“Focus!: How Writers Can Improve Their Productivity”
By Lisa Morton
Productivity – it’s every writer’s best friend or their arch-enemy, the master or the slave. These days, when there are hundreds of new writers popping up every year all vying for the attention of the same readers, controlling productivity is more important than ever. You need to capture your readership with great work, and then keep them interested by offering them a constant flow of new material. The days of lounging by the bottle of absinthe waiting for the muse to strike are long gone (if indeed they ever existed at all). Produce or die is the new mantra.
In other businesses, productivity might depend on management, on training, on equipment, or on wages and benefits. But we’re writers; hopefully we don’t have to deal with management often, we know that our training goes on perpetually, we already have the equipment (although see below for a note on that), and we laugh in the face of wages and benefits. In writing, productivity is probably most defined by two other factors: Time and focus.
Anyone who has been writing for a while knows that the second most- frequently posed question by non-writers (after the dreaded, “Where do you get your ideas?”) is, “How do you find the time to write?” I have a standard response to this: “How much television do you watch?” This is usually met with a groan or an abashed nod, and the discussion is over.
But since you’re reading this, you’ve already demonstrated that you have more than a casual interest in writing. You’ve already decided that writing (and reading this article) is more important to you than the television you could be watching instead right now, or the game you could be playing, or the music you could be listening to. If someone asked you, “Why do you write?,” your answer would be simply, “Because I have to.”
But even with that dedication, time keeps slipping away from you. You’ve been working on the same short story for a month now, and somehow you can never seem to find the time to finish it.
Let’s chat briefly first about your day job. Unless you’re lucky enough to be living on a trust fund or have a rich family, you have a day job. I’m going to assume that you have a day job that doesn’t leave you so overworked or stressed out that you’re simply too exhausted to write. If you’ve got one of those jobs that requires you to work 70 or 80 hours a week, just stop reading this article right now. Seriously. You’ve already committed to one job to such an extent that you’ve left no time for a second one, and you need to think of writing as a full-time job in order to succeed. You’re probably already late getting back to work anyway; go, be happy, make a zillion dollars, and leave the writing to those of us who are willing to work day jobs that allow us enough time and energy to write in our off hours.
So you’re not watching the latest reality t.v. show, and you’ve got a nice, low-key office job…but time still slips through your fingers faster than words do. This next part’s gonna get ugly and is definitely not for the squeamish. Anyone who believes You Can Have it All should please leave the room now. Here’s the tough love:
After that great time-sink that is television, the next biggest thing stealing your time is probably other people. Your friends want to go out. Your spouse wants to talk. Your kids want to play. All of them are taking time away from your writing, but their feelings will be hurt if you tell them that words on a screen are more important to you than they are.
Sorry, but you’ve gotta do it. Okay, maybe you don’t have to phrase it exactly that way, but some lines must be drawn. Your friends and loved ones have to understand that you need their support to realize your goals, and that support may include telling them you can’t go out to a club tonight or sit down on the couch to watch a movie. Telephones can be a big interference, and folks need to know that you may let yours roll over to voice mail or the answering machine if you’re in the middle of writing. Make it clear to them that you consider writing a second job, and ask them if they’d barge into your office workplace just to gossip about who won American Idol last night or show you the new Lady Gaga video.
Even with self-discipline and understanding friends, it’s sometimes simply impossible to find hours at a time to write. That’s why my last suggestion on managing your time is a little notion I’ve personally employed to great success for years:
Harness the power of the micro-session.
A micro-session could be as short as five or ten minutes, and is just what the name implies. I don’t recommend micro-sessions as a complete alternative to real chunks of time set aside for writing – you can’t really develop a plot or a character in just a few minutes. But micro-sessions work great for things like outlines, synopses, bios, queries, articles, or even those blog posts that’ll keep your readers hooked.
Now, remember that mention I made at the beginning about equipment? Here’s where I’m going to make that one suggestion: You need to find what works best for you, whether it’s carrying a moleskin notebook and a pen, taking a small recording device for dictation, or figuring out how to put your smartphone to writing use. For me, I’ve recently moved from a laptop to a smaller, lighter netbook, and I’m loving it; this little sweetheart has a full size keyboard for easy typing, but I can carry it with me anywhere. Yesterday I typed while I watched a friend’s cat, during a break at the day job, and in bed just before I fell asleep. The equipment is enabling the micro-sessions.
