“A dream is just a dream. A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline.”
– Harvey Mackay
Writing is hard work. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Sure, there are overnight sensations from unlikely sources, but most books have authors who put time and effort into becoming better writers and supplying their readers with the best possible work. Sometimes, writing a single book can take years. Other times, with a series contracted and a deadline to meet, authors are given less than a year to race to the finish line of their latest creation.
It’s no wonder that writing can take a long time; how do people fit it in when there’s work to be done, bills to pay, and friends and family to enjoy in the downtime? Everyone has days where we come home and just want to slug out in front of the television, or maybe curl up with a book and enjoy someone else’s writing rather than supply our own.
The best way to be productive, though, is to set deadlines and schedule serious writing time. If professional authors are penning doorstoppers in under a year, there’s no reason we aspiring writers can’t do the same. Here’s an idea of how to schedule writing around even the busiest life, and tips on how to make deadlines work for you instead of the other way around!
Thirty Minutes a Day
Infomercials for exercise videos pitch “thirty minutes a day” all the time, and writers can find that time, too. Before work, during lunch, in the evening, after dinner, before bed–somewhere in even a busy schedule, there are thirty minutes for important tasks that we maybe want to ignore in favor of relaxation. You don’t have to sacrifice all of your breathing moments, though!
Find out what time of day you work best; try some writing warm-ups (explained below) at different times of day for thirty minutes, and see which period works best for you. Once you know when your creative juices flow best, try to set aside that time every day, or every other day, for writing.
Professional writers don’t wait until inspiration strikes; they must stick to a schedule or else their work won’t come out on time. Don’t sit back waiting for an idea to come to you. Motivation is fickle and easily distracted; how many times have you felt the urge to write only to look up an hour later after compiling a perfect playlist to accompany your work or scouring Wikipedia for “research,” and find yourself drained of the will to write? For me, it happens all the time. If you set aside thirty minutes strictly for writing every day, you’ll get into a rhythm and make progress more consistently.
If you’re on a roll and able to continue, go for it! However, planning out one- or two-hour writing sessions can be draining for folks whose primary occupation isn’t writing, and trying to do more will only frustrate writers when they get distracted or don’t accomplish all they thought they would in that time. Keep your writing time manageable, and you can rock thirty minutes of new material.
Time and Place
OK, so you’ve found the thirty minutes that work best for you. Try also to write in the same place every day. Whether it’s at the kitchen table, at your desk, or on the subway, choose a workplace that helps you get in the zone. Hit the library on your lunch break if you’re looking for quiet, or slip into a coffee shop if the lull of early-morning chatter and elevator music speaks to you. J.K. Rowling wrote chunks of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in a cafe while her daughter was napping in her stroller. A friend of mine once told me that she kept her laptop beside her bed and would write for half an hour every morning before she allowed herself physically to get out of her bed.
Everyone has a different system, and everyone finds creativity in different places! Some need absolute quiet, and others can’t function without background noise. Some people like to work with music blasting out of their speakers, and others would prefer to be able to concentrate in peace. Like with the time of day, find the place that works best for you. Even if you think you know what setting works best, try new venues. I was always sure that my best work came out of the silence of libraries, but I’m very much so a cafe writer; if I can’t get out to (or afford, haha) a coffee or sandwich shop, I turn on classical music and leave my window open to let in the neighborhood noises while I work from home.
Some folks work better on a computer, others prefer handwriting. Pens, pencils, markers, keyboards—use what works best for you. That’s all the advice I can give here. There’s no right or wrong method for getting your thoughts down!
Word Counts and Page Counts
Some authors work by word or page counts instead of timing their writing. For example, a writer may sit down and not get up until they’ve added 500 words, and others will strive for 10 pages of work before rest. These aren’t bad ways to organize your writing time, though they’re not as accommodating for folks with full schedules.
Should you choose to organize this way instead, again, shoot for reasonable. At least for me, if I’m really in the writing zone, a page of writing will take anywhere from 10-15 minutes, and everyone works differently. For some people, a page could take 5 or 6 minutes, and for others, it could take 20. Work at your own pace.
