How to stop your brain from short-circuiting when you are writing all the time

Image credit: Nilufer Gadgieva

I studied history and international relations in college; my schedule was regularly stuffed with classes like Constructing Hinduism and Islam and Diasporas and Transnationalism. I collected and worked through huge stacks of books, each of which usually came hand in hand with a writing assignment.

When you’re working on three papers at a time all the time, even if you’re as fond of writing as I am, you start to lose your brain a bit.

You see, writing never ends. You’re never done. You could always, always be doing more: rewording that last sentence, finding a better quote in the second paragraph, or restructuring your introduction. Since there’s never a point at which your work is indisputably finished, you have to decide for yourself when to walk away.

And that can be terrifying.

But there are ways to keep yourself sane:

  1. Inject some left-brain activities into your day. When compiling my schedule in college, I would always make sure to have a more quantitative class (science, economics, or foreign language) to balance out all the writing. That way, I could switch from essays over to vocab flashcards when I felt myself start to fall down the rabbit hole; I was still using my time productively, but giving my creative side a bit of a break.
  2. If at all possible, give yourself 24 hours between the writing and editing stages. It’s hard to stop writing, particularly if you can’t shake the feeling that this piece of writing is just not your best. So rather than keep hacking at it, put it away. Get some sleep. Take a look with a fresh pair of eyes the next day and you’ll be surprised how often what looked like a hot mess the day before has mellowed into something that just needs some tweaking.
  3. Separate your content edit from your grammar edit. Don’t try to focus on whether your argument reads clear at the same time as you read for stray commas. You won’t do a good job of either. Instead, read first for big structural things — tracking your thesis statement, making sure your ideas flow logically, etc. — and then, once you’re confident in the information you’re presenting, do a final read that’s only focused on grammar.
  4. Set limits. I’m the kind of person where if I tell myself I have five hours to work on an essay, it will take me the full five hours every time. Even if I only really need three. Sound familiar? Try telling yourself you only have three hours. Chances are if you stick to your guns, you’ll get it done in three.

It’s not easy to create-create-create, but with the right approach, it doesn’t have to eat you alive.

Originally published at on May 29, 2015.