Our publishing, marketing and author business tasks are important — but at the end of the day, it all comes down to writing. We are authors. We are writers. So as we head toward a new year, how can you find the time to write? How can you make the most of your writing time?
In the intro, The Big Split [Kris Rusch]; thoughts on long-term creation and serendipity in marketing [Tim Ferriss, 4000 Weeks, Johnny Truant]; Web 3 opportunities [Yaro Starak]; A Midwinter Sacrifice; Risen Gods.
This podcast episode is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo ecosystem. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Today's show features two chapters from Productivity for Authors, written and narrated by Joanna Penn.
Joanna Penn writes non-fiction for authors and is an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author as J.F. Penn. She’s also an award-winning podcaster, creative entrepreneur, and international professional speaker.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- How to find the time to write — schedule your writing time
- Track how you spend your time
- How much do you really want this?
- Where can you carve out time?
- No one said this would be easy
- Make the most of your writing time — find the right location
- Get into the right mindset — quickly
- Turn off distractions
- Use timed writing
- Stop procrastinating
- Measure your progress
- Questions to help you
You can find Productivity for Authors: Find Time to Write, Organize Your Author Life, and Decide What Really Matters in ebook, print, workbook, and audiobook editions on your favorite store. Click here for all the links.
How to find the time to write
Finding time to write is the most important step in writing more, but how do you find the time? In the previous chapters, we started on the process of culling your To Do list, and now we’re going to take it a step further. Because after over a decade of writing and more than 30 books published, I’ve found there is only one answer.
Schedule your writing time
Seriously, this could be a transformational step if you’ve not done this before. It’s not complicated. Get out your calendar or your smartphone app or however you schedule your time, and put in slots for writing.
Then show up for that time to write just as you would show up for a business meeting or a gym class or anything else that is time-sensitive. Stop making your writing slot optional or showing up late as if it doesn’t matter.
As Stephen King says in On Writing, “Don't wait for the muse. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day, from 9:00 till noon, or 7:00 till 3:00. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up.”
You can understand the muse as a metaphor or as more literal if you prefer. Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, invokes the muse before he writes in the classical sense of asking the divine to help inspire his work. Whatever works for you.
I know that if I show up to the page, eventually something's going to happen. When I’m working on a first draft, I sit down for my scheduled writing session from 7:00 am until around 9:30-10 am. I take a break, then maybe do another session later on in the day.
If I’m sitting at my specific table in my local café, my creative brain knows I’m there to write or edit. I don't have any other tasks booked in for that time. If I turn up for my scheduled writing slot, I’m far more likely to write something than if I wait until I have a spare moment. Because let’s face it, no one ever has a spare moment!
If you don't already use a planning calendar, then it's time to start
You must, must, must schedule your writing time. Presumably, you schedule other things in your life, like going to the day job or your kid's school events, or your dentist appointment, or going to the gym regularly, or whatever. That's how you need to schedule your writing.
But what if you try to schedule your writing time and can’t find a slot?
Track how you spend your time now
This can be challenging and can also be a shock. I did this back when I wanted to write my first non-fiction book in 2006-2007. I looked at my time and realized that I went to the gym in the morning, then I went to work, then I would come home exhausted, make dinner, and sometimes we’d watch three hours of TV before bed. That was every night, or at least most nights in a week.
When I discovered the amount of time I was watching TV, consuming rather than producing, I decided to cut back. TV is a lot better these days, but if you're watching three hours a night, you can definitely cut back, too. I also know authors who gave up gaming when they became writers, or at least rationed their gaming hours, as it can be such a time suck.
What about the gym and exercise time? We all need to stay healthy, and I'll come back to health in Chapter 13, but maybe there are things you can change. For example, in the last couple of years, I've been walking ultra-marathons, so in training for that, I would spend eight to ten hours walking. In that time, I listened to a lot of audiobooks and sometimes did a bit of dictation. When I realized I needed that time back, I switched to spin class and yoga, which take up less time, and I can still achieve my health goals with a longer walk on Sundays.
If you're going to prioritize your writing, you have to change something. I don't recommend you cut out sleep, but there are ways you can optimize it, for example, go to bed earlier, get up earlier and write in the early morning.
If you’re still struggling to find the time, here’s some tough love.
How much do you really want this?
What is your why and what are you willing to give up for your goal? Because something has to give.
There are a few other things I did to make time between 2006 and 2011 when I had a day job, before I went full-time as an author entrepreneur. I wrote my first four books in those years, blogged at The Creative Penn, started podcasting and learned about all the things that are needed to build and grow a creative business.
I worked a demanding day job but I still made time to write.