Four pages of writing roughly translates to 1000 words; that’s about the maximum I would suggest for a daily writing goal. As you adjust to your schedule and begin to work more efficiently, you can definitely up your goals, but 1000 words is a lot more work than many realize. For folks just starting out with serious writing, I’d recommend a goal of 300 words. 500-800 is a good range for writers working on a busy schedule, and again, 1000 is the cap for goals.
Think of it this way: if you start out planning to write 300, that’s quite manageable–it’s about a page, a page-and-a-half of writing, depending on how you’re splitting up your paragraphs. If you get in the zone and write twice that, you feel pretty rad about your goal! If you’re consistently writing more than 300 words, you can up your goal to 600 and work from there. However, when you plan to write 1000 words and barely manage 500, you can be disheartened–even though 500 words a day is excellent progress! Writers would kill for that kind of productivity.
Page counts may be fickle when typing; computers all process differently, and sometimes a 200-page novel can go all funky and show up as 180 pages on a different machine. However, pages are the optimum way to figure out your writing goals when using pen and paper. If you plan to write 5 or 10 pages worth of new material in a notebook, that’s a lot easier than trying to count out even 300 handwritten words.
Check it, you’ve already got thirty minutes of writing time in your daily calendar, and your writing zone in front of you. Now you’ve just got to get inspiration to show up to those appointments, right?
Start off your thirty minutes of writing with five or ten minutes of writing warm-ups. Searching for writing prompts is simple enough with your preferred search engine, and I hope to post some ideas of my own in future blog entries. Make sure that your warm-up involves your actually writing; don’t let it be “research” or playlist-building, activities that quickly distract you from your goal.
Try making lists or penning “future deleted scenes.” This is one of my favorite warm-ups–I like to write interactions between my characters that don’t really fit into the narrative I’m actually writing. Sometimes I’ll have two characters who haven’t met meet, just to see what they’d say, or I work on a nonsense conversation outside of the plot. It helps me to get into the voices of the characters I want to write, but without the pressure of making sure that what I’m putting down will pay off in the overall draft.
About a year-and-a-half ago, I saw Kirk Thornton—a voice actor, director, and script writer I admire—speak about his experience of getting into character. Before going into reading the new script, he would have a certain catchphrase or favorite line that he would say in that character’s voice. Doing this would help him get in the zone for whichever role he had to play.
This is pretty spiffy advice for writers as well! When you’re warming up, try to bring it back to the piece you’re hoping to work on. Write a silly conversation between your characters, pen a poem that speaks to the theme of the scene you’re about to tackle, or make lists of all the sights, smells, and colors you associate with the setting you’re creating.
Some writers may want to include their five or ten minutes of warming up into their thirty minutes, and others may warm up first and then dive into thirty minutes of writing for real; do what works best for you. Those thirty minutes are all about your creative writing, so use them the way you want.
How NOT to Use that Precious Time
…with a few exceptions, of course!
Do your research first. If you have to spend a Saturday at the library checking out books and taking notes, do so. Come to your thirty minutes prepared to write. When you’re warming up or practicing writing exercises, you’re actively producing creative work, which is pushing you into productive territory. Reading someone else’s work, watching a video, or playing a game may relax or inspire you, but they’re time-consuming activities that take away from the precious thirty minutes you’ve carved out for yourself. Particularly for those writers on a tight schedule, it’s hard to make up the lost time.
Turn off your internet. You can spell-check on word processors, and fact-checking is for research time, not writing time. Even having e-mail and social media potentially available to you can be dangerous. Don’t let yourself fall prey to distractions. For thirty minutes, the world (wide web) can go on without you, and vice versa. You can check up on what you missed on minute thirty-one, I promise.
I think I may have veered a bit off-topic from my post title, but all of these sections are definitely related to fostering a better writing schedule. Find a time and place that work for you, and commit yourself to writing for thirty minutes, OR writing 500 words, OR writing 4 pages worth of new material. Don’t let yourself be distracted, and if you can work your way up to a more rigorous writing session–or if you are so inspired you just can’t stop–right on! Or, write on, if you will. :)
What are some of your favorite writing warm-ups? Do you have a writing schedule you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments! I’m always looking for new motivation and inspiration.