3 Tricks for Writing Even When You’re Sick

by Jeff Elkins | 14 comments

As writers, we create new realities, which demands we use our experiences to inform our work. A stroll with a friend in a park or a dance in a fountain will translate into chapters.

Sick Characters: 3 Tricks to Write Even When You're Sick

We don't just have to grab the good times. We can do this with illness as well. When we are sick, we should try and take a step back and learn about how our characters will feel when they are struck with a disease. Our own experiences can become useful research for writing about our sick characters if we leverage them properly.

3 Ways to Leverage Illness in Your Writing

I’m a part-time fiction writer. During the week I work a full-time job, and my wife and I are raising five crazy children. If you are like me, then you know how precious writing time is. There is no room in the schedule for illness.

Unfortunately, the flu does not abide by my demands. It descended on my house recently and hit me on Saturday. Unwilling to surrender my writing time, here are three things I l do to keep writing even though I’m sick:

1. Journal Your Symptoms

Nothing brings realism to your writing like a splash of your real life experience. Readers become engrossed in our stories when the feelings and emotions of our character match their own. Think of illness, therefore, as an opportunity to take notes on how your sick characters might feel under the same circumstances.

When I’m sick, I like to keep my journal handy to record how I’m feeling and what is happening in my body. These details come in handy when I’m writing a sick character in a story.

2. Record How People Respond

People respond differently to illness. Some people become nurses, wanting to help and take care of you. Others become frustrated at your illness on your behalf, wanting it to go away so life can go back to normal. Some treat you as they always have, pretending that there is nothing wrong.

Journaling the reactions of others to our illness provides us with notes we can use in future stories. When your protagonist goes down with an illness, how will all the other characters respond and why?

3. Dream Your Story

When I am sick, I spend a lot of time lying around. While my body may be defeated, my mind is fine.

I try to make good use of this downtime by dreaming through my story. I examine each piece in my mind. I imagine my characters in the scenes. I look for holes in my plots. Because I’ve dreamed through my story several times, when I am well and it is time to write, I’m ready to go and can pound out the story with little hesitation.

It's All Writing Fuel

Illness may slow us down, but it doesn’t have to stop us cold. The experience we have can inform our story and shape our writing.

How has illness shaped your writing? Let us know in the comments.


Take fifteen minutes and write about someone who is sick. Lean on your past experiences to bring realism to the story. When you're done, share your writing in the comments, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

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."


  1. Dale Madison

    I find when I am sick I can’t think straight. Though I didn’t realise I could think through my plots and look for holes or things that just don’t work. I am new to writing creatively and even newer to this site. From the tips I have received thus far, I have learned many useful things and adopted some new practices. Thanks for the help!


    Just wondering, sometime, it’s just lack of energy, so much tired that you can’t think anymore, just sleep… So when the body is sick, it depends of the type of illness or problem. A broken leg is not a depression. In depression,it’s not always good to write if you are alone, it can make things difficult because you get more self-centred and write bad stuff about people, about yourself…

  3. Muneera Mohammed Ali

    Good time to write about being sick, I guess. I too am suffering from a horrible toothache leading to bouts of headache as well which leads me to feel depressed as I can’t go for walks or even think too hard. As I already am an epileptic, the severe headaches put thoughts in my mind as to whether it was something bigger like all the kinds of cancers and tumors we hear about these days. Which ultimately makes me ask myself “What if I were to die tomorrow? “. Have I lived my life? Have I made a difference in the lives of those around me? How would life be for my husband, kids and the rest of my family after I have gone? And then there is this huge urge in me to go out and do crazy things or complete things that I have put off for later…….

  4. irene joseph

    I know it’s coming. The killer pain that will cripple all my senses. I know it’s coming because I can only see ahead of me. Nothing to the left, nothing to the right. It’s just darkness. Then comes the lightening. Zig-zag sparks which burst into multiples of coloured spots. It starts to make me feel sick. I try to swallow, but I can’t. My throat has numbed and there is something bitter and tasteless in my mouth. I no longer feel my hand. I try to speak to let my boss know that I need to come off the checkout till, but my words come out jumbled. I’m not making any sense. I feel people starring at me as if I have gone mad, others ask if I am okay, but all I hear is distant echoes. Then the thunder begins, pounding the side of my head. The nausea is setting it and I dash from the till to the bathroom, with bitter bile threatening to explode before I get there. Someone shoves a packet into my hand with a glass of water. I swallow four tablets – I don’t care if people think I’m committing suicide, but I need to get this bomb away from my head. I have to stay in work I need the money and this is not going to beat me. I lie my head on the table and bury my face in my arms. Darkness. I feel senseless.

  5. Debra johnson

    I did this when I had surgery on my foot and couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks. I sure did learn about myself and those around me claiming at other times to be friends. I also learned about myself as well. Still trying to work that into a story… Everything we experience most often can be used in a story or article at some point. That’s why I love taking free e courses. They are a wealth of info or career options for characters.

  6. Tanya Marlow

    What’s interesting is that the natural assumption is that sickness is temporary. For those of us with chronic illness (I have myalgic encephalomyelitis, an autoimmune neurological illness which leaves me bedbound, with just small pockets of concentration each day) we don’t have the luxury of waiting till we’re better to write. Every day I have to weigh up what will be worse for my health – spending the little energy I have on writing words so that my soul doesn’t explode, or conserving my energy so my body is less angry with me. The great thing that chronic illness teaches those who are otherwise generally healthy is that you really do have to seize those moments when your brain is working – make them count. And write what is most on your heart at any given moment. You have to listen to both body and soul.

