3 Encouraging Reminders for Writers

On the wall of my office, I have a collage of quotes and pictures that have inspired me. Each quote represents a story from my past. I read over them whenever I need a boost of encouragement (which is at least once a day).

These encouraging words for writers are a wonderful source of strength for me. Many of the quotes on the wall are from friends and family who had the right words for me at the exact right time.

Here are three I lean on regularly to get me through rough patches.

1. “Work the process.”

My mentor said this to me at a moment when I was completely lost.

Things at work were falling apart. Several projects had started to break down at the same time, another staff member had verbally attacked me in a staff meeting, and I was being accused of something I didn't do. On top of that, the organization I worked for was in financial trouble and I wasn’t sure we were going to turn things around.

I called my mentor to ask for help because I had no idea what to do next. We sat in an empty hallway in the basement of the building. It was late and everyone had gone home. Leaning against the painted cinderblock wall, I explained to him in detail everything that was going wrong and all the extravagant plans and drastic measures I had designed in my head that would turn things around.

After hearing me out, he said, “Work the process.” I asked him to explain.

“Don’t do anything extravagant. Don’t take drastic action. There are processes in place. Work the process.”

Often as a writer, I work myself into a dark place. I begin to feel like my writing is worthless. I grow discouraged and lose focus. I find a thousand things to do instead of writing the next chapter.

When I get in that head space, I remind myself to “work the process.”

There is a process to my writing. I write after my family has gone to sleep. I sit at my kitchen table with my laptop, a drink, and a notepad, I skim the last chapter I wrote, I look at my outline, and then I write the next chapter.

When life is hard and I don't feel like writing, the process keeps me focused and moving in the right direction.

It’s not extravagant. It’s not drastic. It is mundane and routine; and when things get hard, that’s exactly what we need.

2. “No one is going to die on the table.”

I wasn’t prepared for the pre-med course load I took on my sophomore year of college.

My freshman year, I’d been a music major. Since the classes were mostly about performing, I’d been able to wing it with a minimal amount of preparation. Instead of working hard in the practice rooms each day, I learned to play racquetball and became a regular on the basketball court.

Predictably, my disdain for practice made it clear to me and my teachers that I wasn’t going to cut it as a musician, so I decided to pursue one of my other interests, science. While I loved the classes, I was not prepared for the amount of studying that was required.

By the time I got to my midterms, I was way behind in multiple classes.

The night before three tests, a group of friends who were in class with me came over to study. We blew through our biology and chemistry notes in our first three hours together and I felt good about my prospects in the morning.

A little before midnight, we began studying for physics. I hated physics. Sitting at my small round kitchen table, my friends rattled off formulas, made up problems for one another, and answered practice questions with ease. I, on the other hand, was completely lost.

After an hour and a half of trying to “get it,” I excused myself from the study session, claiming I needed to get something from my bedroom. Hiding in my closet so no one could hear me, I began to cry. I called my dad and explained through tears what was happening. I was sure I was going to fail the test and it was too late for me to do anything about it.

After calming me down, he said several things to me that night that have stayed with me. One of which was, “Listen, if you fail tomorrow, no one is going to die on the table.”

Dad was a surgeon who primarily saw high-risk patients. When someone got to him, it was life-or-death. If he messed up or came to work unprepared, someone might literally die on the table.

The words he gave me that night were a fantastic reality check that I’ve used again and again. They’ve helped me take risks and push through fear. When my fear of failure begins to slow me down, I remember sitting in my closet and getting a good dose of perspective from my dad.

Through the years, fear has stayed with me. It is the greatest enemy of writing. Many nights I will sit down to write a chapter and hear fear in my ear whispering, “You’ve got nothing. You’re not a real writer. Stop kidding yourself. You’re going to fail.”

When that voice comes around, I remind myself of the stakes. If I write a terrible chapter, no one is going to die on the table. I’ll just erase it and try again tomorrow.

Having a refreshed perspective helps me move through fear and write.

3. “The tension is good.”

It was after midnight. My friend and I were alone on the second floor of a bar. On the table in front of us were stacks of meeting notes and ideas we'd sketched out together over the years. We were drinking coffee, talking about a non-profit we were both serving, and dreaming up ways to solve all the organization's problems.

There were some amazing things happening in the organization. We were seeing real breakthroughs in the community we served and people were being helped.

