I’ve been a professional freelance writer for 14 years. I say professional to indicate that I get paid for writing. I say freelance to indicate that I work independently: I find my own clients (or they find me).
In my professional capacity as a writer, I do a lot of blogging, executive ghostwriting, and content strategy & creation (for app devs, usually). I also write about writing (as you can see from this post).
Along with that stuff, I always have a side project or two trucking along: a novel, short stories, a topical blog on something I’m interested in, a short nonfiction ebook, whatever.
I’m a writer because I like writing; it’s both my profession and my hobby. Not my only hobby. I also like reading. See how well-rounded and diverse I am? Yep. That’s me.
While being a writer, I’ve always worked from home, while also raising our four kids. I didn’t have four all at once, fortunately. They came one by one. So in the last fourteen years, I’ve been pregnant four times, and given birth (four times!) and breastfed (four years!) and potty trained (five times; the first time didn’t take for one of my children, who shall remain nameless. No worries, it’s all good now).
And now you’ll think, “Ah, but she had those hours when they were off at school!”
But no, I did not. We’ve home educated our kids for all but 1 1/2 years. And in those 1 1/2 years — when they were not homeschooled — I was working a full-time job as VP of Content for a tech start-up. And also writing.
I share my background to tell you that a strict daily routine, with a steady, consistent, BIG block of time, is not a necessity for writing. It’s a luxury.
You can write a significant amount, an actual body of work, in the edges of your time. It can be frustrating and, at times, discouraging. But if you learn a few tricks, you can minimize the frustration and keep making progress. And if you make progress, even just a little bit a day, you’ll keep discouragement away.
Bonus: you’ll be thousands of words ahead of 99% of those wanna-be writers, who prefer talking about writing to actual writing.
Maybe that’s a low-class form of motivation, but hey. I’m a bit competitive.
Run the Numbers
If you write 250 words a day for 365 days, you’ve got over 90,000 words written. That’s a novel.
How much is 250 words? About a page. A few paragraphs. This post is almost to 250 words right now.
Many writers, especially new writers, think they have to write some huge amount in order to finish something. No, you don’t.
The key to finishing something is to keep writing it.
The trick is consistency. If you find 30 minutes, or maybe 1 hour, you can write 250 words or more every day. If you do that consistently, you’ll also get faster at writing. So your rate will improve. For the first few months, maybe you’ll write 250 words in that hour. But then you’ll increase. Soon you might be writing 500 or 1000 words in an hour.
But if not, that’s okay, too.
Aim for Consistency
Consistency is the big secret for writing a big thing. A little bit every day, or almost every day, adds up to a big thing over time.
Maybe you want to write shorter things, like poems or blog posts. Consistency is the key for those, as well. A blog post of about 500 words? You can write that in two days, if you aim for 250 words a day. If 250 is too much (and it might be, at first), then go for 100 words a day. In five days, you’ve written a blog post.
Aim for Progress
You want to keep forward movement. Writers are prone to harsh self-criticism, which leads to discouragement. You might get a good writing streak going, and then miss one day. You might be tempted to beat yourself up about it, which makes you feel worse.
When you feel bad about writing, guess what?
You don’t want to write.
Make progress your goal in writing. Forward movement. That’s what you want. You miss a day, or a week, or a weekend? Okay! Whatever. None of that can undo the writing you’ve already done. And none of that can stop the writing you’ll do in the future. Perfectionism — either in the quality of your work, or in the way you stick to your writing aspirations — will discourage you, because it’s impossible to be perfect. Progress is a better goal.
Have a Plan
When you’re writing in a limited amount of time, you don’t want to spend half the time deciding what to write. So take an hour or so to make a list of things you want to write.
If it’s a novel, you might list a few chapters, or scenes. You don’t have to be detailed.
Give yourself enough to go on. When you start writing, you want to be able to glance at your list and then jump in.
Writing Time is for Writing
You don’t have to do your writing at the same time every day, but it’s a good idea to follow one rule: When you say it’s time for writing, only write.
Writing time is for writing: nothing else.
This tip alone is enough to get you pretty far as a writer.
Separate Editing from Writing
Writing is a process, and when you try to do all the parts of the process at once, you’ll slow yourself down.
When you’re writing, only write. Do not proofread. Do not edit. Do not research. Do not email a friend for their opinion. Do not read similar stuff to get some ideas. Only write.
If you have ideas or notes that come up in writing, jot them down in a notebook or Notes app. You can come back to them later.
