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  • Writer's pictureClaire Bentley

TIPS FOR WRITING WHEN TIRED OR ILL

Updated: Jun 17

Writing is one of those professions that seems glamourous from the outside.


It brings to mind a ‘glowing’ and serene-looking person, spending entire days typing considered and beautiful prose onto their screen. They have a coffee on one side of their immaculate desk, and a floral-scented candle on the other. They happily sail through their manuscript, day after day, beaming as they craft one gorgeous sentence after another.


The caffeine-addiction is the only realistic part of that scenario for me.

Okay, sometimes the scenario is realistic. Some days the sentences flow out of my brain, and I smile, a warm glow radiating through my core.

Selfie of me with green  and looking extremely tired
The visual reality of parent-writer life!

But a lot of the time it isn’t like this. A lot of the time, I am the exhausted person in this photo, trying to get mediocre words on the page through a fog of permanent sleep deprivation.


I’m a writer. I’m also a parent of small children. I run a business. I run a household. I have mental health conditions, neurodivergence, and I live with two walking petri-dishes who happily spread their germ-infested bodily fluids all over the house. I menstruate. I get migraines. I haven’t had a full eight hours of sleep in as many years.


Even though I love being a writer, it can be difficult to get to the page and get started, even if I’m feeling relatively well. If one of my beautiful little cherubs didn’t sleep well the night before, or if my head is throbbing, or if I’m on cold number five that year (in February), then it can feel almost impossible to turn my laptop on.


I imagine you also know this feeling (regardless of your own personal circumstances!).

In this blog post I discuss tips and considerations for continuing to write during periods of ill health, exhaustion, and just not feeling like it. Please note: this does not necessarily mean powering through and ignoring it (although sometimes it does…).


WHAT CAN GET IN THE WAY OF WRITING?

What can’t get in the way of writing?


You might have children. You might be a carer for your spouse, or your parent, or your child. You might be juggling a full or part-time job. You might have long-term physical and / or mental health conditions. In addition, we all get colds and stomach bugs. We all get tired. Any of us can have a bad night’s sleep. Lots of us menstruate.


Then we have the unexpected life events that can blindside us at any moment. An accident. A broken-down car. Having to pick up a sick child from school. Horrible news events. The list goes on.


Even without any of the above, you might find you just don’t feel like writing on a given day. You’d rather scroll Instagram, or watch Netflix, or stare at the wall: anything except sit down at your computer and write.


So… what can we do about this?


The first answer may surprise you!


SCHEDULE SELF-CARE

Society likes to trick us into believing that self-care is our reward when we complete our to-do list, when in fact it is necessary to survival.


Just because you (technically) COULD keep writing past midnight, or you COULD get an extra 500 words on top of the 2000 you already wrote, or you COULD bully your brain into writing an outline… doesn’t necessarily mean that you SHOULD.

A half-completed jigsaw puzzle, in which images of bookshelves and book spines are becoming visible
Rest is important!

When you’re scheduling your writing time, remember to also schedule self-care and rest. Writing is a lot easier, and our writing sessions are so much more productive, when we allow our brains to rest and recharge in between writing sessions. If we constantly bully and flagellate our brains into writing during any spare minute of the day (on top of all our other responsibilities), then no wonder our brains rebel against us! We need to treat our brains with kindness and respect: they are doing the bulk of the work, and they need rest in order to function.


KNOW THE DIFFERENCE

Hopefully, most of us have been around long enough to admit to ourselves when we’re ‘being lazy’ or procrastinating, versus when we’re genuinely too tired or unwell or burnt-out to get to the page. I use caution in saying this, because resting isn’t ‘being lazy’, and sometimes our brains need to procrastinate! However, we each have to know the difference within ourselves.


Examine the reasons you’re feeling this way (and be honest!) Ask yourself whether you’re genuinely too tired to write, or whether you just don’t feel like it. Look at the context as well. Is it that you don’t feel like writing because you wrote 3000 words on each of the six previous days? In this case, your brain may be desperately trying to get your attention before it flops onto the top of the burn-out slide. If you haven’t written for two weeks, maybe you’re out of the habit and need to ease yourself back in. It might be that you have a growing list of life admin tasks that you haven’t dealt with yet, and those tasks are yelling at you because your car insurance is about to run out, or because your house is about to achieve biohazard status.


You know yourself better than anyone. If you have a scheduled writing session, and you’re struggling to begin, then really examine why that’s the case (and be honest with yourself).


THINKING TIME IS STILL WRITING

Exhaustion can be linked to problems in your manuscript. If you’re feeling stuck, or if something isn’t working the way you want it to, then take a short break if you need to. Go for a walk. Have a shower. Sit down and write some notes. Even if that writing session is spent getting ‘unstuck’ rather than writing or editing words, that’s still a valuable use of your time!


