When the Words Won’t Come

This was one of those mornings when I didn’t want to work out, but I knew that if I did, I’d end up feeling better about myself and the world in general. Sometimes we have those days, those days of “just don’t want to”—and, of course, the easy thing is  to “just not,” but sometimes if we force ourselves to do just a little bit, we suddenly find that we’ve done a lot.

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t really want to write this post, not really sure what I have to write about today, but I’ve promised myself that I’ll try putting some words on the page to see where they might take me. Such is often my approach to writing. Words require other words. Just put some down on the page and follow the trail.

“This is the practice school of writing,” Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones.  “Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. . . .That’s how writing is too.”

There will always be days when the writing isn’t easy for us. That doesn’t mean, though, that we shouldn’t try. Here are some things we can do to keep the words coming on those days when we feel we can’t face the page.


  1. Remodel it. Sometimes just so I’ll feel productive, I’ll look at a manuscript in progress and find a sentence that can be better. Maybe it’s the word choice, or the syntax, or the specificity of the nouns. Maybe it’s coming up with more active verbs. It can be anything that requires me to rewrite a sentence. Try it. If you rewrite one sentence, maybe you’ll be tempted to rewrite another, and another. Maybe you’ll keep going. Maybe you’ll find yourself writing new sentences, new scenes, new pages.


  1. Redecorate it. Sometimes I find a place in a manuscript that feels dead to me. To bring it to life, I spend some time daydreaming the sensory details that I might add. What are the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures that I haven’t yet put on the page? What are the ones that might open up some aspect of character or situation or language that I’ve yet to discover. Dealing with the details makes us look more closely at the moment, and, when we do that, something good is bound to happen.


  1. Flip it. Find a serious moment in the manuscript and challenge yourself to see the humor in it. Likewise, find a comic moment and see how it might take a poignant turn. Experiment with voice and tone. Exaggerate the muted. Mute the exaggerated. Riff and play. Let language take you places you didn’t know you were going.


  1. Sell it. This is an exercise in letting go. Go through a manuscript and see what you might cut. The objective is to see where you were building scaffolding or clearing your throat in preparation for the real stuff. Tighten, tighten, tighten. Cutting away the extraneous can often lead us to a better sense of exactly what our manuscript wants to be.


  1. Condemn it. This one is really hard. Read through a manuscript in progress with the objective of finding a single sentence that has to stay—the one sentence that the manuscript absolutely can’t be without. Write that sentence at the top of a page. Start over. Write the new scene, the new thought, the new line that this sentence demands.


So I started this post with no idea of what I might say, and now it seems I’ve said some things that with any luck may prove useful. “I hate writing,” Dorothy Parker said. “I love having written.” A workout doesn’t get done without that first step. Writing doesn’t get done without that first word. “Writing is a struggle against silence,” Carlos Fuentes said. And so it is. We have to keep making ourselves heard even on those days when we don’t think we have anything to say.




  1. Roberta W. Coffey on May 4, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    Hi, Lee!

    These suggestions are extremely useful, and I’m about to put one of them to use immediately!

    All best,


  2. Lee Martin on May 4, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    Thanks, Roberta! i hope the one you try works.

  3. Jayne Martin on May 4, 2015 at 8:33 pm

    Thank you, Lee. This is exactly where I am today and have been for a few days now.

    • Lee Martin on May 5, 2015 at 11:55 am

      Jayne, sometimes the work will clarify itself for us if we just leave it alone for a while, or if we try something small within it. Keep doing the good work!

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