10 Productivity Tips for Writers

Constant creation involves more than just writing, and if your productivity sucks, you might need some help with the basics. 

writing in a notebook

Guest blogger Ben Ellis has some interesting practical tips for writers today. Personally, sleep is my secret weapon and I am a chronic backer-upper with multiple external drives and cloud storage facilities. What about you?

Over the years, after writing two novels and a few short stories, I’ve garnered a few non-writing tips that may help fellow writers make their life that little bit easier.

What is a non-writing, or productivity tip? Anything not related to prose or style, usually organizational and technology based.

1. Ensure Laptop is Charged

It’s amazing the amount of times I’ve got a coffee, settled into a chair in a coffee shop, turned the laptop on only to be confronted with a solitary bar on the battery icon. Very annoying. If you’re going out, check the battery levels preferably a few hours ahead of time. A spare battery is a good back-up option to have.

2. Notepads Are More Mobile Than Laptops

One way to avoid a power shortage is to use a pen and paper. Another advantage is allowing you to write and make notes in far more places than a laptop does. There’s no need to worry about crumbs, sunlight, spilled coffee, over-heating, crashing, getting distracted by Twitter or Solitare, dropping it, getting a table in a coffee shop, waiting for it to boot-up, etc.

This mobility gives you the opportunity of going to different places which in turn should help keep your mind active and allow your ideas to flourish, unlike turning up to the same desktop computer day after day. I write my mobile number in my notepad in case I leave it behind anywhere.

3. Make Legible Notes

I start a novel off by making handwritten notes in a notepad, I find it easier to scribble my thoughts down willy-nilly on a pad than type them out in a structured way. The drawback is that some words can be indecipherable a few months later when you go to read your notes back. It isn’t easy to slow down when you’re in mid-flow so just ensure that when you’ve finished for the day, give your notes a quick read through and dot the ‘i’s’ and cross the ‘t’s’.

4. Back-up Your Work

This is an obvious tip that you do already, isn’t it? Of course it is! I’m extra careful and have made provisions for the apocalypse. I use Dropbox [www.dropbox.com] for ‘live’ documents, the webspace of a couple of personal websites for extra cover plus I use ‘My Original Works’ [myows.com] as extra online backup and for copyright protection. I also have an external hardrive and a couple of memory sticks, one of which I leave around my Mum’s house…but that makes me sound like a paranoid nutter, right?

5. Save All Versions

Keep every draft.

I started my second novel and it was dire. I abandoned it and started again. A year later, after I’d finished the second draft I was going through some notes and I discovered the ‘false start draft‘, as I’d named it. It still wasn’t great but it had a few bits I really liked, from that I wrote a novelette prequel. If I’d deleted that false start, it would’ve been forgotton about. The memory space used by a document is so small, you may as well keep everything rather than delete it, you never know what gems you may stumble across later on with the benefit of hindsight and a new perspective.

6. Record Submissions

I’ve got a simple spreadsheet detailing what story I’ve sent to whom, when, the person’s name (plus personal notes such as what genre’s they like, Twitter account, etc), website address and whether I’ve got a rejection…I mean, a reply! I also save every email I send and receive in a separate folder. This means you’re not unintentionally submitting to people twice and also you have an accurate record of when you could resubmit to someone. I rarely do this but some agents say resubmit if you’ve heard nothing after 3/6 months.

7. Submit After Every Rejection

Keep fighting the good fight! Keep those plates spinning! Save yourself from spiraling into rejection hell by sending out just one more. Keep on replacing rejection with hope, you never know, the next one could be ‘The One’!

8. Focus Your Thinking Time

I don’t write everyday and I don’t set word limits, I don’t need the extra pressure. If I sit at my laptop and grind out 100 words then I’m happy I got stuck in for that day. Sometimes there is a good reason NOT to be writing. For example, I’m just thinking about my third novel, I haven’t written anything down in weeks. I’ve made loads of notes and I’ve thought a lot about it but I’ve written nothing. I focus on what I’m thinking about so I can bite off small chunks and make the daunting prospect of a new novel, a more manageable task. So I don’t think, ‘New novel, go!‘. I think, ‘This main guy, he has a particular dilemma, what job would he have which would enable him to have or solve this dilemma?‘. Now I’m just thinking what job he might have, that’s all. Once I’ve got that, I may start thinking of a relationship for him or an antogonist to go against him. Adding layers piece by piece. Once I’ve finished writing down some notes in my notepad, I set myself one problem to think about once I’ve walked away, something I can chew on for the next day or two.

9. Sleep On It

It’s amazing how many problems solve themselves in the morning. I started running a few years ago and that’s another good way to get your mind off the job which, conversely, helps it do the job. I’m sure there’s loads of things you can do; swim, cycle, iron, paint, knit, all helping to relax your mind. I think the main problem here is flogging a dead horse, trying to force a solution instead of taking a step back or even stepping away from it completely. This goes for good writing too! You may have written something you think is brilliant but a month or two later it’s lost it’s shine. Whether it’s a sentence or a whole novel, spending time apart from it to gain a fresh perspective is always a good idea.