I got up at 5 a.m. to write before work. I was never going to be able to write after work because I was exhausted by the time I came home. That morning session was always for writing or editing or working on a book, and the extra time I had in the evenings after cutting down TV was for marketing and building my author platform.
I opted out of the career ladder. If you have a day job and you’re doing everything you can to advance up that career ladder, you will often do a lot more than your official job requires. You’ll put in more hours and often work from home, taking up more time but also headspace that you can’t use for your writing.
So, I mentally opted out of my consulting career. I knew I didn’t want to follow that path and I didn’t want to become a manager. I wanted to do my work, then leave on time. I also worked from home as much as possible, often with two laptops open so I could fit in creative business tasks alongside my day job work.
I eventually moved to working four days a week at the day job, essentially cutting 20% of my income and 20% of the time that I had to spend at work. Of course, you often have to get as much done in four days as they ask you to do in five, but it helps if you don't have to commute, check email and answer phone calls on that other day. You can just focus on writing.
That was how I made the time, but of course, you will have to find what works for you.
Where can you carve out time?
“Write at the edges of the day.” Toni Morrison
It doesn't need to be big chunks. You don't need a two-hour block to get more writing done. I know of one particular author with five children who keeps her laptop in the kitchen and somehow writes while managing her hectic family life. She has around 50 novels written over the years of child-rearing.
For other people, it's writing when the children are asleep in the early morning or late evening. I mentioned TV and gaming, and the other thing that takes time is household tasks. I’ve outsourced my cleaning for the last decade, which has freed up a lot more of my time.
How about combining activities? For example, write while commuting. Mark Dawson, bestselling thriller author, wrote his first five novels while commuting by train for a few hours each day. If you walk or you’re in the car, you could try dictating, covered in Chapter 8.
Once you have time blocks available in your calendar, schedule in the number you need in order to get to your goal. You calculated this in Chapter 3 on deadlines. Using that example, if you carve out five hours a week for writing, that's 5,000 words per week, so it will take you 14 weeks to write 70,000 words of a first draft.
Get out your schedule and put in your weekly blocks for 14 weeks. That might be one hour per week day or maybe three blocks in the week and a two-hour session at the weekend. Whatever works for you: But you do need to actually schedule it. Don’t skip this step.
When you see the time block in your calendar, it is not optional. If you’re tempted to skip it, say to yourself, “My writing is important. I will be there at that time and I will write.”
If you do that, you will achieve your goal. Find the time, turn up, do the work and then carry on with your busy life.
No one said this was going to be easy
If it was easy, everyone would be writing a book. Everyone says they're writing a book, but in order to actually achieve your goal, you have to turn up and do the work.
Some surveys say that 80% of people want to write a book, but very few of those people end up publishing, and even fewer of those end up making a good living with their writing. So the question is, who do you want to be?
“On the field of the Self, stand a knight and a dragon. You are the knight, resistance is the dragon. The battle must be fought every day.” Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
I’ve had this quote on my wall for years. I wrote it out in ink a long time ago and it’s faded now but I know it off by heart because the battle must indeed be fought every day. Even if you schedule those 14 weeks of time blocks into your calendar, what happens at 6 a.m. on a cold morning as you lie in bed and think, “I really don't want to do this. What’s the point? I’ll just have another hour in bed.” There will always be things that will get in your way, and your mind may be your greatest challenge.
You must fight that resistance if you want to succeed as a writer. Get up and do your work.
- Are you scheduling your writing time at the moment? If not, why not? Where is your resistance?
- Do you have an accurate view of how you spend your time? If not, track a week of activities including TV and gaming.
- What are you going to give up in order to find time for your writing?
- Have you done the calculation on how much time you need for that first draft? Or revision time or whatever you need.
- Have you scheduled your next block of writing time?
Make the most of your writing time
Now you’ve carved out the time and scheduled the writing sessions that will help you to achieve your goal, what can you do to make the most effective use of your writing time?
(1) Choose the right location
There are no rules, but I suggest that your writing place should be different to the places you do other things.
Humans are habitual creatures. We like doing the same things in the same place and it sets off a certain frame of mind. I have a home office where I do my podcasting, interviews, email, accounting and other business tasks. I cannot write or edit my books at the same desk.
I write my first drafts and edit at a local café. I go early when it opens so they have tables spare and I buy a black coffee every hour in exchange for the writing space. Most people come for takeaways at that time of day and I’m gone before the rush after 10 am. If you like to work in a cafe, make sure to respect the business and be a good customer so they’re happy to have you there.
When I’m working on my laptop, I use a Nexstand riser and external keyboard for ergonomic positioning. If I'm editing, I print out the whole manuscript and edit by hand. I sometimes edit at home on the dining room table, but never in my office.
