How to Juggle Multiple Writing Projects Without Losing Your Sanity

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Like most writers I know, I tend to work on several different writing projects at one time. In addition to writing this blog, I’m currently writing a novel, I have several essays in various stages of completion, and I just completed a freelance writing assignment for a client. The work certainly keeps me busy, but sometimes it can be difficult to keep them all straight. If I decide to work on one project, it means I can’t give my attention to the others.

Add to that all the extra administrative and marketing work that goes along with writing for a living, and you can see how easy it is to get overwhelmed.

There’s a constant struggle to maintain balance in my work schedule. Every morning, I ask myself, “Which piece should I work on today?” It’s a problem I don’t mind having because the alternative is spending hours in an office doing work that sucks the life out of my soul.

However, managing multiple projects does have a few upsides, writes author Heather Webb at the Writer Unboxed blog. It alleviates “manuscript fatigue,” she says. Switching between projects prevents you from getting too tired of one project. After a few days away from it, you can come back to it with fresh eyes.”

Having multiple projects also takes the pressure off of trying to create the “perfect” piece, Webb adds. Since you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket, you have more freedom to experiment with your writing. That can only help you produce better quality writing.

Managing multiple projects has its upsides, but it has plenty of challenges too.

Challenge 1:  There’s a limited amount of time to work on any one project.

When you’re working on several stories at once, you don’t have as much time to work on each of them as you’d like. Obviously, the paid work comes first because there are deadlines, and if you don’t make those deadlines, you don’t get paid. Once you submit your paid piece and return to an essay that’s closer to your heart after an extended time away from it, it can be difficult to get back into the flow of the story again. You can begin to feel disconnected from the story altogether.

Solution:  Re-read the last chapter of your novel, the beginning of the essay or review your notes. These are obvious starting points that will allow you to pick up the thread of the action. With fresh eyes, you might even resolve a plot point or come up with a new character.

Challenge 2:  Characters and story lines can blend in with one another.

Sometimes characters and protagonists begin to blend in with one another when you switch from one story to the next too often. This is even more disconcerting if those stories happen in different cities or eras of history.

Solution: Much like challenge #1, re-read the previous scenes to get inside the character’s mindset, or as Webb suggests at the Writer Unboxed blog, try journaling in the character’s voice to get inside their head again.

Challenge 3:  Creative burnout can occur.

When working on many projects, or worse, when you’re up against multiple deadlines, things can get a bit crazy. Working at that level of creativity for too long can produce creative burnout, writes Mark McGuinness, author of Productivity for Creative People (a book I definitely must read). That’s not a sustainable routine for the long term. (See this article in The Write Life for details.)

Solution:  Create a sustainable workload by limiting yourself to two to four writing projects to keep yourself sane. Make a list of the most important activities you need to work on, such as client work, family obligations and recurring tasks. These activities form the base for your time obligations. Next fill in what’s left – your spare time – with one or two writing projects. That approach, says McGuinness, will give you the time and space you need to work on what’s important to you while keeping you sane.

While it’s easy for writers and creative professionals to have several projects going on at the same time, it’s not so easy to manage them efficiently without ruining your life. When you set priorities and allow some downtime to transition between stories, you can manage multiple writing projects with greater ease and better results.

Is Lack of Sleep Hurting Your Creativity?

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This post was published originally in 2016. I’ve updated and revised for today’s posting.

How many hours of sleep do you typically get in one night? How much do you think you need to be at your best creatively?

Medical experts say most adults require at least seven to eight hours of sleep every night to function properly. Getting only five or six hours of quality sleep can affect us adversely. The National Sleep Foundation cites several ways that sleep — or the lack thereof — affects us:

* When you lose sleep, it’s harder to focus and pay attention to details, affecting things like school projects and job productivity. You more prone to making mistakes.

* Sleep slows reaction time, which can impact activities like driving and sports.

* Sleep feeds creativity, synthesizes new ideas, helps you solve problems and enhances innovative thinking.

