How To Write When Time Is Short

Dear writer, you know that writing takes a long time. There are some who claim to be able to knock out a novel in a couple of hours, and perhaps they can, but I’m pretty cynical that the average writer would be able to do that without cutting some major corners and coming away with a substandard novel as a result. Good writing takes time. That’s why it’s so important to write frequently and regularly.

‘Ah but you don’t understand!’ I hear you cry. I simply don’t have the time to write for hours on end, day after day!’

‘Really?’ Some writing-guru glibly cries back before I get a chance to answer. ‘Don’t you have the same twenty-four hour days; the same seven day weeks and the same fifty-two week years as Tolkien, Dickens, Twain and–‘

‘No, that’s not what I mean!’ I hear you cry back, somewhat irked by Mr. Writing-Guru’s superior attitude. ‘I mean, I’ve got so much other stuff that demands my attention! I’ve got a job, a spouse, a mortgage, a budgie, six kids and one more on the way! I can’t just renounce them for the sake of a few extra hours of writing time!’

‘Well then!’ Mr. Writing-Guru replies. ‘Maybe writing just isn’t for you if you care more about your family and–‘

But before Mr. Writing-Guru can finish this latest patronising utterance, you lunge across the table and begin attacking him with his own ceramic coffee flask while he tries to defend himself behind his trilby.

Leave him alone, friend. I understand your situation. There are some things (not many, but some) that simply matter more than writing; other things you simply have no choice but to prioritise, such as a day-job to pay the mortgage. That’s okay. All that matters is you make the best use of the time you do have for writing, no matter how little it is.

First, sit down with a planner (whether physical or mental). Start by working out those times you absolutely cannot write. For instance, I work a day-job from 9-5, Monday-Friday. This makes it absolutely impossible for me to write in those hours (though could you squeeze some juice out of your lunch break?). However, that does leave me evenings and weekends. Surely that’s plenty of time?

‘You don’t understand,’ I hear you cry, warily eyeing Mr. Writing-Guru to make sure he’s still unconscious. ‘I use that time to socialise with my family, to feed my baby, to play a little bit of that new Spider-Man PS4 game…’ 

Oh but I do understand. Some of these things are essential. Others are optional. Ask yourself honestly what things you can and should give up to make time for writing. You might still find that only leaves you a couple of hours every evening to write, but friend…  that’s all you need. You can easily knock out 500 words in an hour or two. I, myself (who am by no means the greatest of writers), wrote the first draft of this blog in just over an hour. Do a little bit of arithmetic with me (I know it’s hard) and you’ll soon see why the ‘little and often’ approach is so useful.

A bog-standard novel tends to be around about 80,000 words, give or take 10,000.

If, like me, you’ve only got evenings and all day Saturday to write, you might be tempted to think Saturday will be your Big Writing Day. Indeed, you certainly should take advantage of Saturday however:

If you write only 3,000* words one day a week, every week, you’ll have 156,000 words by the end of the year. Technically adequate, but I can’t recommend this approach for for these three reasons:

  • Your friends and family are more likely to want a piece of you during what they perceive as your ‘free-time’, even if you’ve not got any regular business on those days.
  • Writing only once a week can seriously bust up your rhythm, meaning you constantly have to get back into the flow every Saturday.
  • Large daily word count goals are hard to accomplish even without distractions. It is difficult to guarantee success.

However, if you allow yourself one hour to write only 500 words (half the length of this article) every evening, when the kids are tucked up in bed and your office is shut for the night, you’ll have 182,500 by the end of a year. That’s more words than you would’ve had writing in a single huge weekend burst and it’s a heck of a lot easier to accomplish. And let’s not forget, you can still take advantage of any weekends or holidays that do become available to you.

If you’re still struggling, however, here are a few more simple tips to make sure you make the best use of your precious minutes.

  • Disconnect your internet. No excuses. Every second you spend looking at Instagram, checking your e-mails or ‘researching’ your novel is a second you’re not spending writing.
  • Turn off your phone and put it somewhere you can’t reach it.
  • Make sure your family, friends or anyone else who depends on having a slice of your attention understands that you write between the hours of x and y every day, and that you cannot be disturbed for all but the most life-and-death reasons. No, not even for two minutes. They’ll probably be cool with that if they know you are available during your non-writing hours.
  • Stick to one writing project. You’ve no time to lose as it is, so don’t double or triple your workload with new projects.
  • Establish clear goals for each writing session. Aimless writing wastes time, so have a realistic goal in your mind for each particular session. E.g.: ‘Today I will write 500 words of my first draft’ or ‘today I will complete my chapter outline’. Keep your goals ambitious (after all, you want to accomplish as much as possible in the time available) but most importantly of all, keep them realistic.
  • If you have time, experiment with pre-writing techniques like free writing.
  • Write fast; edit slowly.

