Category Archives: for writers

Time Management for Writers

Time management is a skill often overlooked by writers, and oddly, many writers I’ve worked with not only lack time management skills, but take pride in their lack of time management skills. It seems to be a badge of honor among writers to be able to produce a good piece of writing at the last minute, fueled by deadline pressure and a near-lethal combination of caffeine, alcohol, and insomnia.

A former student told me recently that he loves that crazed feeling he gets when the deadline is looming and he just pounds out a draft in a few hours—he actually chases it, he said, like an addict chases down a fix. “But now that I’m getting older and am married and thinking about starting a family,” he confessed, “a less insane writing practice is becoming more attractive to me.”

Enter time management skills. I’ve had phenomenal results with David Allen’s Getting Things Done program and Julie Morgenstern’s Time Management from the Inside Out, but I think what matters more than the specific time management or productivity plan that you choose is that you choose one. Any one. Any plan is better than no plan.

For writers, I recommend the following as non-negotiable aspects of your time management plan:

  • Keep a calendar. It doesn’t matter if it’s on your phone or computer or a hard copy. Don’t clog up your valuable brain space by trying to remember your schedule, deadlines, and appointments. You won’t.
  • Break writing projects into small, measurable chunks. For example, “write story” can be broken down into sketching out particular characters and the setting, writing a shitty first draft, revising the shitty first  draft, getting feedback from readers, and revising again. Plan a specific time to work on each chunk and put an appointment in your calendar to work on that chunk—and then, honor the appointment. Let me repeat that, because it’s crucial: honor the appointment.
  • Keep a log of when and where you write, what you work on, and how productive you are. Every couple of weeks, look over the log for patterns, and then make changes to your habits based on the patterns you notice. For example, if you notice that you seem to be more productive at a certain time of the day, plan to write more during that time of day and less at other times. For some more information on keeping a writing log, read Pearl Luke’s “A Writing Log Marks You as a Professional.” 

Read to Improve Your Writing

The most important piece of advice I offer aspiring writers is to read widely in the genre in which you want to write. If you want to write novels, read novels. If you want to write poems, read poems. If you want to write travelogues, read travelogues. Read them as an apprentice, an idea Jack Rawlins describes in early editions of his book, The Writer’s Way. By “read like an apprentice,” I take Rawlins to mean reading with an eye toward noticing and figuring out

    • How does the piece work? What holds it together? What moves it forward?
    • What are the techniques and strategies the author uses?
    • What are the effects of these techniques and strategies?
    • How could I use these techniques and strategies in my own writing?

One way to understand deeply the techniques and strategies the author uses is to actually copy the piece, either by hand or by retyping it. Copying allows you to begin internalizing the word choices and sentence structures of the author. Fiction writer Donald Ray Pollock discusses this technique in an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air (listen to the interview).

I like to take the apprenticeship idea a little further and have students do imitation exercises. After you’ve read something like an apprenticeship, choose a passage you particularly like and write an imitation of it. Here are instructions for writing an imitation.

It doesn’t matter which genre you want to write in–poetry, fiction, academic essays, whatever–reading like an apprentice, copying, and imitating can help you improve your writing.

Do you have trouble getting started? Overcoming Writer’s Block.

Beginning a piece of writing can cause so much anxiety that we freeze up and feel we have nothing to say. If you have trouble getting started, try these tricks:

Lower your standards. I know it seems strange for a writing teacher to tell you to lower your standards, but the beginning of your writing process is no place for perfectionism. Anne Lamott reveals that “all good writers write . . . shitty first drafts.” What she means is that productive writers know that an initial draft is for you, the writer, not for a reader, and so it is a place to be messy, experimental, ridiculous, playful, and silly. You may have heard that a good brainstorming session should ban the word “no,” allowing all ideas, no matter how seemingly ridiculous, to be considered. An initial draft should be treated similarly—don’t shut down any ideas or words that find their way onto the page or screen. Turn off your inner editor. The time for editing will come, don’t worry—but don’t start editing until you have something to edit.

Form a writing habit. If you engage in “binge writing”—going for days or weeks or months without writing and then trying to fit all your writing into one long session—consider that Robert Boice’s research into creativity indicates that writing in regular, short sessions is more productive than writing in occasional long sessions. Aim to write for 30 minutes a day rather than 3 hours a week, and keep in mind that forming a habit takes discipline and commitment.

Work with your nature. If you are a morning person, schedule your daily writing to occur in the morning, if possible. If you are not a morning person, planning to write at 7 a.m. every morning is sure to fail. Try to find a fairly consistent time that will work for you. Another approach is to find something that happens regularly that energizes you and piggy back your writing time on that. For example, I always feel positive and energized after working out, so I schedule my writing time to immediately follow my work outs. If you can’t do that, try the opposite approach: figure out what drains your energy and do NOT schedule your writing time to follow that. For example, if you have a regular meeting that leaves you cranky and demoralized, do not plan to write after that meeting.

Don’t start at the beginning. Many people—including me—find introductions difficult to write. DO NOT BEGIN DRAFTING YOUR PIECE BY WRITING THE INTRODUCTION. There is a fairly obvious reason for this: since you haven’t yet written the piece, you don’t really know what you’re introducing. Write the introduction last. The introduction itself will be easier to write and you won’t begin your writing session with an impossible task. Start with something easy, like an anecdote about how you got interested in the topic.

Utilize ass power. You can talk about writing all you want, but the only way the writing will actually get done is if you spend a certain amount of time with your butt in a seat (or, if you’ve embraced the standing desk craze, with your butt near a desk), writing. Yes, writing. To get writing done, you must actually write. If your daily writing time comes around and you’re not in the mood, put your butt in the seat anyway and write. Maybe only gibberish will come out, but maybe you’ll surprise yourself. Force yourself to write for 15 minutes and see what happens.