* Sleep reactivates memories and strengthens connections between brain cells. Your brain simply works more efficiently.

According to the foundation, researchers suggest that sleeping shortly after learning new information will help you retain and recall that information later.

Lack of sleep can affect you in other ways. Emotionally, you may feel easily irritated and impatient which can put a strain on relationships. Physically, lack of sleep can affect your mood, cause weight gain, high blood pressure and other ailments.

We all lead busy lives, and as we take on more responsibilities, unfortunately, sleep becomes less of a priority.  How can you possibly think clearly, make critical decisions, remain calm under pressure and perform at your best without adequate sleep? The truth is, you don’t realize how valuable sleep is until you begin to lose it.

If your performance on the job can improve with better quality sleep, it makes sense that it can also sharpen your creativity.  If a lack of sleep is preventing you from producing your best creative work, here are a few tips to help you when sleep eludes you:

1. Keep a notebook by your bed. If your brain is racing with ideas or overthinking a problem, grab a notebook and pen and start writing them all down. Getting these ideas down on paper before sleep helps declutter your brain so you can sleep better.

2. Turn off all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed time. The lighting from your smart phone, TV and laptop can interfere with the chemicals in the brain that regulate sleep. Avoid watching TV or listening to music before bed time. (I find that this actually works.) It’s important to quiet the mind before sleep.

3. Give yourself 20 minutes to fall asleep. If after 20 minutes you can’t fall asleep, get up and read until you feel sleepy. Then try again.

4. Read before hitting the sack. This may seem counter-intuitive if you’re reading an engrossing page-turner, but reading for a few minutes each night before bedtime can also help you relax. Try reading something dull and boring, like a textbook.

5. Take a warm shower or bath. The warm water eases muscle tension and makes you sleepy.

6. Drink a glass of warm milk before heading off to bed. If you drink cow’s milk, try warming a mug of almond or cashew milk. You can also try chamomile tea, but it might make you go to the bathroom more often during the night, which only disrupts your sleep more. Wine and other alcoholic beverages might help you get to sleep, but you may have difficulty staying asleep.

7. Avoid sleeping pills. Some can be addictive, while others are ineffective. Other products on the market, like melatonin and Nyquil Zzzzs have had mixed results.

8. Go to bed at the same time every night. It’s important, experts say, to maintain a nighttime routine, regardless of how well you sleep. The better the routine, the better your chances are of having a regular sleep schedule.

Whether you are an artist, writer or business owner, you want to be at your creative and productive best. Getting a decent night’s sleep is the most valuable commodity you’ll ever need.

Ambition Isn’t Selfish If It Fuels Your Creativity For the Greater Good

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A few years ago, actress Reese Witherspoon wrote an essay that was published in Glamour magazine about women and ambition. She observed that women are judged too harshly for being ambitious. Men with ambition are seen as powerful and appealing, while women with ambition are seen as selfish and less worthy of being hired or promoted than their male counterparts. The double standard had to end. “We have to change the idea that a woman with ambition is out only for herself,” she wrote.

I have never forgotten that article. Witherspoon’s sentiment has stayed with me ever since. Ambition gets a bad rap sometimes for bringing about negative reactions in people. But ambition is not to be feared. It is not to be hidden away, especially by women, who may have the desire to achieve meaningful things. “Ambition is simply a drive inside of you,” writes Witherspoon. “It’s having a curiosity or a new idea and the desire to pursue it.”

Other writers and creative types have weighed in on the topic. The famous artist Salvador Dali once wrote, “Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.” Without those wings, we might as well swim with the ducks.

Maya Angelou writes, “The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.” It takes more than ambition to be successful. It’s one thing to reach for the highest goal, such as publishing a best-selling novel. But it takes a truly wise person to write a novel that touches the hearts and souls of readers.

There are different ways to look at ambition. For many, it’s a negative trait best left under wraps. But then how will you ever achieve your greatest work? The true measure of creative genius is finding the right balance of ambition. Too little ambition and you risk undercutting your opportunities and underselling your talents. You come across as lacking confidence. Conversely, exhibit too much ambition or the wrong kind of ambition that doesn’t help the greater good and people see you as arrogant.