  7. irene joseph

    What I submitted an hour ago as a piece is definitely something I couldn’t write at the time. But memories still stay strong in my head

  8. Heidi

    Really interesting concept I hadn’t thought of before. I have epilepsy. Once I went to lunch with my folks and partner and ‘came to’ in the hospital. I was aware of pockets of time that seemed like a dream…events that were so far away that I really didn’t think were real. When I fully came to my senses I realized I was in a hospital, but I had no idea how I arrived there, what day it was, why I was there…anything. It was the strangest thing. I felt lost in time and space. I had no recollection of anything, but was grateful to see familiar faces, to hear the story, and ask questions about what I reckoned were my dreams and how they actually fit into the reality of time. The brain is a strange animal….so blessed to be surrounded by people who love and protect me.

  9. Sam Vale

    This makes me feel better; I spend most of my time dreaming my story and find it hard to find both the peace and the energy to write it down; I’m focusing on finding that time now, but at least I haven’t completely wasted my time and perhaps creating the story in my mind first is simply part of my individual process. Thank you!

  10. 709writer

    Julia’s stomach quivered. Clamping a hand over her mouth, she tossed back the covers and bolted for the bathroom as nausea swallowed her throat.

    She staggered to the commode. Vomit lurched into the water. A second later, she gagged again and orange-yellow chunks landed in the commode, bobbing like gross, rotting apples.

    She shut her eyes to erase the sight of the vomit and wiped sweat off her forehead. Weakness spread through her body, but at least she’d stopped throwing up.

    This was a great prompt! And since I’m just getting over being sick, the timing was perfect.

  11. Karley

    Dawn appeared brightly and without decency of prior warning through the dingy apartment blinds. Much like that obnoxious, distant relative who wasn’t invited to Christmas dinner- but somehow manages to show up anyway- this day, too, wasn’t likely gift-bearing. She grunted at this reality, attempting to find escape beneath the closest pillow in reach. Minutes dragged by, and then hours. Still no luck. A huff forced itself from her lazy lips as she glared at the sunlight with a stubborn vengeance.

    “Fine,” she said to the lifeless daybreak, “I’ll GET UP and shut the blinds MYSELF!”

    Slapping the feather comforter off of her frail body, she stomped as heavily as her weight would allow from her bed all the way to the window, and forced the sunlight from the room. She slugged back to the naturally shady side of the room (from which she came) and just barely managed to drag herself back on top of the mattress when her phone rang. She screamed out her rage into the blanket she’d landed upon before daring to pick up the cell phone, three long rings later. She clumsily forced and flopped her fingers in the general proximity of any button that would answer the call and silence the noise.

    She cast a muffled “hfflmo” in the general direction of the phone, still face-deep in the comfort of her blankets.
    “Hello?” The voice asked.
    “Hello?!” the voice repeated frantically.
    More silence accompanied by a half-committed, but fully dramatic eye-roll.
    “Cassie, are you there?” the concerned voice continued. “At least say something so I know you can hear me. We are all so worried-”
    “mmmmmm…” Cassie groaned.
    “Oh, darling! There you are. Well, clearly you don’t want to speak to me right now, but when you do- call me, okay? We are here for you and love you so m-”

    Click. She found the energy to react quickly at the expense of hearing more. With such an eventful morning, it was clearly time for a nap anyhow.

  12. Melody Perry

    I lay on the bed, thermometer dangling out of my mouth and bemoan my situation. Who knew the flu could depilate me so. In the past, when I was sick I’ve often whined, “I have the flu.” I now know it was a virus that left my body in a few days. This, hell of aches has a special category. Flu is too common of a word. Physical torture fits. When influenza made it’s debut in the United States in the early 1900’s it did kill many, as these were pre-anti-biotic days. There was a common quote that followed this raging disease. In Flew Inza. Well Inza can fly right back out. And soon!

    I pull the thermometer from my sticky dehydrated lips, grab my glasses and survey the results. One hundred and one, well that’s an improvement.

    The worse part of this is the overwhelming boredom. Television is a series of drama, commercials targeting housewives and old movies. They all bore me. I’ve tried to read but my eyeballs hurt. YES, my eyeballs.

    I throw back the covers; grab my robe and shuffle into the kitchen. Orange juice has never tasted so good, I think as I drink from the container. Holding it to my chest like my first-born I shuffle into the bathroom, grab a washcloth and dampen it with refreshing cool water.

    Exhausted by my excursion I cross the bedroom, throw back the covers and lie down, robe and all. Laying the cool cloth on my forehead I vow to never assume someone isn’t sick, or accuse him or her of faking.

    I sip juice from a straw like a newborn infant seeking nourishment. Set the glass aside and roll over. Yeah, sleep never felt so good either. Good-night

  13. Lyn

    I’d never thought of this. Thanks Jeff for writing this post and thanks Kate for Tweeting it 🙂
    2. Record How People Respond And some people respond as if you became sick just to inconvenience them. LOL that would make for some interesting writing–even if you slightly exaggerate what they say or do.

  14. Jessica Samuels

    I still write when I’m sick I just curl up in bed with my laptop. Especially if I don’t have work I use the time to write. Or I use my Ipad Pro to work on my book.



  1. Web Explored: Gramerd, Writing Prompts, etc. - GobbledeGoox - […] Elkins has a cure for the common cold. Well maybe. In “3 Tricks for Writing Even When You’re Sick.”…
  2. Web Explored: Gramerd, Writing Prompts, etc. - GobbledeGoox - […] Elkins has a cure for the common cold. Well maybe. In “3 Tricks for Writing Even When You’re Sick.” His…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

Share to...