How To Speed Up Your Writing By Not Writing

Writing is hard.  Not writing is easy. But what if avoiding your writing could be integrated into the writing process—and you created better work more quickly as a result?

The process of writing by not-writing is called “incubation.”

Are You “Not Writing?”

Rule #1: Incubation Is NOT Procrastination.

The activities you use to procrastinate or incubate may be the same: meditate, take a bath, go for a walk, bake cupcakes, watch TV, clean out the garage, go to the gym….

Procrastination is where you’re doing the activity but still thinking about the project (e.g., lamenting that you’re not working on it). Often procrastination happens when you run out of willpower to keep writing—and you kind of wish you weren’t procrastinating because it’s not helping you succeed.

Incubation is where you purposefully stop working, and use a strategy to let the project “cook” in your unconscious mind while you do something else.

I know that it’s not easy to redirect your attention when you’re immersed, when you care, and (especially) when you have a deadline.  However, when you return to your project and you’re fresh, you can get more work done in a lot less time and with a lot less effort.

There are two key principles that can help you turn your procrastination into incubation.

Principle #1: Incubate Before You Get Stuck

Yes, incubating is a great way to break through writer’s block, but it’s an even better way to sustain momentum.

Before you get stuck in a project, while you still have the mojo, take a break and incubate your work so it’s still fresh and exciting when you pick it back up.

What are your criteria for deciding when it’s time to incubate a project? For some writers, it’s when they reach their word or page count for the day. For others, it’s more about when they start to feel like the words aren’t coming quite as fast.

The point is to have a plan of some sort. Incubation works best when you decide when you’ll put your work down instead of being forced to stop by fatigue, doubt, or creative confusion.

Principle #2: Incubate Between Creative Processes

The creative process has several phases. Let’s divide them into “right-brain” (creative) and “left-brain” (critical).

  • Right-brain: brainstorming, drafting, or outlining.
  • Left-brain: testing, editing, and polishing.

Let’s say that the process of creating a film, TV pilot, or novel goes through a process that, in broad strokes, alternates between right-brain and left-brain phases, and looks something like this:

  1. Come up with the idea
  2. Brainstorm related ideas
  3. Draft short pitch
  4. Test short pitch on feedback group 1
  5. Draft revised short pitch
  6. Test revised pitch on feedback group 2
  7. Outline the project
  8. Edit outline
  9. Draft revised outline
  10. Edit revised outline
  11. Draft 3-page complete summary of project
  12. Test summary on feedback group 3
  13. Draft treatment
  14. Edit treatment
  15. Draft project
  16. Edit project
  17. Test project on feedback group 4
  18. Polish project
  19. Submit for professional feedback

Consider incubating between engaging in right-brain and left-brain processes. Even taking a very short break can help you to focus on being creative or critical–but not both.  It’s incredibly hard to be creative and critical at the same time.

Be A Writing Athlete

Athletes know that if they train too hard, they can burn out and inhibit their progress. They are very careful to build rest into their training programs in several different ways: between sets, between workouts, using “active rest,” and periodizing exercises and training programs.

It’s similar in creative work. Our creative and critical faculties—and even the muscles in our hands—benefit from purposeful rest that is built in to our training.

Incubation can help you be more productive because rest is crucial to growth and insight.

Do You Know the #1 Screenwriting Obstacle that is Holding You Back?

Screenwriting Breakthrough Quiz

Almost Every Screenwriter Struggles with 1 of 3 Common Obstacles. Over 16,892 Screenwriters Have Found Out Theirs.

Take 60 Second Quiz

Discussion About How To Speed Up Your Writing By Not Writing

  1. Barbara McDowell Whitt

    Stephanie, as incubation keeps eggs warm until they hatch, a comparison could also be made between the writing process and fertilized eggs. A bird dare not stay away from her nest too long. Likewise, a writer, whether away from her writing due to procrastination or incubation, ought not stay away any longer than necessary.

    Your list of 19 steps for a project’s progress is insightful and should be useful to many writers. I noticed that after “1. Come up with the idea,” and “2. Brainstorm related ideas,” it is mostly a matter of “draft, edit, test” (and thus, as you have indicated, going back and forth between critical and creative thinking) until “18. Polish project,” and “19. Submit for professional feedback.” Thinking about the process and the progress of those 19 steps should carry the writer through to the project’s completion, with, as you have advised, those time outs for that reflective incubation.

  2. Glenn Conner Johnso

    Stephanie, Thanks fot the “incubation vs procrastination” idea. I feel so much better now about cleaning off my desk or the garage while trying to shape that second act!

  3. James Phillips

    Hi, what are these 19 steps eluded to?

    • Stephanie Palmer

      It’s a way to think about the writing process and what can make it go faster that isn’t actually, you know, just typing faster.