It helps to keep my spaces separate, because when I’m in my home office, there is always more to do on the business, but when I’m at the café, I’m only there for one reason. To create something new in the world.
You could go to the library or hire a desk or a room in a co-working space, common in most cities now. If I’m working to a first draft deadline, I will often hire a local room for dictation in addition to my morning café sessions. It costs me around US$15 per hour. If I cancel too late, then I'll have to pay for it anyway, so it forces me to turn up. This accountability helps, especially if I don't feel like writing, and it enables me to finish the first draft more quickly.
Of course, the writing process is not just about getting words on a page. This creative time slot is for whatever phase of the creative project that you're in. It might be planning or plotting, research, outlining, first draft writing or editing. But don’t mix it up with publishing or marketing activities which use other parts of your brain. Keep one special location for your creative tasks.
(2) Get into the right mindset — quickly
“The last thing I do before I sit down to work is say my prayer to the Muse. I say it out loud, in absolute earnest. Only then do I get down to business.” Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Many writers use a ritual to get into the creative mindset but it is specific to them and not some magic way that can be used by others.
So, don't get obsessed with finding a perfect ritual, but do establish a routine and a habit around your writing practice, so you can switch into your writing mindset quickly and get on with your work.
I go to the café and sit at a specific table, order my black coffee, put on my noise-canceling headphones with Rain and Thunderstorms on repeat, then write.
I use Bose QuietComfort noise-canceling headphones and I love them. I also wear them on airplanes and anywhere noise gets to me. As an introvert, I’m highly sensitive to sound. They’re pricey but they’re seriously one of the best investments I've ever made in my writing, creativity and productivity.
I’ve also been listening to the same Rain and Thunderstorms album for over a decade. What a bargain! You can also use the RainyMood app or find free ambient sounds online to shut out other noise. As soon as the rain starts, my brain knows I’m in a creative space. Nothing else matters. I almost don’t hear it anymore, but you will find a storm in almost all of my novels, so it must have some influence!
If you like more exciting music or you're interested in what other writers listen to, check out the Undercover Soundtrack blog by Roz Morris which features authors and the soundtracks for their books. I'm definitely the most boring person ever in terms of my listening habits while I write, but it works for me. You need to find what works for you.
(3) Turn off distractions
Turn off your phone and any notifications. Put it on airplane mode or silent. If you’re worried about an emergency with your kids or your job, put your phone on vibrate but do whatever you can to stop yourself looking at it during the writing session.
No multitasking. In this specific block of writing time, you are not allowed to do anything else other than work on your book. If you’re writing a first draft, then write the first draft. If you're editing, then edit. If you know that you will end up going down an Internet rabbit-hole of research, then turn off the Internet. Just put a note in the document and come back to it later.
Stop making excuses. Do the work.
(4) Use timed writing
Timed writing changed my life back in the days when I still dreamed of being a writer. One year, I went to a creative writing class at the Sydney Writers' Festival. I’m a very good student, so I had my notebook at the ready to write down pearls of wisdom. I was prepared to listen and learn. But then the teacher said, “The first thing we're going do is write for ten minutes about a day when you discovered something that would change your life.” He looked at his watch. “Ten minutes. Off you go.”
Everyone around me started writing fast as I sat there for a moment, stunned. You mean I actually have to write something? As I picked up my pen, I realized that I had not faced a timed writing exercise since school exams, and it was definitely my first time with a creative writing prompt.
But I started writing anyway, and after ten minutes, I had a couple of paragraphs about a particular memory. It shocked me and changed my life, because I really didn’t think I could create from my brain like that. It pushed me past my self-doubt and I started using timed writing sessions for everything.
In 2009, I did NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, and I used timed writing to get my first 20,000 words down. I eventually turned those words into the beginning of Stone of Fire.
You can try writing sprints if you're in a writing group online or off. You could also try NaNoWriMo.org in November when lots of people write at the same time. You'll often find writing groups in your town during this period.
There are also habit-tracking apps that you can use with writing timers, or check out the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo. You can find information about that online.
You may find other techniques useful, but timed writing was the thing that got me over myself. Don't just sit down and see what you can come up with in an hour. Do several timed blocks with a little break in between and you will achieve more in the same time.
(5) Stop procrastinating
If you’re still struggling with checking email and social media, or gaming apps, whatever else you’re procrastinating with, you need to be self-aware enough to say, “I’ve got to stop this.”
Put your phone on airplane mode and turn off notifications. How many times do I have to say this?! Seriously, I’ve been to so many writing events where authors will have notifications coming through constantly. Ping, ping, ping. Don't do that!
