panish romance writer Corin Tellado wrote over 4,000 books, American writer Lauran Bosworth Paine—over 1,000 books of Western fiction, and English romance writer Kathleen Lindsay—over 900 books. What amazing productivity, diligence, and dedication! Can every writer do this?
Probably not. We all have different talents, life circumstances, and writing goals. For instance, Charlotte Brontë published three novels during her lifetime, which have become classics of English literature, and Harper Lee wrote one novel, a masterpiece of modern American literature. Thus, literary heritage does not depend only on prolific writers. However, I believe that all writers could and should improve their productivity to accomplish more.
“There will never be a time when everything in your life is done, set, and perfectly in order, and you can just sit back, relax, and write,” warned Colleen M. Story, author of Overwhelmed Writer Rescue. All of us deal with the reality—go to work, take care of families, do cooking and cleaning—while pursuing our dreams as writers. Suggested methods of increasing productivity will help you make the most of the writing time you have now and create more writing time in the future.
“There will never be a time when everything in your life is done, set, and perfectly in order, and you can just sit back, relax, and write. ”
(Photo: Colleen M. Story)
Finding Time to Write
- Analyze Where Your Time Goes
Record your activities from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for a week by using a daily planner or calendar in your computer. “Be honest,” advises Moira Allen, publisher of Writing-World.com. “If you lingered for an hour over your cereal reading articles about Leonardo DiCaprio, write it down.” You can use Rescue Time, a free online application, tracking your time (productive and distractive) and reporting on how you have spent it.
- Find Time Intervals of Your Maximum Productivity
According to biographer Samuel Johnson, “A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”
Sandra Brown, author of sixty-eight New York Times bestsellers, noted, “I wrote at every single given opportunity.”
Sherrilyn Kenyon, American bestselling writer, commented on her writing habit, “As long as I have a keyboard and can stare into space, I can work.”
Yet many people have their maximum productive hours (usually mornings for “larks” and evenings for “owls”). Write at different times, compare results, and find your most productive hours.
In the late 1980s, Francesco Cirillo, famous for the Pomodoro Technique, came up with the idea of “chunking,” to alternate intervals of work with short breaks. According to studies on high performance, the most effective are working blocks of fifty to sixty minutes followed by a ten-minute break. Why don’t you try this?
Many of us have our “pet time-eaters.” To create more writing time, we must eliminate everything that hinders our writing career. “To do more, first do less,” admonishes Don Aslett, time management expert. “Get rid of unnecessary and unhelpful possessions, activities . . . interruptions, and worries that . . . divert your time and attention from what is important.”
“Begin treating your writing like a second job. That is where your writing schedule plays a critical role.”
(Photo: Kelly L. Stone)
Incorporating Useful Writing Habits
Many successful authors dedicate mornings to their writing. Anthony Trollope, English novelist, considered starting to write at 5:30 a.m. to be the key to his productivity. There are benefits of “having the job done” in the morning and filling the rest of the day with other writing-related tasks (e.g., editing, research, or marketing).
According to Sandra Gerth, author of Time Management for Writers, “No matter what happens during the rest of the day, you already got some writing done. You’ll start the day with the sense of accomplishment.”
- Write Minimum 500 Words Daily
Many successful authors put into practice daily word quotas: for example, Anne Rice, 3,000 words; Maya Angelou, 2,500 words; and Sophie Kinsella, 1,000 words. If you have not developed this habit, start with a realistic goal: write only 500 words, but do it daily. I do not recommend skipping a day and doing “a double portion” the next day because you need to make daily writing one of your writing life’s necessities. If you need support to develop this habit, join for free “My 500 Words - A Writing Challenge” from author Jeff Goins.
- Do Cumbersome Tasks First
According to psychological research, people prefer an improvement of their experiences in their future. Thus, it is more beneficial to perform first your most cumbersome or unpleasant tasks. Every evening, look at your to-do list and determine your “ordeal by fire” for tomorrow: Make a cold call to a prospect? Query a national publication? Plot your story? Do this first when you are energetic, and this accomplishment will boost your energy!
As Don Aslett, author and entrepreneur, observed, “The simple, inexpensive principle of being early will singlehandedly, automatically, for no cost and little effort, prevent about eighty percent of your ‘time management’ and personal and organizational problems.” Beat periodical deadlines by creating earlier ones and meeting them. Calculate how much time you need for research and writing (including rewriting and editing). Be realistic: do not overcommit and exhaust yourself.
Agatha Christie, “Queen of Crime,” admitted, “The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”
As Neil Gaiman, British novelist, stated, “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”
I believe it is extremely important to jot down (on paper or the Word processor) these fleeing ideas. When I have an idea for an article, I open a new file, write the article’s title, outline my future article, and save it in the “Future Projects” folder. Later, when I want to query an editor, I check this folder to see if I already concocted ideas to fit my targeted publication.
When you have your idea, why not use the pre-writing technique? It is simply brainstorming the idea, exploring it from different angles, identifying the audience and potential markets for the finished manuscript.
When I have an idea, I feel inspired: I outline the article (if my piece is for a religious market, I write down appropriate Scriptures) and make a folder on the Internet with reference material. Preliminary work is done. When I am ready to market my piece, I already have plenty of material for a good pitch.
- Think about Your Project Before You Start Working on It
It is great to write while being motivated, but starting on a project may be a challenge. Many of us have our “moments” of staring at a blank sheet of paper or computer screen. It may be difficult to overcome inertia and procrastination. Don Aslett, in his book How to Have a 48-Hour Day, observed highly-productive people who beat the inertia by thinking about their projects before starting to work on them. During my “non-writing” time, I use this technique by thinking, for example, how I will begin my article or what my character will do next. Later, during my writing sessions, I “jump” into my project, feeling inspired and using my writing time efficiently.