You can do this, dear writer. I believe in you.

*3,000 words is about the average output I tend to manage on a single Saturday session. It’s certainly possible to do more but it’s increasingly unlikely you’ll achieve it week after week, especially if you’ve got family and friends etc. clamouring for your attention.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what organises your calendar.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Our Daily Ray Bradbury Diet

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” –Ray Bradbury

Makes it sound simple, doesn’t it? It’s quite another thing entirely when you’ve got a headache, a family to look after, a day job which drains every iota of energy and the will to live from you and a gas engineer in your kitchen drilling and hammering so loudly that you think the whole house may collapse from the noise alone. Just finding the time, never mind the motivation, to write and to read every day can be a challenge for those of us who live in the real world. Throw in a few unavoidable distractions from external sources and you’ve got a recipe for accomplishing nothing at all. Nevertheless, Mr Bradbury was quite correct in saying that the best way to be a writer is to read with gusto and write without ceasing. In fact, I do not believe that it is possible to succeed as a writer if you do not read widely and I am convinced that it is impossible to be a writer if you do not write often.

If you’re anything like me, however, you might find that it’s easier said than done on both counts. Reading and writing both require a certain level of time and freedom to do them effectively and real life doesn’t half get in the way sometimes. I wish I could give you some magic words to try and make it easier. Unfortunately I can’t. They do not exist.

What I can do is make a few suggestions to try and help you along the way. Take or leave them as you see fit. As with most writing tips I’ve come across, what works for me may or may not work for you.

The first and most important step is to prioritise the things you have to do in life generally (reading, writing and everything besides) and organise your schedule accordingly. Think of everything you are likely to do regularly  – even trivial things like time spent watching TV – and list them all in order of importance with things you are unwilling to compromise on at all at the top and things you would be willing to sacrifice altogether at the bottom. Some people would have you believe reading and writing absolutely must be at the very top of this list. I’m not sure I agree with that personally (if, for instance, my wife goes into labour at the start of my writing time, I fully intend to get no writing done that day. Sue me), but I do think the closer you have it to the top, the easier you will find it to make the kind of time you need to read and write.

Once you’ve done this, the next step is to figure out exactly when you’re going to do each thing, affording more time to the items higher on your priority list. This means, of course, that things lower on your list may be afforded only a very small amount of your time – or may have to be sacrificed altogether. But I would argue that more important than how much time you afford to reading/writing is what time you decide to do it.

Not all hours are created equal. If you can only afford to write for a few short hours every week, you want to make sure you do it at a time where you are the most likely to produce your best work. Exactly what time this will be depends on a great deal on your personality and your circumstances. For me, it’s usually between 8-11am on Wednesdays-Saturdays. Here’s why:

  • I have a part-time office job to be at on Mondays and Tuesdays so can’t write then
  • Sunday is my weekly day off. I write only for as long as it brings me pleasure
  • Before 8am, I tend to still be a little too groggy (what can I say, I’m not a morning person) to focus on what I’m doing
  • After 11am, I am distracted by hunger and since I tend to do most of the cooking in my house, I am usually thinking about what to make for lunch.
  • For some reason (explained here) I turn into a Proctrasinationasaurus after lunch.

That’s not to say I only write at those times. But those are the best times for me write, and therefore I am particularly strict about using those times for nothing but writing, especially on weeks where I have lots of unusual distractions (like this week, I’m having a new heating system installed).

Reading, like writing, also requires a decent amount of time and concentration. You will occasionally hear people boasting that they read thirty books a week and other such nonsense, and maybe they do, but I would question how effectively they’re reading them in such a short space of time (assuming they have all the other demands on their time we normal people have). Don’t get me wrong; it certainly is possible to skim read a book, understand it and enjoy it if you’re just reading for casual entertainment, but if you’re wanting to grow as a writer, you’ll want to take a bit more time to appreciate the way the story has been crafted. That means recognising and understanding figurative language, character acts, story beats and the like so that you can see for yourself what turns a nice story into a quality work of literature. Even if you don’t know the technical jargon, you should still be able to recognise the structure, literary techniques and why they work when you see them.

Personally, I’ve got the attention span of a goldfish, so I find the best way to read is in frequent short bursts throughout the day: early in the morning, during my lunch break at work, last thing at night, during my writing breaks and whenever else I get more than five minutes to myself. It might not be the quickest way to get through a book. It won’t help you win any ‘Read 100 Books Challenge!’es but I do think that when it comes to reading, quality beats quantity every time. If you’re strapped for time, don’t waste the little time you do have trying to power your way through your whole library in less than a month.