If you’re still struggling, schedule a procrastination break. Say to yourself, “I know my brain needs to procrastinate, so, I'm going to write for 20 minutes and then I'm going to stop and have a social media or email break,” or whatever you need. Set a timer for five minutes so you don’t lose track of time, then get back to writing.
“The professional shows up every day. The professional is committed over the long haul. The amateur tweets, the pro works.” Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro
I reread Turning Pro every new year because it continues to challenge me in my creative life because I do tweet @TheCreativePenn. I like tweeting and it serves my business. I like Instagram, too. Social media has its place, but not when it takes your writing time.
(6) Measure your progress
It can be really hard to see your progress, especially in the first draft of your first book. In your mind, you can see a finished book. It's amazing! But then you sit down and write 500 words and realize you have a long way to go. And you do. But everything worth doing takes time!
There are a number of ways you can measure your progress. I use Project Targets on Scrivener, which has a progress bar that turns from red to green for each writing session and also for the book as a whole. Many writers use spreadsheets or apps to track word count.
I used a physical wall calendar when I started out, as it keeps creation top of mind. I used colored pens and stickers to reward my creative self. Who doesn’t love a sticker for good work?
I’d get a sticker for 2,000+ words in a session, and if I was under, I’d just write the word count in a colored pen. One month, I logged 42,905 words that way and it was motivating to see the word count add up over the days. This idea of ‘don’t break the chain,’ or ‘don’t break the streak,’ is common in habit formation, and it’s a great idea if you’re in first draft mode. Word count matters less when you’re in editing or other stages of the creative process, but you might still log hours spent on the project or pages edited.
In James Clear's book, Atomic Habits, he suggests filling a jar with paperclips and putting an empty jar beside it. Each paperclip could represent a writing session, or a thousand words, or whatever is appropriate. After each session, move a paper clip from one jar to the other and over time, the originally empty jar will fill up and you can see your progress. You might feel like you haven't achieved much in one writing session, but if you focus on the process rather than the finished product, you will see progress over time.
“Habit tracking keeps your eye on the ball. You're focused on the process rather than the results. It's remarkable what you can build if you just don't stop.” James Clear, Atomic Habits
(7) Know what you’re going to write before you write it
This is definitely a way to make the most of your writing time, but how you do this will depend on the kind of writer you are. I’m a discovery writer, so I don’t outline. However, on my walk to the cafe or the days between, or out on a walk, I’ll be thinking about my characters or the topic I want to write about for non-fiction, and I might jot down some notes, or think about possibilities, so that when I sit down to write, I know what I’m there to do or at least have a starting point.
Other writers swear by an outline, perhaps a few lines or paragraph per chapter which you can expand during your writing time. Some authors, like thriller author Jeffrey Deaver, write extensive outlines. Of course, you don’t have to do it all in advance. You could spend five to ten minutes at the beginning of your writing session thinking about what you will write. Jot down a few bullet points and then expand them in your writing session.
(8) Spend more hours in the chair
Authors who are massively productive spend more of their time writing. Fantasy author Lindsay Buroker will sometimes write for eight hours a day. She can write a book a month because she puts in the hours. I have never written for eight hours in a single day so it takes me longer to put the hours in so I don’t produce as many books.
If you spend more hours in the writing chair, you are going to spend more time writing. You will write more words per day as a result.
If you don’t have more hours in the day, then carve out more writing sessions in the week. If you’re managing one hour, three times a week, but you want to be more productive with your writing, then do one hour, six times a week. You will double the number of words written and get to your goal faster.
(9) No excuses
What if you don't feel like writing? What if you’re too tired or you've got a headache?
Would you go to your day job in your current condition? Are you taking your writing just as seriously?
Obviously, if you’re really sick, then no worries. Take a break. But many people go to their day job when they don't ‘feel’ like it, or they're tired, or they have a headache. They still manage to get their work done even if they’re not in the mood.
There are days when I sit down to write and I find it so hard. I really don’t want to be there. Then another day it feels amazing. I’m in flow and everything is brilliant. But the truth is, you will not be able to tell the difference between those two pieces of writing when you read the book later. It makes no difference to the finished product.
No excuses. Do your work.
“Don't wait for the muse … he's a hardheaded guy who's not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn't the Ouija board or the spirit-world we're talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.” Stephen King, On Writing
- What does your creative setup and ritual look like?
- How will you stop distractions and interruptions?
- Have you tried timed writing? If not, why not?
- How will you measure your progress?
- How could you write faster?
- Are there any other ways that will help you make the most of your time writing?
You can find Productivity for Authors: Find Time to Write, Organize Your Author Life, and Decide What Really Matters in ebook, print, workbook, and audiobook editions on your favorite store. Click here for all the links.