Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Can writing be unhealthy? Under the wrong conditions, most things can, but what’s certain is that writing, even when performed with vigor, can still be unproductive. If you write purely for your own enjoyment, or you’re just building up your skills, that’s not a huge problem, but if your aim is to share your art with others, you need to know how to avoid the kind of writing that’ll keep you locked in the same, unproductive cycle: binge writing.
What is binge writing?
Simply put, bingeing is characterized by short, repeated periods of excessive consumption. Binge eaters, for example, don’t just overeat in general, they overeat in bursts – short periods in which established rules and norms of consumption are set aside.
The intent here isn’t to add ‘binge’ writing to the list of medical problems like binge eating, binge drinking, or binge shopping, but the comparison does help characterize a pattern of behavior that may be hurting your writing.
Binge writing, then, is the practice of writing in short, concentrated bursts followed by long periods of inaction until the next frantic impulse to commit words to paper. This type of writing isn’t necessarily a problem, but it often is, and you’d be surprised how many authors it affects.
When is binge writing a problem?
If it’s your habit to write in short bursts until a project is finished and then show it to the world, congratulations – it sounds like you don’t have a problem!
But it’s far more common for binge writing to become a holding pattern for budding authors. The creative spirit and the guilt of not working on their dream builds, and builds, and builds until one day it’s strong enough that they sit and write all day, shrugging off all distractions. Having spent their creative energy and assuaged their guilt, the writing stops for days, weeks, months, until the next burst of apparent creativity.
Part of the problem here is everything you lose when you binge write. Intuitive connections, creative momentum, and details both large and small are squandered as time passes and you become less intimately familiar with what you ‘just’ wrote.
Worse, the distance binge writing tends to put between you and your last block of writing encourages endless rewriting. Rather than gradually improving a whole text, you’re left constantly reworking individual moments. And because you won’t want to waste your rare writing days, you’re likely to keep focusing on the ‘key’ moments of your story. Because of this, years of binge writing can leave you with nothing more than a few massively over-edited scenes that serve to alienate you from a complete work – after all, you’ve been consistently unhappy with this project for years now, and the idea of writing all the ‘filler’ doesn’t exactly fill you with passion.
This is a problem for any writer who can’t let go of a project – we said as much in Here’s How A Tortoise Can Help You Finally Finish Your Novel – but it tends to be especially pronounced for binge writers, who don’t even get the chance to truly cook up a project to let go of.
Causes of binge writing
Like any kind of binge behavior, there are a lot of components to binge writing. The most obvious is the psychological complexity of trying to put art out into the world. There are lots of reasons authors might feel an undeniable need to write (indeed, that might be the best definition of a writer) but just as many why they might be subconsciously afraid to finish a project. These range from the three fears we discussed in Are You Sabotaging Your Own Success? Here’s How To Stop (of failure, success, and even progress) to concerns over impostor syndrome or unhelpful perfectionism.
Another cause of binge writing is the chemical component of bingeing on any behavior that makes you feel good. When we do things that bring us pleasure, our brains release dopamine, and it’s easy to keep repeating unhelpful behavior because we know it’s going to bring us that rush. Spending the day writing, knowing you get to revel in a hefty page count later in the day, can be tempting, and this is part of what leads to binge writers ‘emptying the well’ – Ernest Hemingway’s explanation for how overindulging in your creative output on one day can leave you no resources to draw on for the next.
Finally, there’s the obvious social pressures that lead to binge writing. Bursts of creativity fit around a busy schedule easier than regular writing, and for those who feel like they can’t commit to regular writing, scratching the creative itch on occasion can feel like a good deal.
And maybe it is! If you’re writing to improve your craft or just because it’s part of who you are, sparse bursts of writing are like sparse bursts of exercise – not as beneficial as the ‘little and often’ approach, but definitely better than nothing. If, on the other hand, you want to publish a book, binge writing – in stretching out projects and sapping your enthusiasm – is likely to be more of a hindrance than a help. With that in mind, how can you quit bingeing?
How to stop binge writing
As we’ve discussed above, binge writing is a poor way to get what you want, but it occurs precisely because you want something. There are many different ways of approaching the world, but this will be a useful thought for many authors trying to stop binge writing – there’s a better path to what you want, and binge writing closes it off.
The best approach is to structure regular writing time into your life. ‘Little and often’ is the rule, and while it isn’t as immediately electrifying as writing all day and into the night once a month, it does allow you to retain all the context you need to write a cohesive story.
Hectic lives leave less time for writing, but ‘often’ is contextual – it might mean every day or it might mean once a week. What’s most important is that it’s organized and intentional; you’re planning ahead when you’re going to be productive, not waiting for various mental pressures to build up until ‘inspiration’ can’t be denied.
As you transition to this type of writing, you’re likely to have a lot of unproductive sessions. This is normal, and you can work through it – we train our brains to work in certain ways, and a brain that’s used to working under high pressure needs to adjust to getting ‘in the zone’ on command.
This type of structure shouldn’t just be applied to when you write but how you write. Plan in advance as much as possible: how many words you want to write, what you’d like to cover, how much of your time you’re going to dedicate to improving what you’ve already written (hint: as little as possible, save that for its own session). Even if you’re the kind of person who likes to let their story find them in the writing, you can still plan other aspects of your writing behavior. The more you know in advance, the easier it is to sit and write. To this end, try to make plans for your next writing session at the end of your current session. You should also stop writing while you still know what you want to say next. Both of these techniques will allow you to launch right back into writing when you next sit down to do so.
Be sure to adjust your expectations as you plan – don’t keep shooting for the same word count if you never actually attain it. The satisfaction of meeting small goals is going to help you quit the exhilaration of bingeing out a huge pile of words, so make sure those goals are small enough to be realistic but big enough to strive for.
Finally, learn to set hard rules. These are specific rules that you’ll follow whatever happens. Hard rules only work if you’re cautious with how you set them, but when they do work, each rule carries your resolution forward, retaining the importance of every hard rule you set before it. Hard rules are only for those rules you truly think you can keep to, but if you use them sparingly, they can give you the internal authority to keep your writing healthy. For example, if you know you have a habit of exhausting your creativity, make it a hard rule that you’ll only ever write for three hours at a time. Sticking to that rule the first three times will be hard, but the fourth, fifth, and sixth times, you’ll have the added resolve of not wanting to break a rule you’ve observed so many times.
It’s easy to get caught up in a cycle of binge writing. If it’s making you happy, don’t worry too much – there’s nothing inherently wrong with infrequent bursts of creativity. But if you’ve been stalled on the same project for a long time, doing just enough to feel like you’re still working on it, it may be time to reassess your approach.
Remember that, as with any unhealthy behavior, binge writing is serving a need. It’s not enough to just try and stop binge writing; you need to replace it with another behavior that fulfills that same need in a more constructive way. Of course, not everyone wants their writing to feel regimented, but it’s possible to give yourself a workable structure without turning creative expression into a slog.
Do you struggle with binge writing, or has writing when the mood takes you worked out fine? Let me know in the comments, and check out 8 Steps That Will Help You Start (And Finish) Your Book for more great advice.