A few years ago, when my four children were all under the age of 7, I did some crazy stuff for writing time. I woke up early. Like, before dawn early. Then I would sit at my desk and try to write intelligent things.
I did write, but it wasn’t always intelligent, or even intelligible.
But I wrote.
And I learned. There are inefficient ways to write, and efficient ways to write. Efficiencies are not tricks. They are principles. I treat them like rules. Rules that help me get a maximum amount of writing done in a minuscule amount of time.
I had this idea that once the kids were all potty-trained and reasonably independent, I wouldn’t need to be so protective of and efficient with my writing time.
That’s a sweet, funny, completely unrealistic idea.
Life never simplifies on its own, does it?
There are my rules for being a prolific writer even if life is crazy, time is limited, and nothing’s simple. These rules help me make the most of the time I have for writing. Maybe they can help you, too.
Rule 1: Treat writing as a process, not a single activity.
Writing is a process.
The picture in your head of “sitting down and writing” is one step in that process. There are other parts that don’t show up in our mental picture: parts like collecting ideas, keeping notes, being observant, thinking about plot and structure and character, researching, developing ideas, making connections, reading, resting, editing, getting feedback, coming up with a structure, and so on.
Writing is a process, not a single activity.
Bits of time
If you see writing as an ongoing process—a connected series of tasks—you can find pockets of time to use for different writing tasks. You can write an outline in a waiting room. You can edit a post before bed. You can develop an idea while you’re walking, then take five minutes to record your thoughts.
There’s flexibility in the order of the writing process. Some tasks can be combined. But sometimes you combine too many tasks (or the wrong ones) and make things more difficult.
For example, if you’re trying to develop an idea and come up with a structure and write a draft all at the same time, you’re going to struggle. You’re going to waste time.
Instead, see each of those items as a separate task. Focus on one: develop an idea. Then the next: create an outline, which gives you a structure to follow. Then you’re ready for the next task: writing the first draft.
It may seem counter-intuitive to separate writing into multiple tasks, but it isn’t. Writing already is a series of tasks. When you recognize that, and give each task the time and attention it requires, you’ll complete it more efficiently.
Increased writing confidence
Failing to recognize and separate the various tasks of writing can mess with your writing mojo, too. If you don’t realize that multitasking is causing you to be inefficient, you’ll look for something else to blame. That something else is usually yourself.
Writers are awesome at self-criticism.
You can end up questioning your own abilities, feeling slow or inept or unqualified, and dismissing your talent. Those feelings make writing more difficult.
When you use bits of time to tackle different writing tasks, you can always make progress on something.
That’s good. It’s encouraging. Progress creates progress. Momentum builds up more momentum.
Stuck on a piece? No problem. Switch to another task related to that piece, or switch to a different piece. Don’t sit there feeling stuck. Do something different.
The power of batch processing is only possible when you see writing as a series of tasks, rather than as a single activity. Batch processing can make a huge difference in how you write, how much you can write, how well and efficiently you write, and your enjoyment in writing.
Process a whole bunch of ideas into outlines in one session. Get in the groove and get to work. An hour later, you might have five detailed outlines ready to be turned into drafts.
You can apply the same concept to any task that’s part of the writing process.
Rule 2: Build a solid foundation for writing.
Efficient writers create a lifestyle that feeds their writing.
I’m talking about ongoing, daily habits that contribute to a productive mindset that supports your writing. This is craft-focus. This is love of story. This is story-obsession. This is a mindset that writers need to have.
Can you develop this mindset if you don’t already have it, naturally? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But if you do already have the tendency—the obsession with words and story and learning—make the most of it. Consciously build habits that support your writing obsession.
(Did I say that writing efficiently is about balance? Because it’s not. Obsess over what you love. It’s fun. Go for it.)
Essential supportive habits
I think of these habits as Stage 0 of the writing process. They are foundational. They support all the other tasks of writing.
Here are the habits that I suggest:
- Reading. Reading books. Less online reading, more book reading. Lots of reading. Wide and copious amounts of reading. Read everything. Branch out. Read all genres. Read, read, read.