10. Disable The Internet

The internet is an obvious distraction whilst writing so disabling it can be a good idea. You can either do this directly on your computer by going into the settings and turning off Internet/Wifi or you could install some software such as www.macfreedom.com or www.getcoldturkey.com which will block all or just some of the internet for you. These programs might be better because sometimes you want to quickly jump onto Wikipedia or somewhere else to find an answer allowing you to continue with minimal headache. Also, if you completely block the internet then automated online backup programs such as Dropbox won’t work.

Hopefully some of these tips will help you and your productivity. Do you have any favorite tips to share? Please do leave a comment below.

About the Author

Ben EllisBen Ellis has completed his second novel, ‘Broken Branches’ a dystopian tale of controlled procreation, and is currently looking for an agent or publisher.  You can find him online at www.b3n3llis.com and on Twitter at twitter.com/#!/b3n3llis

Image: Flickr CC / Auntie P

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  1. says

    Great list!

    Backing up work and saving all versions/drafts are key, in my opinion! Having lost two hard drives in the past (thankfully, stuff was already backed up), I really value Evernote for my story notes and ideas, and Google drive for backup storage.

    And I’ve found that saving all versions and drafts, I can re-work a good idea that was poorly executed initially, like you pointed out. Also, it can be encouraging to go back and look at draft one after draft three is done, and realize just how far you’ve come.

  2. says

    I used to be disorganized. I had notes, ideas and drafts scattered all over my computer and iPad.

    Finally, I created a “Drafts” outline in OmniOutliner. It has four columns, Title, Notes, Words (word count), Document Links.

    This corrals everything I’m working on in one place.

    I keep the outline in a “Drafts” folder in Dropbox.

    Everything I write is either in plain text, or in Markdown format. This means that I can work on my drafts anywhere, on my computer, phone, or iPad.

    It’s definitely made me more productive, because I no longer wonder WHERE my stuff is, or at what stage it’s reached. (Notes in the “Notes” column tell me whether the document is an idea, a first draft, with a beta reader, or ready to be published on a blog or elsewhere.)

  3. says

    I love #8: “Focus Your Thinking Time.” So many times I’ve tried to force a solution, as you mentioned, when #9 (“Sleep On It”) would’ve gotten me there quicker!

  4. says

    Agree with all of these points, particularly to back up your work. I have a Dropbox account, and a pen-drive that I keep with me all the time. It makes me feel somewhat more safe, although I did think I’d lost it once. Absolute crisis!

    I’d also recommend setting aside some time to create a schedule. Not a rigid schedule, but just a map to follow when it suits. It helps to have some sort of guidance in our writing lives.


      • says

        A filofax is old skool!

        I would recommend getting another pen drive and storing with parents or someone you trust just in case that other gets lost. Kinda like your house keys…you have given a spare set to someone, right?!! :)

  5. says

    Another tip would be to treat your writing day like a day job work day. Schedule yourself a shift and take a fifteen minute break every two hours and a one hour lunch break in the middle. It puts you in the work mode and don’t drain your energy by taking on too much work at a time.

    Also, turn off the tv and use scivener

    • says

      Get rid of the TV! Worked for me :) I watch some shows on the laptop but it means you only watch one program per night. Schedule shifts is also good and that’s what i do at the Library when I have fiction days.

  6. says

    Going someplace where you can’t get online is a good one. I knocked out 2,500 words today while I was at the Ford place, waiting for some maintenance on my car. 😀

  7. says

    I love all of these suggestions and use most of them, except disabling the internet. If I know how to set up the program, I can break in when I want. If I’m skipping along to places that don’t play into the writing, then I take it as a sign I’ve got a problem with the work I’m not aware of consciously. That’s when it’s time for a walk or a nap or something that gets my thinking brain out of the game.

    Another thing I’ve found helpful is to change where I’m working, even if it’s a coffee shop and I move to a different table. It removes me from the environment where I’ve been struggling with something, jumbles the senses a bit, and helps free up thinking and problem solving. Sometimes I find it isn’t a problem with the work that’s bothersome, it’s a crick in the neck or table that’s too high or low. It’s easy to get absorbed in what you’re doing and forget that your feet would like a little blood flow.

    Absolutely save all versions and do so for an eternity. I recently found a manuscript I put away ten years ago. My husband has been editing it and laughing and crying and making notes as I sit and ask him what the story’s about, then ask what happens next as he goes along. It’s like hearing it for the first time, and I’m enjoying it, even though I put it away as a lost cause. Some other manuscripts I’ve found, treasures I thought were brilliant, are horrid when I read them now. I don’t think we can always be objective about our own work when we’re deeply invested in them at the time of writing.

