More Lessons from My Writing Streak: Accept the Slumps, But Keep Writing

I mentioned earlier in the week that I was not formally participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but that I was using the spirit of the event to jump start the second draft of my novel, and try to break out of a writing slump that I’d been in for the last month or so. While it has only been five days, I think I am finally emerging from that slump.

Emerging from a slump

The chart above shows the last 30 days of my writing. The last five are in the red box. It’s clearly the most productive 5 days I have had all month. Moreover, the 1,200 words I wrote yesterday were more than I’d written in day since September 20. Most pleasing to me of all is that my 7-day moving average is on the rise again, after a long and steady decline.

While it is nice to see that I am recovering from this writing slump, I was particularly stressed out by it. One thing I’ve learned over the course of my (now) 472 consecutive days of writing is to accept the slumps… but to keep writing every day.

What is a writing slump?

In baseball, hitters get into slumps when they remain hitless at the plate for many consecutive at-bats. For me, a writing slump is similar, but different. I’m still writing every day, just not producing as much as I’d like, or to the quality that I’d like to be producing. Since July 22, 2013, I’ve averaged 900 words/day. Ideally, I’d like to write at least 500 words every day. I don’t sweat the days where I don’t make 500 words, but when multiple days of less than 500 words pile up, I begin to start thinking in terms of a slump.

For the purposes of a clear personal definition, let me define a writing slump as any 30 day period where my moving average falls below 500 words/day for that period. Let’s define being “hot” as any 30 day period where my moving average is above 1,000 words/day. Based on that definition, here is a chart that identifies my slumps and hot spots:

 

Writing Slump and Hot Spots

You can see from this data, which contains 30-day moving averages, that I’ve only recently hit what I define as a slump. Otherwise, I’ve mostly been within my “average” range (a 30-day moving average of 500-1,000 words). I’ve also had two significant periods where I’ve been “hot,” with a 30-day moving average exceeding 1,000 words day.

This may seem overly analytical, but the numbers tell me not to stress about slumps. They happen, but they don’t last. The same is true for those hot streaks. The important thing is to keep writing every day, to push through the streaks, to keep hacking away when the words seem hard. Eventually, in my experience, the work pays off, and I make a breakthrough.

What causes these slumps?

I think there are two things that caused my recent slump (where my 30-day moving average fell below 500 words/day).

1. Lack of time. Time plays a role. I’ve been particularly busy at the day job, and other volunteer work, and that has meant less time for writing. Since I started using RescueTime  in July to automatically track my writing time each day, I’ve averaged 35 minutes per day of writing. Since I write about 500 words in 20 minutes, this closely matches my word count average.

However, in the month of October, my average time writing each day was down to 21 minutes. I can write close to 500 words in 21 minutes, and indeed, my average for October was 498 words per day–below what I define as my 30-day moving average threshold for a slump.

So time definitely plays a factor in output. But there was something else.

2. Struggling with a story. Sometimes a story is hard, and I struggle to find the right approach to it. When it isn’t working, I restart it and restart it until I find the right start. It’s hard to say what the right start is, other than saying, I know it when I see it. Struggling with a story lowers word counts because I work more slowly, trying to figure out what I’m doing wrong.

Combining the slower work with a lack of time, and a slump seems inevitable. But having the data that shows the proximate causes helps ease my mind. For one thing, I know that eventually, I’ll have more time to write. Even if I am still struggling with a story, having more time means more output.

But I also know, from the many story and article drafts I’ve written over the last 472 days that the struggling won’t last forever either. Once I find the right way to start, everything moves faster. I think that is illustrated perfectly in the last five or six days of my writing.