Where is the happy medium? As writers and creatives, it’s not only okay to be ambitious, it’s imperative. Without ambition, you may never accomplish anything meaningful. Ambition fuels your dreams and your passions. That’s the positive side of ambition.

But ambition has its darker side too. The dark side of ambition drives you blindly toward outcomes that not only hurt others but can ultimately derail your best efforts. Under the influence of the dark energy, you can become more focused on your competition – who is standing in your way of success. The key is to harness ambition’s positive energy without getting sucked into its darker forces. It can be all too easy to fall into that trap. You have to remember that it is just that – a mind trap.

Here are a few suggestions for making peace with the ambitious side of yourself so you can take advantage of its positive energy.

* Be aware of how you feel when you are ambitious. How do you describe your energy level – high, low, medium? Do you feel energized, determined and optimistic about the outcome of your endeavors, or do you feel angered, aggressive and driven to the point of madness? Higher energy and optimism are signs of the positive side of ambition. More important, it makes you feel happy about your work.

* Recognize ambition’s positive energy. Use that energy to create something useful, make a positive impact on others’ lives, or simply make other people happy. When you feel ambitious, it’s usually to DO something or to create something — climb a mountain, write a book, or build a business. Those are positive outcomes of ambition, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if it helps others. But if your ambition is to tear something apart or hurt someone, then you have fallen under the darker side of ambition. Always choose ambition’s positive energy.

* Don’t waste your ambition on people or situations that won’t respect or appreciate it. (Another pearl of wisdom from Ms. Witherspoon.) Once you recognize that there are people in your life (bosses, for example) who don’t appreciate your ambitious ideas, quickly move on. Find another company or project that will welcome your ambitious ideas.

* Recognize that everyone has some level of ambition. Some people have more ambition than others, but that doesn’t mean others have no ambition at all. It just means they haven’t tapped into it yet. While many people use ambition in healthy ways, others may subdue their ambition, believing (erroneously) that they are being selfish for wanting more than they have. Or they use their ambition to serve their own purposes rather than for the greater good.

* Being ambitious means taking a few risks. As someone once told me, “Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where all the best apples are.” Even if it means risking your well-being by falling out of the tree.

* Remind yourself that it is not selfish to be ambitious. If your ambition calls for creating meaningful work that people will enjoy, then it’s not selfish to indulge in your craft. If your ambition calls for you to leave behind your family so you can go to medical school in a different city, it’s not selfish to want to improve your education so you can help heal people who are sick. If there is an overriding desire to help others, then ambition can only help you achieve your goals.

When you learn to tap into the positive energy of ambition, great things can happen.

A Writer’s Guide to Overcoming Self-Doubt

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“Our doubts are traitors,
and make us lose the good we oft might win
by fearing to attempt.”

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Shakespeare said it best when he said that “our doubts are traitors.” They betray us by preventing us from engaging with our creativity in a healthful way. They betray us by instilling fear in us that our words will never matter. And they betray us by asserting their will over us. If we give in to those doubts and fears, we lose the chance at achieving greatness with our writing and making a difference in the world.

In my previous post, I wrote about how we can manage our own writing expectations. One of the factors I described is the inner critic, that internal voice that suggests you may never be good enough.

That inner critic is especially adept at creating an atmosphere of self-doubt. When that critic plants seeds of self-doubt in your mind, they are bound to sprout numerous buds that can grow into overgrown weeds.  When those overgrown weeks begin to choke your creativity, you know it’s time to take action. The last thing you want is self-doubt creeping into your writing practice.

Many writers have written about how they have dealt with feelings of self-doubt and insecurity all their writing lives. No one is immune from feeling that way, not even the most successful published authors like Stephen King, Clive Cussler and Sandra Brown, to name a few. I’m sure even Shakespeare had moments when he doubted himself. Self-doubt is as common as breathing.