At the same time, we could feel the organization hadn’t reached its full potential. We knew what it could be, but we weren't sure how to get it there.

We thought that maybe, if we tweaked this one process, or increased our effort in this one area, or redirected resources to this other direction that we would see a breakthrough.

Caught in the tension between the good we were doing and the good we wanted to do, I began to complain. I whined about wanting the future to arrive already, and how I didn’t want to have to wait for changes to take hold.

After I finished another pointless rant, I remember my friend smiling at me and saying, “Don’t rush it. The tension is good.”

He was right. If we had made the changes right away that I wanted to make, we would have failed. Things that looked like a good idea at that moment were actually terrible ideas. Moving slow and making careful and strategic changes helped us see different paths and solutions that weren’t immediately apparent.

As a writer, I often find myself with a problem I can’t fix easily. For me, it usually has to do with plot. I’ll work myself into a hole in my story that I can’t get out of.

Weighed down by exhaustion, my gut tells me to just ignore it, hope readers won’t notice, and rush to the end. I tell myself, “Just publish it and move to the next one.”

Unfortunately, I've learned the hard way that readers always notice.

The phrase “the tension is good” has served over and over again to remind me that some problems need to sit. They can’t be solved right away. Instead, they need to be thought through because marinating in the tension will produce a better result.

Encouragement for the Journey

Those are three of the memories that bring me inspiration and encouragement. When I'm stumped in my writing, overwhelmed, afraid, or all three at once, these encouraging words for writers remind me that I will make my way through.

No, my writing isn't perfect. But the process works. No one is going to die on the table. And the tension is good.

When you hit a rough patch, what encouraging words for writers do you lean on? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Today, you have two practice options. Write about a time when someone told you something that continues to help shape your practice. Or, write a scene in which a mentor gives your character a pep talk. What obstacle do they face? And what does their mentor say to help them overcome them?

Write for fifteen minutes. When you're done, share your writing in the comments below, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

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Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."

15 Comments

  1. Valerie

    Jeff, comments today were perfect timing. Thank you for your efforts!

    Reply
    • Jeff Elkins

      Anytime. =)

  2. Julie Mayerson Brown

    I’m always worrying about things I cannot control (query responses). I need to go back to what I can control – my progress and my process. Thanks for the reminder, Jeff. Best of luck to you 🙂

    Reply
  3. Evelyn Sinclair

    The comment that shapes my practice may seem a strange one. I was planning to start a small production enterprise and visited the bank for a discussion around potential funding. I was asked to produce my C.V. and after reading it the bank “consultant” suggested that with the academic qualifications I had achieved, I was wasting my time:
    “Why do you want to do this instead of pursuing your professional opportunities?” was the question he asked. What he failed to ask was what my interests and talents were. Had he done that, he would have discovered that I have crafting artistic and creative interests. His derogatory comments angered me, and drove me to seek alternative sources of funding, and I later opened my business and succeeded for some years. Resistance on my part, to those early comments spurred me on to follow my own plans. This may seem perverse, in the face of what was intended as ‘good advice’ but my own ideas carry some passion within them, so a negative comment was surprisingly the very comment which encourages me to hang in there and pursue my own objectives.

    Reply
    • Jeff Elkins

      I find that negative comments often have the reverse effect. A “you can’t tell me can’t” reaction. This is a great moment. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Christine

    Since this a free-for-all writing I won’t share advice from a mentor, but rather a dream I had a few nights ago — because told me something important about my writing. Dreams often incorporate bits of reality and so did this one: the Dept of Highways is building a road not so far away and we’ve seen gravel piles where they are preparing to fill a low spot. My imagination worked this into my dream.

    My husband and I were driving a large pickup truck down a highway when some lady pointed to a side road. “If you take that road you’ll get to a fair. (Or amusement park?) So we did, and the road was good for awhile. However it became less of a road, more of a trail, with scrubby trees either side.

    The road ended abruptly at the edge of a ravine and we had to stop. The ravine —perhaps once a brook but now dry — wasn’t deep — 25 feet maybe. But impassible. Half a dozen loads of gravel had been dumped in at our side, obviously an abandoned effort to build a road across. And there we sat.

