Home » Writing Advice » When the Words Refuse to Speak, Use Torture

When the Words Refuse to Speak, Use Torture

When I was a kid, I wrote effortlessly. Not well by today’s standards, I’m sure. Definitely not well by my standards. But I wrote every day, for hours, without thinking about form or technique or word choice. It was the most natural thing in the world. I’d go to the store, buy a notebook, and fill it up with a story over the course of a weekend.

Back in those days, I finished things: stories about horses, about amazons (man, was I ever fascinated by amazons), about alchemy and magic. I didn’t learn how to write. I simply wrote. And as I practiced, I discovered my voice.

And then I started my first “true” novel at twelve years old: my self-proclaimed magnum opus. I had dreams of publishing with DAW, seeing my name in print as my characters ran rampant in the minds of my readers. But with the birth of my voice came the birth of something else: my perfectionism. And with the birth of perfectionism came a bad, bad habit: the refusal to finish a story that I deemed unfit for human consumption (which was just about everything I wrote, by the way). So I began rewriting that self-proclaimed magnum opus. Over and over. For ten years. I’d get to a point — somewhere halfway in the current version — and then I’d toss it. To be honest I have over twenty different versions of that story saved somewhere with a word count probably totaling well over 200,000 words. And yet I’ve never finished any of those drafts.

TortureThe good news is that I began to actually learn a thing or two about writing. The downside, though, was that I was letting my perfectionism win — to the point that, eventually, I was refusing to write words altogether if I didn’t feel they were the right ones. By the time I reached my 20s, I quit trying to write that magnum opus altogether.

So confessions aside, I’ve been struggling to regain control of my writing. What has been the most effective option?  Torture.

On W&W a few days ago, I mentioned that I tried out (forced myself to use) one of those online writing applications — you know, the ones that won’t let you delete no matter how many times you slam your finger on the backspace button. Torture, I tell you. The thing is, it seems to be working (the program, not the backspace button). For the past week, I’ve been writing an average of 3,000 words a day. What normally would have taken me 6-7 hours and burned me out for weeks on end took one hour max and didn’t leave me feeling as if I’d been slamming my head against a large pile of firewood for half a day. The prose may not have been up to par with my perfectionist standards, but it was understandable enough that the other Muses didn’t run away screaming.

For the first time in probably 10 years, I’ve been writing fiction effortlessly. Like a child. Not well by today’s standards, not well by my own, but well enough to keep going. Well enough to tell my perfectionism, “Sorry, we’re closed for vacation. Come back (or don’t) later.”


If, like me, you have trouble finishing: Try one of these applications and see if it helps. Give it more than five seconds (this is for people who are as resistant and stubborn as I am). Keep going back, again and again, until you’ve learned to suppress the backspace demon.

ilys: This is my current favorite, so it gets the top spot. You put your word count in at the beginning, hit start, and then you’re stuck looking at a large box that only permits one letter at a time. One letter. You like seeing the whole word? Not today! Perfect for people who constantly go back and reread as they’re writing.

Write or Die: This program doles out consequences or rewards, depending on your progress, and is therefore intended to motivate you with the threat of well-meaning torture. If you’re the kind of person who only runs when you’re being chased or refuses to back down from a challenge, then perhaps this one will work well for you. They have a free online version and a downloadable (but not free) desktop version.

Written? Kitten!: Do you spend hours of potential writing time looking at cat pictures? Look no more. With this program you can kill two birds words with one stone. Set your word count, reach it, and voila: a cat photo. The program also has the option of puppies or bunnies, if cats aren’t for you.

Scrawl: Scrawl uses the power of sound as motivation. You start stalling with the word count? Your ears will be begging you to write, write, write. It’s just annoying enough that you’ll probably listen (to your ears, that is). The rest of the site is pretty cool. Give it a look.

Have you tried one of these programs? What do you do to maintain your word count? Do you have stories of slaying your inner perfectionist demons? Let me know in the comments!

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10 thoughts on “When the Words Refuse to Speak, Use Torture

  1. I do like ilys the best so far. it forces me forward, but it’s just new enough that it helps me overcome resistance to beginning. 🙂

  2. Great resources! I didn’t even know programs like this existed! I work best under a deadline of some kind, but since I don’t have an agent or editor yet, the only deadlines are ones I give myself… and those don’t work very well. So I have my beta-readers give me a firm deadline for when they expect the next manuscript, and when I can feasibly achieve it since I have so little time to sit down for a stretch and just write. But, I either get a ton of writing done (last weekend was 12,000 words) or very little (500 or less). I might try one of these just to see if it helps.

    And yes, I’m a perfectionist, too, and I’m unable to not backspace when I see a mistake or when I want to immediately change something. I’m terrible at waiting to edit. I do it a lot as I go along, which I know is not the best idea. Oh well.

    • I didn’t know those types of programs existed until recently either, and at first I was skeptical (aka: stubborn). I tried Write or Die first, but it didn’t work for me. If it started deleting words that I’d written because I was stalling, I found I didn’t care. (I was thinking, “Oh, I was going to delete this whole scene anyway, thank you very much!”) But ilys was a pleasant surprise.

      It’s great that your beta readers hold you to your deadlines. The working under pressure method seems to help give us perfectionists that extra push. I’m glad you have found something that works for you. And, yes, people tell me also not to edit as I go, but I’ve come to regard it as part of my process. Everything in moderation, right? 🙂

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! If you try one of the programs, let me know how it goes.

  3. What an honest post, Michelle. Thank you. I’m a recovering perfectionist and have fortunately cut myself some serious slack with my writing. I know the first draft is supposed to suck and somehow let that be okay. I wasn’t aware of these programs, so it’s awesome information.

    • Recovering perfectionists. We should come up with a program: Perfectionists Anonymous, maybe? PA.

      Regardless, I’m glad to read that you’re succeeding! The first drafts suck. We know that, but I guess perfectionists simply have a hard time accepting it. I’m getting there though, slowly.

    • Thanks for sharing! I’m hoping to get to that point, too, where I won’t even need a program to help me.

  4. Pingback: Write or Die, and Other Useful Writing Applications | Words and Wanderings

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