Every writer who has experienced those feelings have found ways to deal with them, from journaling to staying focused on their craft to simply ignoring them. Borrowing from some of their ideas, here are a few ideas how you can deal with self-doubt when it makes its presence known in your writing practice.

1. Acknowledge its presence. Every writer who has ever written anything, published or not, has experienced occasional bouts of self-doubt in their careers, and the more successful ones are more prone to experiencing its ugly cousin, Imposter Syndrome. That’s the unshakable belief that you’re getting away with something and that you will soon be found out as a fraud. Realize that self-doubt happens to everybody. It’s a normal part of the writing process and it doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with you. In fact, many writing experts say that if you don’t ever feel self-doubt, you’re probably doing something wrong.

2. Give self-doubt a persona. Whether you call it your internal critic, the fraud police or something else, it might help to give self-doubt a name, writes Jim Dempsey at Writer Unboxed. Or try drawing a picture of it. What does self-doubt look like to you? Then put the drawing on your wall and stare it down whenever it tries to speak to you. When it shows up in your practice, you can say, “Oh, no, here comes Negative Nellie again!” It might be easier to fight off its effects when you can bring it out in the open, rather than hide it away in your subconscious where it can do more damage.

3. Write about your feelings. If you keep a journal, as most writers do, take time to write about those dogged feelings of doubt so they don’t overwhelm you. It can be easy to allow self-doubt to consume you to the point where you cannot write or create anything. Don’t do that. Instead, write about those feelings. It’s another way of acknowledging their existence, and that’s healthier than brushing them aside in the hopes they will go away.

4. Realize the feeling is temporary. Feelings of self-doubt and insecurity will ebb and flow in your life like ocean waves. Recognize that those feelings will pass in a matter of hours or days. Don’t let them deter you from your writing. In fact, most writers say it’s important to keep writing during those blue periods. You’ll eventually come out of them.

5. Give yourself permission to write junk. During those periods of self-doubt, it’s important to keep writing, suggests Ruthanne Reid at The Write Practice. Your writing won’t be the best stuff, but at least you are still working on your craft. There’s no such thing as wasted words, she says. No matter how awful your writing may be during that phase, there’s bound to be nuggets of valuable content that you can build on. Have faith in the writing process. It won’t let you down.

Acknowledge that self-doubt is part of the writing process. Make friends with it. Know that it will come and go in your life like old friends do. The next time it shows up in your writing practice, welcome it. Remember that it’s there to help you overcome obstacles so you become a better writer.

24 Quotes about Writing by Women Who Write

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As Women’s History Month comes to a close, it seems appropriate to highlight some of history’s most prominent female authors. In their own words, here are their thoughts and musings about writing and the writing life. Let their words be an inspiration and motivation for your own work.

Do you have a favorite quote about writing, either from the collection below or one that is not represented?

“The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”
Agatha Christie

“Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Sylvia Plath

“I could not write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life.”
Jane Austen

“The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self; to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.”
Toni Morrison

“Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings,  specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course, you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”
Joan Didion

“You must not only know how to write, but you have to be privately, personally, sound at the core. Not sane, but sound. If not, it always shows.”
Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent

“To write something, you  have to risk making a fool of yourself.”
Anne Rice

“The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but one which makes you think.”
Harper Lee

“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
Margaret Atwood

“I am a woman, and I am a Latina. Those are the things that make my writing distinctive. Those are the things that give my writing power.”
Sandra Cisneros

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”
J.K. Rowling

“Language is an intrinsic part of who we are and what has, for good or evil, happened to us.”
Alice Walker

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
Anne Frank

“Women and fiction remain, so far as I’m concerned, unsolved problems.”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

“Invention, it my be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.”
Mary Shelley

“When I go back and read my journals or fiction, I am always surprised. I may not remember having those thoughts, but they still exist and I know they are mine, and it’s all part of making sense of who I am.”
Amy Tan