Writers often make the mistake of believing that ‘thinking time’ doesn’t count as writing. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Intellection is vital for every writing stage, and should be given the time and space it needs.


TECHNIQUE: ‘I’LL ONLY DO X’

If you come to the conclusion that you’re tired but otherwise procrastinating or putting off writing, then one technique you can use (which helps me a lot!) is to trick yourself into doing it.


You tell yourself ‘I’m only going to do [small writing-related task], and then I’m going to watch TV / read / eat every grain of sugar in the house’. You open your document. You do the one small thing you said you were going to do.


Usually, one of two things happens. Either you find yourself adding some more words, researching something else, planning another scene etc, and you look up and two hours have passed. Or you keep your promise to yourself. You do that one task, and then you close your computer. You walk away. You do something else. If option two happens, then it might be a sign that your brain really does need the rest!


It’s a win-win situation. You might end up doing more than you thought you were able to. However, even if you only do that one task, a. any progress is better than no progress, and b. you gave your brain the rest it needed.


WRITING ROUTINE

Another great way to ‘switch’ your brain into writing mode is via a writing routine.


There are some who argue that writers shouldn’t get tied to a specific routine or setting, and I understand the wisdom behind this. A writing routine can become restrictive if overdone: if a writer can only write with peppermint tea, a black cherry candle, The Lord of the Rings film score on repeat, and it must be the full moon, and they must start their writing session between 9.00pm and 9.10pm or their whole writing session is ruined… you see what I’m saying.


Lit candle, keyboard, diary, pens
Use your routine to switch over to writing mode

However, I’m also not the type of writer who can open up my notes app in the five minutes before a doctor’s appointment and type out a few hasty sentences with one hand while restraining a screaming child with the other. If you are this type of writer, then I am in awe of you!


I hate jumping in and out of a manuscript, and I work best if I have at least an hour of writing time (hence why most of my writing sessions are in the evening when the kids are in bed).


In addition to a decent block of writing time, I need something to switch my brain into writing mode (more so when I’m particularly tired). A desk, a laptop, a candle, a hot drink, a snack (if I’m feeling low on energy), and some ambient piano music: this is my sweet spot. These are the things which most effectively signal to my brain that it’s ‘time to write’. However, I can still find this zone even if I can’t meet all of these conditions. In fact, sometimes changing my routine can also re-energise me and boost my creativity (e.g. writing in a coffee shop).


Try giving your brain some kind of routine-based signal that it’s time to write.

If your life circumstances allow, also try to get into a healthy sleeping routine. However, as a chronic insomniac who is raising kids who are themselves allergic to sleep, I’m definitely not the person to go to for sleep advice!


REMEMBER YOUR ‘WHY’

Why do you want to write?


This is deeply personal for each of us. There are many reasons I write, but the strongest ones are my deep love of stories and story-telling, and that I’m pretty sure I would shrivel up and die without reading and writing in my life.


Your reasons are your reasons. The only compulsory part is that the ‘why’ has to be strong enough to keep you writing. Even when you’re tired. Even when you’re at the tail-end of a cold. Even if you have a sudden urge to clean the bathroom instead.


Of course, there are times when our physical health, our mental health, our families, life admin, or something else has to take priority. However, the ‘why’ is the motivation that keeps us coming back to the page. Remember that ‘why’ when you don’t feel like writing. Remember to think of the writing as something that you ‘get to do’ rather than as something that you ‘have to do’.


DON’T BEAT YOURSELF UP

Whatever the reason: if you do miss a writing session then don’t beat yourself up! Even if you didn’t have a perceived ‘good reason’ for missing the session, we’re all human and sometimes our human selves just need to rebel!


Just write it off and ‘reset’.


Tomorrow is a new day.  


CONCLUSION

Unfortunately, few of us are in the privileged position of having hours of uninterrupted writing time at our disposal. We have many other demands and priorities which use up our time and energy, often before we can even get to the page. Even in the best circumstances, we’re human beings who get tired, and ill, and who have good days and bad days.


To make a career out of writing, there are going to be times in which we need to write when we aren’t at our best. Hopefully this post will help us use strategies to do the work when we feel tired, while also looking after our physical and mental health.


BEFORE YOU GO…

Are you writing at the same time as raising children? Did you decide to delay writing until your children are older? (contact details below).


Please feel free to comment on the article and/or contact me if you have any questions:

Socials: @cbentleywriter on most of them!


I welcome respectful and friendly discussion on the topics I write about, including if your opinion differs from my own.


Disclaimer: generative AI

I do not use generative AI to produce or inform my blog, my images, or my fiction. All my content is generated by the chaotic firing of my own (human) brain! (I have access to some images through my Wix subscription). I do not consent to the use of my content, images, or fiction to train generative AI models. Please contact me to discuss permission and compensation if you wish to use my content in this way.

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