Writing Motivation: Pressure or Leisure

Are you motivated by tight deadlines? Do you only write well under pressure? 

Or are you the type of writer who needs plenty of time to daydream, experiment, draft, and revise at your leisure?

(I know this intro sounds like an infomercial, but I promise I am not selling you anything but my thoughts). 

I’ve recently had a number of conversations with other writers (fiction, non, and scholarly) about their writing process, particularly in relation to deadlines and procrastination. 

Many of these writers shared that they were only motivated to write when they were pressed against a hard deadline. These deadlines ranged from publication dates (self-imposed dates set by indie authors) to speaking gigs to academic milestones (think presentations, papers, thesis submissions etc.). 

These types of writers are not motivated by long-deadlines. Some may ‘waste’ months procrastinating on their writing task (self-imposed or not) before going hard and fast in the few days before their book, presentation, or journal article is due. Others initially described themselves as procrastinators, but when prompted to elaborated, they realised they spent most of that time thinking about their plot or argument (often for months), and the deadline forced them to commit to a particular shape/form/stance. 

In both instances, it was the deadline that encouraged the writer to take action and put words down on the page. 

What struck me most about these conversations is how many writers work this way.    

For myself, I prefer a slow and steady approach. I find deadlines immensely stressful, and I do not do my best work in this environment. To be clear, the writers who work under pressure agreed that working in this way was very stressful, but many had accepted that this was their process, and though they would prefer to work consistently on major projects, the work alone was not enough to motivate them. They need an external sense of accountability. 

Deadlines are real, and missing them has real consequences. 

If you don’t finish writing the novel that you’ve already made available for preorder, then your readers will be very angry with you and you’ll have to refund their money. If you’re collaborating with other scholars on a journal and you don’t complete your portion of the paper, you could all miss out on a publication. These types of missteps can also severely harm your reputation and ability to secure similar opportunities in the future. 

And it is this fear, I think, that people find motivating. If I don’t finish this piece of writing, then something bad will happen. 

Could you create this same sense of external accountability without putting your reputation at risk? There are ways, but it’s difficult to say how effect they would be (as this depends on your personality and what motivates you). 

You could…

  • Set false deadlines
  • Work with an accountability partner
  • Hire an editor/coach (investing money is good motivation!)
  • Imagine how thankful your future self will be
  • Set weekly meetings with a mentor or fellow writer
  • Work with beta-reader where you must send them your pages by a particular day
  • Tell your spouse/kids/best friend that when you finish writing [x] you’ll go do something fun (hike/holiday/theme park etc)—this make you accountable to someone else

For myself, even these types of tactics make me feel stressed and anxious. I prefer writing to be a pleasant experience whether I’m working on non-fiction, fiction, teaching materials, or academic papers. 

I work best when I know I have a lot of time to complete a project. I want to sink into my work so that my focus is on the work and not the ticking clock. 

Often, I overestimate how long it’s going to take me to complete a piece. My honours project was done two months before the due date, meaning that I had plenty of time to do fine proofreading and referencing checking (small details are not my strength, so I really need this time). Every Time He Dies was complete and ready to publish six months before I released it, meaning I could focus all my energy on creating a book release plan and marketing strategies. 

This is not to say that I don’t feel stressed, but my stress is internally generated rather than externally. I know that if I don’t make time for writing then the stories and papers I want to publish will never be complete. I am more afraid of not writing then writing. If I don’t write, then…well, I’d have to get another job–and that would suck. 

Even though I want writing to be pleasant and enjoyable, there is still a low-grade stress that comes with it, and that’s okay because stress is motivating! The difference, though, is that I feel anxious and excited before I start writing, and it is this stress that gets me to the page. For others, they feel stressed, anxious, or excited while writing because of their looming deadline. 

There is no right or wrong way to write. We all create differently and all ways lead to written products if you choose to put your time and energy into it. The only time it is a problem is if you decide that the way you work is no longer working for you. 


Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

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