    I’ve also learned some valuable tips and tricks from the How To Write A Novel course offered here by Joanna and Roz Morris. It’s been an adventure that’s helped me move forward with projects that were stalled. But that’s not something I’ll share:-)

    • says

      Thanks Cyd – and glad you enjoyed the course :) Changing place of work is an excellent idea and I definitely have to remove myself from my home office at least once a week to ‘change heads’.

      • says

        Changing your writing space is a good idea. I have a favourite coffee shop but I go to different ones just for a change of scene. I also write from home occasionally!

  8. says

    Hey Joanna and Ben

    Productivity for writers is always a good topic!

    Here’s my biggest one: the power of a deadline.

    If you’ve read the War Of Art by Steven Pressfield (and if not, why not???) then you know all about resistance. Resistance is all about the ego and avoiding change. If you set up a deadline powerful enough – i.e. the consequences of not hitting the deadline are severe enough – then you won’t ever encounter resistance again.

    Evidence for the prosecution: Sean Platt and Dave Wright the serial fiction guys. It comes as absolutely no surprise to me that they produce so much work. That’s because they’ve set up a deadline they consider unbreakable – publish a new 20,000 word serial every Tuesday. That in my opinion is a major reason that they are so productive.

    Evidence for the prosecution 2: me. I produce a 50 page plus magazine in my ‘day job’ – now that includes graphics. But I type fast, and often those graphics take longer to create than the equivalent space would to write. (And we’re talking A4 pages….approx 350 words a page).

    That magazine is published every friday at 5pm GMT. This week I had a meeting on Thursday morning with a certain Miss J Penn 😉 and didn’t get home until around 12.45 to start work on my magazine. I rendered the first proof at around 1pm the next day…the magazine weighed in at 57 pages.

    A deadline is a writer’s best friend – but man, you have to have balls of steel! (For me I discovered it by accident….that’s another story for another day!).

    Hope that’s of interest. (And drop Sean an email and ask him about the power of deadlines if you’re not convinced!).


    • says

      Great point. I do give myself my own deadlines, eg. just started first draft of third novel and want to finish it by June 1st next year. Sounds easy now but when it comes around it does give you a kick up the proverbial. Not a hectic deadline like yours but a deadline nonetheless to stop it rolling on and on and on…etc…

  9. John says

    I love tip#10, the “disable the internet” thing. This is one of the hardest struggle I’ve had ever since I started my writing career. I always find myself browsing on Facebook and Twitter when it’s time to work and publish an article, I’m getting hooked to it but hopefully I can get a way to make myself productive all the time. I’m also following some productivity tips from Richard Branson and will try out some of the software he was talking about to effectively manage your time and take control of your “time wasters”. By the way, you really did a great job on this article. Thanks a lot for the tips!

  10. says

    That’s a great article. My second favourite place to write is in the gym coffee area after a workout with a calorific slice of cake. The gym also has a terrible wifi connection. I think great cake and terrible wifi is the way forward for all writers :)

  11. Lucy G says

    Thanks for reminding me. I have just backed up my work. I sometimes wonder if I should get my memory stick insured :) Taken two days off work so I can get on with some writing, I call it my writing holidays. Must try and be strict with myself and not get distracted with Facebook.

  12. P. Ortiz says

    I couldn’t agree more especially on disabling the internet. Writing needs focus, inspiration. It definitely needs staying away from distractions.
    If I could add a small advice; maybe when we’re starting our day at work, why don’t we just set our priorities, write down on our planner about our to-do list and get started instead of doing little and not so important things like checking e-mails. We could surf the internet for non-work related stuff during breaks.
    Always keeping track and organizing your tasks and ideas aside from it helps you manage your time, it is also one secret to greater productivity.

  13. Bernhard says

    I would like to add another item to the list: I think the right kind of music can really help you achieve more and increases your productivity as well.

    For me its either classical music when I am writing something that requires more deep thinking, when I just need to create words then I usually go for some upbeat electronic music. This article about Stages of Startup CEO Growth is the result of time-boxed writing with progressive house music.

    And sometimes, a music with ambient or nature sounds works pretty good too.

  14. Nelia says

    Hi Joanna. Thanks for sharing. Great tips. Actually, my daily writing routine starts from checking if laptop is charged. Than I do coffee, look outside for some birds bringing an inspiration. Usually i use tools for writers like Zoho Writer or Movable Type and dropbox as well. Though I always have my notepad and a pen next to me.


  1. […] Productivity Tips For Writers  This post is a guest post over at The Creative Penn. Now every writer is different, but it’s always worth checking out what processes other writers are using as you’ll never know when you’re going to find a nugget that will help you improve or refine your own process. […]

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