“After awhile, the characters I’m writing begin to feel real to me. That’s when I know I’m heading in the right direction.”
Alice Hoffman

“Good books, like good friends, are few and chosen; the more select, the more enjoyable.”
Louisa May Alcott

“Write about the emotions you fear the most.”
Laurie Halse Anderson

“Writing is a process, a journey into memory and the soul.”
Isabel Allende

“Writing is a job, a talent, but it’s also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.”
Ann Patchett

“You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page.”
Annie Proulx

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
Anaïs Nin

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Maya Angelou

Find the Support You Need for Your Writing Career

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Writing is often a lonely endeavor. You sit isolated in your home office working laboriously on your craft. You can see your story coming to life. Then you hit a dead end. What do you do next?

At times like these, it’s helpful to have one person or a group to reach out to for inspiration, support or good old-fashioned common sense advice. Surely your family or a close friend is the first line of defense, but they may not always understand your creative process or your deep desire to write. Even your spouse or partner can be somewhat mystified by your writing career. They might be able to provide the emotional support, but perhaps not the creative support. That’s why you need a creative support system. That system can come in the form of a person or a group.

Support systems are vital to writers and other creative types. That social outlet is needed to distance yourself from your craft temporarily to regain perspective on problem areas. Your support system may be able to see things you have overlooked. It helps to have someone to talk to, to help you become accountable for yourself and cheer you on when you accomplish your goals.

You can develop a support system from any number of places. Naturally, your family and friends are the initial lines of support. But look beyond those circles too. If you’ve taken a writing class, keep in touch with your classmates. There may be one or two who may be especially helpful to your cause. Post a message on your social media. Perhaps a former co-worker or a high school friend are avid readers and writers struggling on their own.

It helps to first determine what type of help you need. Depending on the type of support you’re looking for, your support system can be small with only one or two people or extend to an entire writing community. But not everyone wants to be part of a writers’ group. Sometimes relying on one or two people is enough to keep you sustained through tough times.

Need help deciding where to go to develop your support system beyond family and friends? Consider these other options.

A writing coach. If you’ve saved up money, you can hire a writing coach to help you through the process. These individuals are usually experienced and published authors themselves, they’ve been through what you are going through. They can guide you through the trouble spots so you can resolve them on your own. A relationship with a coach will likely be structured, and you’ll have to meet or speak with them at a designated time each week. The relationship is governed by a contract, so you will have a legal obligation to one another with set terms for payment and other details. That may or may not fit into your personal schedule.

Another downside is the cost. Coaching can be pricey and beyond most writers’ budgets, but if you are willing to work hard and desire to work with someone who will help you be more accountable for your work, then a writing coach may be a smart investment and a worthy addition to your support system.

A Mentor. While writing coaches are generally governed by a contract, a mentor is not. Like a writing coach, a mentor has been around the block before. The difference here is that the relationship is informal, perhaps evolving organically over time. There is no set schedule for meetings, so you may meet or chat once a week, once a month or even once a year. A mentor can be a former teacher, a colleague, or a current or former boss. They have loads of experience in the industry that they willingly share with you. Best of all, they can cheer you on when things get tough and celebrate with you when you achieve your goal. Meetings occur on an as-needed basis, but the value of the mentor’s insights are just as valuable as the writing coach.

A Writing group. Behind family and friends, a writer’s next best line of support may be a writers’ group. Whether you join an established one or start one of your own, consider your reasons for participating. Is it strictly to socialize to get away from your self-imposed hibernation, or do you really want an exchange of ideas or feedback on your creative project? Also consider the type of person you are. If you are a sociable type who needs people around you, a writers’ group may be the perfect source of support. Less sociable types may be better suited for a mentor or writing buddy. Writing groups can meet in person or online. Check out sites like Shewrites.org or Meetup.com, which has several reading and writing groups.

