One of the main questions that I get asked in my work as a writing coach is “how can I become more productive as a writer?” Modern life is full of distractions and most of us are juggling many roles at one time. It is hard sometimes to set aside our other commitments and take time out to do work which is important and yet – if we’re not on an external deadline – not urgent.
It is easy to put our writing off until “tomorrow” yet the problem with tomorrow is that it never comes. It’s worth noting that if we decide to write only when we have a decent three hour slot, say once a fortnight, then we might produce, for example, 1500 words in that slot, which equates to 39,000 words a year. If however, we decide to find a single hour, five days a week, for writing and produce 500 words in that hour, then we will produce 130,000 words in a year. That’s quite a difference.
I am not saying that productivity is the most important yardstick by which to measure our writing. Of course it is not. Personally, I’d far rather produce an excellent novel over three years than a shoddy one in a year. The point I’m making however is that if we work regularly, our work grows faster. Regular work is also likely to deepen a book because if you engage with your subject matter more frequently, it is more likely to occupy your subconscious and your conscious mind during the rest of the day, and thus you will be doing what I call (in my very scientific lingo) “working when you’re not working”. In other words, you’re not likely to engage subconsciously with the problem you’re having with your plot if you only pause to consider your novel once a fortnight. But if you just touch base with it every day, even for a short period, your mind will get working on the problem, even when you’re walking to work or doing the washing up.
If you would like to be more productive as a writer, here are my key tips:
- Decide how much time you can realistically give to your writing each week. For example, two hours, twice a week. In those four hours, you might produce around 2000 words which equates to 104,000 words a year. Even the busiest person can generally find four hours if they try hard enough. Can you commit to this? If so, do post a comment below as a mark of your own commitment.
- I highly recommend time-management guru Mark Forster’s idea. He says that you should “just open the file”. You can kid yourself into writing by telling yourself that each day you will simply “open the file”. You’ll be pulled into the work and do more than you’d intended.
- Find someone or a group of people to be accountable to. In my Facebook group for clients, we have a regular Monday morning accountability post. We did this when I ran an online club for writers too and I know that this little trick alone made an enormous difference to the writers who were members.
- When you plan your daily work, keep it simple and focus on your three most important tasks. I learnt this from Leo Babauta at Zen Habits. Every day I still write my main three tasks in a small Moleskine journal. It helps to keep me really focussed on what is important on any particular day.
- When you plan your time, where possible always put the writing first. If you have a choice between writing and answering your email (and you’re not at work with your boss looking over your shoulder), then just write. Do important tasks first and you’ll move ahead with all of your goals more quickly.
- What can you give up in order to find more time to write? Is there a committee that you sit on that you only attend out of a vague sense of duty? Do you really get pleasure out of your book club or does it simply mean that you have to read books you wouldn’t choose to read (which also takes up time)? I’m not saying that book clubs are a bad thing – I love mine and wouldn’t be without it. I’m simply saying that whatever takes up your time potentially takes time away from writing. Consider your priorities carefully.
- Be aware of your own rhythms. Remember, the only way NOT to be productive is not to write at all! Find the best time of day for you and work then. One person who attended a teleclass on productivity I ran said, “While I have been angsting about not being as productive as some of the more macho, gung-ho writers of my acquaintance, I have been ignoring my own work rhythms and ways to get things done.” I do have a tip to pass on which it only occurred to me the next morning when I woke up, inspired by the conversation. I have become more productive this week since I “limited” the amount of time I write every week. Instead of setting “Sunday afternoon ” aside as writing time, I have limited myself to 60 minutes every morning, over coffee, and 60 minutes in the evening, with a glass of wine. But 60 minutes, and nothing else – no reading, no revising, no email. The rest of the day is free for work, family, reading, or mucking about. I’m doing about twice as much work now as I was a week ago.
- Another person attending that class said: “I still keep paper and pencil available wherever I go. I have now included keeping my hand-held recorder with me wherever I am. When I go to bed, I make sure it is on the nightstand. I have even carried it with me when I am out walking around my property, I try to remember to put it in my pocket and if I have forgotten and words start flowing, I head to the house to get it. I live and breathe my book(s) and am constantly thinking of what needs to be included to put in them and how to word them. Using the small recorder is invaluable when I need to include much more than just a few “tickler” words. I speak into it in paragraphs instead of those few short words.” Yesterday I had a meeting with a client and we talked about how useful she is finding the iPad in this respect, as you can write longhand on the tablet and change it into typescript.
- Do remember that it is more important to get the words down than it is to “get it right”. At the inception stage of a work, we should ideally get into a more diffuse “right-brained” mode of working, allowing ourselves to free-write, to dream, to journal. In the words of Hemingway, “every first draft is shit”. Don’t let the inner-critic get in the way at this stage. Only later, once the voice has formed, once you know your characters and main story thrust should you allow your “left-brained” mode more sway. At that stage more planning becomes important.
- For me, the most important productivity tip of all is to only write what you are passionate about. If you have a genuine fascination in your material, you will be drawn back to it all the time; you won’t be able to leave it alone.
I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface here, but I hope some of these ideas have inspired you to find more time for writing in your everyday life. I would love to hear your ideas for productive writing – please do share in the comments. I’m looking forward to your thoughts.