Find an Easy Method of Writing
Another thing writers often do to procrastinate on writing is to spend time tweaking how they write. I personally love doing this. What writing app will I use? What workflow is best? How should I organize my drafts?
It’s endless, and it can be a lot of fun. But it is not writing.
To squeeze writing into a full life, find the easiest, simplest method you can. Maybe that’s a notebook. Maybe it’s a laptop. Maybe it’s your phone. Whatever it is, if it’s portable, that’s even better.
If you want to try out new methods and tools for writing, don’t use your writing time for it.
Look for Pockets of Time
Do you have a commute?
Do you watch television?
Do you have a lunch hour?
Can you stay up half an hour later?
Get up half an hour earlier?
You could leave your full-time job and sit in your car and write for an hour before you head home.
You could use your lunch hour for writing. If you commute on the train or bus, you can write then. You can turn the tv off an hour earlier and write. You can get up a little sooner and write. You can go to the local library on weekends and write for an hour or two.
You do not need a vast swatch of time. You need pockets. Find a few and use them for writing. You will be amazed at how they add up.
Let Go of Ideal
If your idea of writing is a pristine desk in a quiet room, and you working at full concentration, free from distraction, well….
Let that picture go. It will slow you down. It will keep you from writing when you can actually write.
An ideal picture of what writing looks like, and feels like, can be a huge block for writers. It will cause you to reject perfectly good opportunities when you could be writing, because they don’t match your ideal.
Let Go of Limits
This is going to sound hokey, but your only limits are the ones you believe. If you think, “I can’t write more than 500 words in an hour,” you’re right. You can’t. If you think, “I can’t be a novelist until my kids are in school,” then that’s also true.
Or, you can think, “If I can write 500 words in an hour, I bet I can write 750 words in an hour.” And now you can.
You can keep raising the bar.
I mean, obviously there’s a limit up there somewhere. Why not try to find it? The real limit, not the one you’re hiding behind.
You don’t need eight hours a day to write.
You can do the same things established writers do, as far as writing consistently and producing steadily. You can write a novel, or even multiple novels, in a year. You can write hundreds of blog posts. You can write poems and short stories and articles and essays. You can submit your work to contests and win and get paid. You can send your work to editors and get hired for more. You can win readers. You can publish your own work.
Here is a secret: the established writers who make a living from their writing didn’t start that way. They became established writers by writing. That’s what you can do, too.
Embrace the Hack Identity
Some people like to be writing snobs.
“Don’t write it unless you feel it,” they say. “Don’t sell out. Don’t write to a word count. Write pure. Write from the heart. Write one good work, if it takes you a lifetime.”
Then they sip their wine, and ask you about an obscure 17th century Scandinavian playwright, Oh my god you haven’t heard of their work?
I hate to have to say it, it’s so obvious, but here we go:
Writing more helps you become a better writer. Not writing makes writing more difficult.
Then she helped Truman Capote with his work. She worked on a novel and never finished it. She worked on a non-fiction book but never released it.
55 years after her one amazing novel, Harper Lee published a sequel, which received very mixed reviews. And, it turns out, the sequel isn’t a sequel but was the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.
55 years of writing. One book. Or two, I guess.
I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.– Harper Lee
Success can be as terrifying as being ignored and rejected.
And if you’ve gained success — you wrote one great piece! You got some recognition! You got a book deal! You won an award! — it can be very frightening to follow it up.
Not everything you write will be a hit. That’s why you should write a lot. You raise your chances of success. You embrace the unavoidable truth that there is a ratio of bad writing to good writing.
The more you write, the more likely you are to write something good.
Don’t let writing intimidate you.
Writing is not for the elite. It is real and it is visceral and it has always belonged to the people. Writing snobs try to make it something it’s not. People who believe the writing snobs find themselves paralyzed as writers and alienated as readers.
Write as much as you want, in the pockets of time you find, and without listening to your inner critic. Do this consistently for a week or so. Then take time to look back at what you’ve written. Choose what you like best and send it out into the world. Repeat that process.
Now you’re a writer.
Writing in quantity is what enables you to write quality. If you want to be a better writer, write more. It’s practice. The more you do it, the better you get. The easier it becomes. The faster the words flow. The more you write, the more you tune into the language, the rhythm. The more you know your own voice.
Embrace the copious flow of messy, unadorned, real, raw, everyday words.
Let ’em out!
Now you’re a prolific writer.