A Writing buddy. Looking for encouragement, inspiration, resources and fun? Try working with a writing buddy. You may write different genres, come from different industries or educational backgrounds. A writing buddy may be at the same skill level as you and their goals may differ. But they are friendly, non-competitive companions who want to see you succeed as much as they want to. They’ll kick you in the butt if you need to move past writer’s block and celebrate with you when you sell your first story. Whether you decide to share your work with one another is up to you, or you may decide to keep it strictly about motivation, inspiration and to talk shop. I’ve had a writing buddy for about a year now. Every time we meet for coffee, I have walked home afterward with a story idea forming in my brain. You can’t get any more inspired than that.

Every good writer and business communicator needs a strong support system. Make sure you surround yourself with the best support possible to help you achieve your goals.

Related Articles:
How to Fight Loneliness as a Work-From-Home Writer, The Writer magazine
How to Get the Help You Need, Writer’s Digest
Why Support Systems Are Essential for Freelance Life, Freelancers’ Union

Is Too Much Noise Hurting Your Creativity?

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How do you express your creativity? Does music put you in the mood, or do you need complete quiet to let the creative juices flow?

For years, scientific research has found that music played at a low volume can enhance a person’s creativity. A new study, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology and reported in Medical News Today, has debunked this notion however. Researchers from three European universities who conducted the study found that quietness or even mild background library noise is more beneficial to creativity than music. It didn’t matter if the music was instrumental, contained familiar lyrics or unfamiliar lyrics. Music of any form impaired a person’s ability to solve tasks involving verbal creativity, such as writing and conversing.

For the study, researchers asked participants were given three words and were asked to add another word to each one to create a new word or phrase. For example, for the words dial, dress and flower, the correct answer was the word sun which created three new words: sundial, sundress and sunflower.

This exercise is an example of Compound Remote Associate Tasks (CRAT) which scientists often use to assess creativity. CRAT demands creative convergent thinking which connects different ideas to determine one correct solution to a problem. This contrasts with Alternative Uses Tasks, which engage “divergent thinking,” meaning that multiple possible solutions are generated.

Researchers found that listening to music disrupted a person’s verbal working memory that supports creative problem-solving in everyday tasks, such as driving, decision-making, conversing, and of course, writing. Even background library noise was a better option than music, the researchers found.

This conclusion contradicts a study from 2012 that found that ambient background noise was an important factor in creative cognition. Research found that a moderate level of ambient noise – about 70 decibels, equivalent to a passenger car traveling on a highway – enhanced creative performance. However, higher levels of noise above 85 decibels hurt creativity by reducing a person’s ability to process information. As noise volume increases, so does one’s level of distraction.

What does this mean for writers, artists, poets and other creative types? It means quieter environments are likely to enhance your creativity outflow. Noisier environments are more distracting. If you enjoy music, perhaps keep it at a low volume so it simply hums in the background.

Other factors also should be considered, such as the type of creative work being performed. Does the task demand verbal working memory for memorizing lines from a play, practicing a speech or writing a poem? Or is the task related to alternative divergent thinking, which allows the mind to wander off in different directions, especially helpful for brainstorming.

If you want to stir your imagination and brainstorm story ideas, go ahead and play music. It will likely stir your imagination. But if you need to resolve a problem or need a fixed solution, like finding the best words to express yourself in a letter, you might want to turn off the music.

Another factor is the person’s personality. Some people, myself included, cannot tolerate high levels of outside stimuli. Others are not only not bothered by outside stimuli, they thrive on it. I admire any person who can zip off a short story while sitting at a local coffee shop with music blaring from the speakers.

There’s one final factor to consider: a person’s mood. Sometimes listening to your favorite music lifts your spirits. When you feel good, the ideas begin to flow.

As writers, bloggers and business communicators, we need to protect our creative resources. It’s one of the most vital resources we have for our work. Minimizing the noise in your environment not only protects your ears, it protects your creative well-being.

Which type of environment works best for your creativity? Do you like to work in a quiet environment, or do you prefer to work with music that inspires you?

Related Stories:
How to Use Music to Boost Your Creativity, Medium.com
How Listening to Music Significantly Impairs Your Creativity, Neuroscience News