    I thought, “If we had a shovel we might smooth out some of these mounds of gravel, maybe make it flat enough to drive on for a bit, but where would that get us? There was no fair or amusement park in sight; on the other side of the ravine we saw an acreage with a house, a large grassy area, a couple of horses grazing.

    Looking uphill beyond this yard we saw a highway curving past. We watched a few cars and realized that’s where we SHOULD be — on that highway. So near and yet so far, with no way of getting there from here! We were negotiating a rather difficult U-turn when I woke up, still with this sense of being in the wrong place, on the wrong road. A person could apply this many ways, but the thought came to me as I awoke that this is where my writing has been going lately.

    For over a year now I’ve been into writing flash fiction and have really enjoyed it. You learn a LOT about being concise when trying to write a story with a very limited word count. I don’t at all regret having taken this route, but through my dream I realized that this avenue is becoming a dead end for me. I need to get back on the main road again.

    I started with the goal or writing stories for children and teens. I did publish one book and have several half done, sitting in my “soon, soon” file. But time is limited; I’ll need to devote myself to the main goals or it will be frittered away on side trails. If I’m interpreting my dream rightly, it’s time to turn around, abandon the fun flash fiction trail and get back to writing the stories that initially inspired me. Otherwise I could spend many more hours pursuing something that won’t, in the end, take me where I want to go.

    Reply
    • Lyn Blair

      So wise of you to move on, and so true that things we do serve their purpose for a time, but are often just stepping stones to the broader purpose or goal. Thanks for sharing that Christine. I’ve been starting to feel the same way. I wrote a novel but I knew it was nowhere near ready for publication, so I wrote a few short stories to hone some writing skills I needed to work on. They provided the perfect interim step I needed. Short stories were easier to tackle and I felt encouraged again, but if I don’t move out of this “safety zone” that has served me well, it will lose its value and purpose.

    • Christine

      I’m glad my dream spoke to you, too. You hit the nail on the head: short stores are easier to tackle. I think I’ve gotten stuck on the easier way. 🙂 I hope you find the courage to move on, too.

  5. Chris Bridges

    I spent 20 years in health-care, 10 of that in ER and ICU. I had a really rough night, several patients had died. I went home and called my adopted Mom and she said “Did you do the best you could?” I had…”The only thing you can do is the best you can and make sure you are able to face yourself in the mirror.” was the next thing she said.

    I have tried to hold on to that throughout my life. The other one I try to hold is like your Dad said…nobody died today, so it’s a good day.

    Thank you for the insightful post. It really hits home for me right now. I have made a commitment to push through on my writing this year, no matter what.

    Reply
  6. Pam

    So encouraging! Thanks for sharing!!!

    Reply
  7. Jennifer S

    I remember a friend told me, “You don’t have to do it (writing) you get to do it. “

    Reply
  8. TerriblyTerrific

    Thank you. Good article.

    Reply
  9. veronikakish

    “Struggling” is misspelled in the beautiful image at the beginning of this excellent article.

    Reply
  10. George McNeese

    I don’t remember a lot of the words of encouragement friends have given me over the years. They’re there, regardless. I feel like I struggle with writing every day. I express it on social media a lot. And as much as I want to take their words of encouragement and run with it, the negativity creeps in and says to disregard their statements.

    I feel so powerless over them. I’ve listened to the negativity in my life for so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have someone believe in me. But I want to change that this year. I don’t want to be a slave to my negativity any longer. I want to run with the encouragement. Use it as motivation to write the best stories I can.

    Reply
  11. The Old Hippie

    Was trying to explain to my wife the round-about way I got to this place but figure that would get a lot of people bored, confused and maybe even make a few decide that putting words down anywhere was a useless pastime. Therefore, let me tell you that I’ve presently gotten myself into a place where I’m going to have to put together some weekly newsletters, welcome messages and general way-to-go messages for various people from day to day. Not having the benefit of any polishing as it pertains to writing for some 50 or so years, I decided to look around on the web to see what was available.
    So here I start and what do I see but 3 inspirational sayings which give me my background push for the journey I have put myself on.

    “Don’t do anything extravagant. Don’t take drastic action. There are processes in place. Work the process.” The process was started a couple of days ago and while “the plan that God doesn’t have for me” is not why I’m here but I do believe that He is right here at my side, helping with my two fingers hitting the correct keys and putting the words up there for me to take out and write.

    Reply

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