Writing Tips for the sleep deprived

When I tell people that I am writing a novel with four young kids at home, the first thing people ask is where I find the time.  And while that can be a challenge, I don’t find it the biggest barrier to my writing.

The biggest barrier I find is the sleep deprivation.

It makes sense.  When you are sleep deprived your brain works at a slower pace.  Your memory is impaired.  So when it is time to come up with a creative solution to a plot hole, or find the perfect metaphor, you come up short.

And even as I write this, with only five hours granted to me by a sick infant, every word that isn’t four letters long takes an extra few seconds to recall.

And yet, despite sleeping through the night 4 times in the last three years, I have finished the first draft of a novel, and written over 100,000 words on several more.

How you ask?  How do you keep writing and growing as a writer when your mind is a sieve?  Well, here are a few tricks I have developed as I have continued to write through the fog.


There are things that come easily for me in writing and things that don’t.  I find dialogue and action flow even when I am tired.  But description, and showing emotions through actions do not.  I also find my vocabulary is reduced when I am over-tired, as it takes a great deal of time to come up with the perfect word.

So rather than wasting precious hours racking my sub-par brain, I use place-setters.  I put a note to myself to add things in later.

In my early years of writing, my place-settings was fjfjfjf.  If I didn’t know what to write at a point, and I wanted to come back to it later, I would just tap my index fingers on the keyboard: fjfjfjf.  That way during edits, it was easy to see where I got stuck.

Overtime my place-setters have become more specific. There is a rthym to a scene; a pacing and structure that is engrained in me from the thousand odd books I have read.  On a day of exhaustion, even though I don’t always have the energy to write out a whole scene, I usually have a sense of what belongs where.

So as I write, I leave notes to Future-Belinda about what needs to be added to the scene.  I write them in capital letters, and come back to them later.  Some might be general like ‘ACTION’ or ‘MORE DESCRIPTION’.  It might be my own critiques of what I already know needs to change like ‘SHOW DON’T TELL’ or ‘NEEDS MORE FEELS’.  Or it might be  more specific like ‘GOOD PLACE FOR A METAPHOR/SIMILIE’ or ‘THINK MORE ABOUT HOW HE IS FEELING HERE’

I don’t write like this every day.  Some days I will write a full scene, with very few place-setters. Some days all I will do is go through a scene and replace the place-setters with better words.  But it is a great way to keep plugging away at the story when I don’t have the mind space to write pretty.


It is probably a good tip, regardless of sleep levels, for writers to make notes as they think of things.  I often recall Roald Dahl’s story about writing “ELEVATOR” in the mud on his car when he first came up with the idea for ‘Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator’.  But this is even more the case when you are sleep deprived.

I have a great memory for my stories, and back in the days of eight-hours sleep, I wouldn’t always take notes on the go, because most of the time I could recall my ideas when I was finally back at my computer.  No longer!  It is hard enough to remember what I am doing the next day, much less intricate details of plot.  I sometimes even find myself searching for a scene in my manuscript, only to discover I haven’t written it yet.

So keep notes.  Your weary-brain will thank you.


It is the classic advice that almost every writer will give you when you ask the question: ‘What is the most important thing you can do to improve your writing?’ Read.  But when life gets busy I can forget the importance of this, as I find it hard to justify reading when there is so much writing to do.

But my writing is so much better when it is feed from a steady diet of wonderful books.  Reading isn’t an optional extra for writers.  It is a key aspect of the process.

And reading is so much easier than writing when you are sleep-deprived!  So take advantage of that.  If you have had a rough night, then turn away from your computer/notebook and pick up a book.  Your manuscript will be better for it.


This might seem an odd point in a post about writing through sleep deprivation.  But I think it needs to be said.

My observation of myself and my writing friends is there is often a huge sense of urgency to writing.  It takes a great deal of time to write a novel.  And so many of us look back on our early years of dreaming of writing a novel and yet not taking the steps to do it and think ‘what a waste’

And so, at times like this, when kids are little or work is overwhelming or other commitments get in the way, we are determined to press through regardless.

But sometimes you have to be kind to yourself.

If you are too tired to write, that is okay too.

Or it might mean what you write needs to change.  I have always found writing to be a cathartic experience; writing is how I think, process and make sense of this world.  But in the haze of sleeplessness, adding in the pressure of deadlines or negative critiques or writers-despair isn’t a great for your mental health.  Much better to take a break from the most challenging parts and to write in a journal, blog about fun things, or even work on a new story just for the fun of it.

It may be that this is not the right time to write your novel.  And that is okay.


So, those are my tips for writing through sleep-deprivation.  Yes it has its challenges.  But it can be done.

It Won’t Always Be

backlight backlit countryside dusk

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Pexels.com


I sit on the couch, my little snotter-rella curled up in my lap.  The sky is that slate grey that precedes the dawn.  I know I should get up and write but she is warm and cuddley and not quite ready to start the day.  And either am I.

I don’t usually get SAD.  I don’t mind the cold.  Sunny Winter days are one of my favourite dressings for Melbourne, when the steam huffs from my lips and the air feels clean and pure.  But this winter is different.  I have been sick through the whole thing, my nose and throat taking turns complaining the most, with a week of my congested chest entering the competition.  The kids don’t want to go outside, even though I know they need the fresh air almost as much as I do.  So me and the not-yet-able-to-consciously-object one go out during television time, as she babbles in all her layers on a mat and I walk laps around the outdoor table and swing-set.

It has been a winter where I have 1000 balls in the air, and a few falling to the ground with a splat.  Appointments and applications and emails and- oh wait, did I make that payment?  I am that unfortunate personality combination of scatterbrained and conscientious.  I believe in being reliable, but my life rarely lets me reach my own high standards. I spend far too much time mourning the stains on the floor.

It has been a winter of tiredness.  Not the mind-numbing tiredness of non-sleeping twins.  A nefarious tiredness that you don’t know you feel, that makes you irritable and down, but you blame everything else in your life except the late nights and early mornings.

Yesterday I managed to get a hesitant young-man out the door for five minutes.  “I want to see the flowers.  Let’s go out long enough to see the flowers.” Cherry-blossoms, cascading down it’s willow-like branches, a water-fall of pink perfume.  Is it just me or do the blossoms come out earlier every year?  I lifted him up so he could catch the scent, before we returned to the cocoon of bricks and central heating.

I like winter, but I love spring.  Different flowers making an appearance each week.  European branches reclaiming the title of green.  It’s not always warm, but there is an air of excitement as I scroll the weeks weather.  Ups and downs and occasional twenties, instead of the endless parade of “cloudy top of 12, cloudy top of 12, cloudy top of 12.”

“The sky is white, it is morning time!”  Sometimes I forget that Miss Three can’t tell time.  That when we get up in the dark she doesn’t know how close we are until the dawn.  But it is here- streaks of blue through the white.  Rumours of showers and 14 were greatly exaggerated.

I wipe both our noses and we get off the couch, ready to start the day.

It is still winter.  But it won’t always be.