- Taking notes. Write things down, all the things. Log stuff. Note it. Carry a notebook. Don’t trust yourself to remember it. Put it down and clear your brain. Create flow.
- Keeping a journal or diary.
- Free writing. I think of free writing as different than journaling. To me, journaling is about recording your life, your feelings, your experiences; free writing is anything. I start every day by writing three pages by hand (journaling). Then, most days, I move to my computer and free write at least 1000 words. No topic, no editing, just practice. It’s like a musician playing scales.
- Deliberate and careful use of social media. There are so many reasons this is important for writers (and any creatives).
- Observing. Put your damn phone down and pay attention to the world. Observation is a key skill. Listen to conversations. Watch how people move. Notice their quirks and body language and little habits. Notice the details of your environment. Look at colors. Listen to sounds. Feel what’s around you. Think of ways to describe everything. Record dialogue. Imagine backstory. Tune in, tune in, tune in.
There are more habits that can fuel your writing and help you to be a better, more efficient writer. But the ones above are the most important. Start there.
Rule 3: Develop each idea before you start writing it.
My experience here applies to nonfiction. I’m less experienced in writing fiction, and it seems that novelists have different approaches. Some like to plot everything out. Some like to follow the story or character and see how the plot develops.
Let’s talk about nonfiction writing.
A typical approach to nonfiction writing looks like this:
- Have an idea.
- Think about for a minute, or make a note of it.
- Come back to it.
- Decide you like it.
- Start writing it.
Two kinds of struggle are most common: the blank-page struggle, and the word-vomit struggle.
The blank-page struggle
You haven’t developed the idea. You like the idea. You want to write about the idea. You start writing, but you haven’t explored the idea enough to know what you want to write. You pound out a few sentences, then stare at the page. And stare. And pound out another sentence. And wait. And think. And look out the window. And curse. And stare at the page. It’s not filling up.
You begin to question how much you like the idea. Maybe it’s stupid. Maybe you’re stupid. You don’t know anymore. You think you might hate writing. You force yourself to keep at it, but you end up with very little to show for your time. You blame yourself or you blame the idea, but that’s not the real problem.
The word-vomit struggle
You haven’t developed the idea. You like the idea. You want to write about the idea, but you’re not sure what you want to say. You start writing and just say everything. Every word. Every possible connection. Every anecdote. Every story. Every example. Every definition.
You’re writing and writing, spewing words onto the page, without any sense of whether they belong. By the end, you’ve got paragraphs and pages but you have to cut a majority. There’s no organization and no sense of restraint or flow. It’s word-vomit, not good writing.
When you don’t follow this rule, you’re trying to figure out WHAT to write while at the same time trying to figure out HOW to write it. That’s no good. It’s inefficient.
Internal idea development
Consistent writers often learn to develop their ideas mentally, internally, before they start writing. (I suspect this is what many “follow the story” novelists do, as well.)
Expert writers know their topics so well that they often have an automatic, internalized process of idea development in their areas of expertise.
If you haven’t learned how to mentally develop an idea before writing, you need to consciously and externally spend time on it. Doing so results in better writing and a more efficient writing process.
Improved writing quality
When you develop an idea before you write it, you’ll come up with better material. Writing as you develop an idea puts pressure on you; you’ll end up using the first image or story or example that comes to mind.
Taking time to develop an idea gives you the space and freedom to play around and hunt out the better material. You can come up with amazing stories, images, anecdotes, examples, studies, metaphors, evidence, etc., if you give yourself the time to do so.
You can develop ideas by making lists, making notes, asking questions, sketching, mind-mapping, researching, and creating outlines.
Efficient writing means more writing
I’m not dealing with diaper changes, hungry toddlers, and nap times anymore. I am fending off other distractions and interruptions, plus my own tendencies to procrastinate, be indecisive, feel unqualified, and overthink everything.
The rules I learned to maximize my time then continue to serve me well. And I’m glad, because I’ve always got ideas, stories, and projects in my head. The more efficient I can be, the more I get to write.