- Create a Writing Schedule
“Begin treating your writing like a second job. That is where your writing schedule plays a critical role,” instructs Kelly L. Stone, author of Time to Write. No consensus exists among writers with respect to writing schedules. However, the truth is: unless we treat our writing seriously, it remains just a hobby. Whether you are a full-time freelancer or “weekend” writer, you need to finish your projects.
“Find a schedule to get things done that works for you, and don’t give up until you do find that routine,” encourages Kristi Holl, a juvenile writer. “Otherwise you’ll float, or flounder, through your days, getting little accomplished.”
“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”
Making the Most of Your Writing Sessions
- Use the “Ship Jumping” Technique for Multiple Projects in Progress
The more advanced you are in your writing career, the more projects you have. You need to concentrate on each of them to meet deadlines and produce quality manuscripts. The “ship jumping” technique (a term coined by Don Aslett in How to Have a 48-Hour Day) helps you do it. If you are bored or exhausted by one writing task, switch to another. “Just be sure,” warns Don, “when you leave one ship, you have another to board immediately.” Working this way, you will lose neither your time nor momentum.
Limit your research time on the Internet: take advantage of the online service “Ask a librarian” provided by many public libraries (e.g., www.loc.gov/rr/askalib from the Library of Congress); use meta search engines (e.g., www.dogpile.com) and educational sites with multiple sources (e.g., www.bartleby.com has dictionaries, quotations, encyclopedias, etc.). Instead of visiting libraries, take advantage of online ones: for instance, “The Literature Network” (www.online-literature.com) offers 3,500+ full books and 4,400+ short stories and poems by more than 260 authors.
On the other hand, know when to stop your research. The rule of thumb is five to six pages of research per page of writing. Richard Carlson, in his book Don’t Worry, Make Money, admonishes, “Too much data can convince us that we’re too busy to do what it takes to really succeed.” Keep in mind that research is only a tool to achieve your real goal: writing your manuscript.
- Concentrate on Your Story
“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus,” observed Alexander Graham Bell.
Interruptions are detrimental to productivity: studies prove that it may take a person up to twenty-five minutes to get back on track after the interruption. Therefore, when you have your writing session, block external sources of interruptions and distractions. But it is also important to not let yourself be “led astray” by doing fact checking, looking up quotes, or doing any other task (even relevant to your project). When you write, focus on writing! Do not disrupt the flow of your thoughts. If you need, for instance, to check spelling or find statistics, highlight this portion in your writing and come back later.
- Take Advantage of Technology
Writers should benefit from technology’s advancements. For example, if you need to interview experts for your article, you can use the following online sources to locate them: prnmedia.prnewswire.com, www.experts.com, or www.refdesk.com/expert.html. Later, you can arrange an interview with experts via Skype or Google chat.
When you collaborate on your manuscript, use Dropbox, a free workspace that allows a group of people to work on a document simultaneously.
Though it is a useful habit to encounter your muse in time, to know when to quit your writing session is even more important. “I try not to write beyond a certain point,” shared Scott Spencer, American novelist. “It’s my experience that if I write too much in one day, it kills a couple of days’ work for me after that.”
Although it is tempting to write during one writing session as much as possible, stopping at some “strategic point” enables you to proceed the next day with less pain and frustration. As Ernest Hemingway noted, “I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way, I could be sure of going on the next day.” You, too, need to figure out when you start making your writing worse instead of better, and stop before it has happened. Not allowing yourself to be burned out is one of the basic rules for survival.
“I learned to always take on things I’d never done before. Growth and comfort do not coexist.”
(Photo: Virginia Rometty)
Evaluating Your Working Session
Print what you have done and check it with your to-do list. Did you meet your goals in pages or words? If yes, reward yourself and reset your goals a little higher. If no, can you point to the problem? Did you set unrealistic goals? Then reconsider them because you should not be overcommitted or exhausted. Think what you can do to improve your working sessions and write down specific steps (e.g., every evening put all necessary materials for tomorrow’s session on your working table).
- Determine Steps toward Improvement
Success in every occupation depends on continuous self-improvement. According to Virginia Rometty, CEO of IBM, the secret of her success is simple, “I learned to always take on things I’d never done before. Growth and comfort do not coexist.”
You, too, need to learn new skills by reading books for writers, attending writers’ workshops, and joining writers’ organizations. There are numerous communities for writers that you can join for free, such as WritersCafe.org or Scribophile.
- Maximize Your Typing Time
Isaac Asimov, American sci-fi author, by typing ninety words per minute could compose more than fifty pages daily. While this typing speed is outstanding, every writer can improve her or his typing. You can take free typing lessons at Keybr.com or TypingClub. Another useful skill is to learn keyboard shortcuts, which not only increases your productivity but also helps to prevent Repetitive Syndrome Injury associated with extensive usage of the mouse.
Remember: You do not have to be a writer like Tellado, Paine, or Lindsay to be called “productive.” You do not compete with any other writer, but solely with yourself in reaching your individual writing goals. Incorporating suggested improvements and techniques into your writing life will increase your productivity—and sales. “Define success on your own terms, achieve it by your own rules, and build a life you’re proud to live,” encourages Anne Sweeney (president of Walt Disney).
Tatiana Claudy is a freelance writer from Indiana. Her bylines appeared in Mystery Weekly Magazine; Creation Illustrated; and Travel Thru History, My Itchy Travel Feet, Go Overseas, Writing-World.com, WritersWeekly.com, and FundsforWriters e-publications.
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