Let’s look at focus now. We’ve probably all had that nightmarish hour spent in front of a page or a screen staring at the same ten words typed yesterday, and feeling just completely hopeless. Most likely you’re distracted, but you could also be simply indecisive. Perhaps you thought you knew where this story was going until you actually sat down to write it.
It all comes down to focus, and you don’t have any.
I’m going to start by asking you a question: Have you ever worked on a writing piece with a deadline? If so, I’m betting you made the deadline with no problem, right? So, what was different between that project and your current piece, which is written entirely on spec?
The answer, of course, is obvious: The deadline. Somehow having a finish date pre-set for us and constantly looming seems to inspire that fickle muse to work harder and faster. The answer, then, is simple and usually surprisingly effective: Set deadlines for yourself. If you’re working on more than one project, stagger the deadlines so you can finish one story before moving onto the next. Make the deadlines realistic (don’t, in other words, aim at writing a novel in a week), and follow them. Understand that there will be a penalty to pay if you don’t meet the deadline – you won’t be able to start the next project on time. I even go so far as to write the deadlines out on a post-it note and slap that right on the side of my screen (or make an image of it and set that image as the new desktop background). Look at those deadlines every day; a little pressure is good for the writer’s soul.
A few thoughts about word counts: Some writers find it helpful to set themselves a minimum word count to meet every day. I once asked a successful mid-list writer about this (since that writer seemed extraordinarily prolific to me), and was surprised to hear that he aims for just 500 words a day. That doesn’t seem like much on the surface – it’s not even two complete double-spaced pages – but when you multiply it by 365 (and yes, this writer WILL work every day of the year), that means he’s going to produce 182,500 words in a year, or two novels and some short fiction (and yes, I know I’m not counting rewrites). I have another friend who is frequently contracted to write movie and television novelizations on short schedules, and she knows she must sometimes manage at least 4,000 words a day. Personally, I don’t set a minimum daily word count for myself; I may go days without typing a thing other than e-mails and Facebook updates, but during those days I might be researching or working out a plot in my head. Then, when I do sit down at last for a few hours, I may disgorge 10,000 words at once. The point is: If a daily word count requirement works for you, then find your optimum number and stick by it. If it doesn’t, don’t push it. You’ll only make yourself unhappy, and unhappiness is a big distraction.
So are lots of other things. If you’re having trouble seeing words materialize on that screen in front of you, take a look around and figure out why. Is it the work itself? Are you subconsciously telling yourself that something needs to be fixed in the work you’ve already done? I’ve noticed that writers seem to block most often at endings, and my advice is always this: If the ending isn’t working, that means there’s something wrong with the beginning. Read over what you’ve already done, and see if it jogs something loose for you.
Or is the distraction outside of the work? Granted, a lot of distractions you have no control over (I live right in the flight path of an airport, so I know all about unexpected big sounds), but others you do. Do you find your mouse cursor sliding over to that new game you just installed? Or are you just certain that you’re missing the world’s greatest Twitter trends while you try to pound out a few more words?
If you’ve already created a project schedule for yourself and you know how many words you want to achieve each day, then consider making the game or the social network part of your schedule, preferably as a reward. If you’ve set up your master plan to include writing from 6 to 9 p.m., then save your fun activities for after 9 p.m. If it helps, write this down on that list that’s posted in your work area.
And don’t forget to inspire yourself from time to time. What inspires you – a walk, a great song, a favorite movie? I tend to think of my own writing life as an input/output system – my output is much better when the input’s been superior. Reading another writer’s terrific story or seeing an amazing movie can pull me right out of writer’s doldrums. In the midst of all that other scheduling mentioned above, I tried to leave a little time for the input part of the process, and experiencing something great invariably has me champing at my writer’s bit.
I once heard a story about how the 19th-century British novelist Anthony Trollope worked (if you’re not familiar with Trollope, all you need to know is that he’s regarded as one of the most prolific writers of all time) – Trollope wrote for exactly two hours every morning, and at the end of those two hours, he put down his pen, regardless of whether he was in the middle of a sentence or not, and walked away; the next morning, he started again, picking up exactly where he’d left off (he was also a postal worker who occasionally robbed the “dead letter” collection for inspiration). While I know I’m not capable of that – ahem – excessive compartmentalization, I applaud Mr. Trollope’s work ethic and recognize the importance of creating my own schedule and methods of staying productive. Trollope, of course, didn’t have the temptations of social networks and television to distract him…but somehow I’m guessing he would still have avoided those playthings of the Devil to stay focused and productive.
Remember: Those words aren’t going to write themselves, and if you’re going to be a career writer, productivity is what could make you – or break you.