February 9, 2015

How to Be a More Productive Writer

I've written as many as 13,000 words in a single day during National Novel Writing Month.  Some days the words just won't come.  Recently, I've read and listened to professional authors share their advice for cranking out more words.  This post combines all the things I’ve learned or tried.

You'll need to consider this the same way you do any writing advice.  Try it for a while.  If it works for you and makes you more productive, use it.  If it slows you down or makes you less productive, ignore it.  
  • Keep records:  Make detailed records of your writing activity.  When did you start and finish?  How many words did you write? What project did you work on?  You discover a pattern.  Perhaps you write more at night than in the morning.  You may produce some stories faster than others.  The records will help you when you try out new productivity tips.  They’ll show if the tip helped or hindered you.
  • Become self-aware:  Learn what distracts you, what makes you more productive, and what gets you into a flow state.  Avoid what makes you unproductive or wastes your time, and try to cultivate things that make you better and more productive.
  • Dare to be bad:  Your writing won’t be perfect at first.  It may not even be good.  That's OK.  You probably weren't born being able to ride a bicycle or do many other things you find easy now.  You probably failed a lot at first.  Instead of walking away, you stuck with it and got better.  Writing is like that.
  • Don't wait on the muse:  You can't sit around waiting for the muse to strike.  You need to sit down a write something daily.  If all you manage is two sentences, you’re now two sentences closer to a finished book.
  • Use the time you have:  Most fledgling writers wonder what it would be like to have an uninterrupted 8-hour block every day to write in.  Few have that.  If all you can manage to find to write is a few minutes here or there, use them.  John Grisham reportedly wrote only 10-15 minutes a day while he was a lawyer, yet he still turned out a great novel.  If he made it work on 15 minutes, so can you.
  • When you're stuck, shift your focus:  You are stuck on your vampire story, switch to a love story or non-fiction book.  Get your mind off the thing you're stuck on, and work on another project.  That way you're getting some words written instead of spinning your wheels.
  • Separate writing from editing:  The mindset needed to edit and revise a story is an analytical one.  The mindset for creating a story isn't.  Try to mentally separate writing from editing.  In writing mode, crank out text and don't worry about errors you're making.   When you've finished the story, it’s time to put on the editor hat and revise.  Constant switching from writer to editor will tire you.  
  • Give yourself a realistic but challenging goal:  Measure your word count during a productive hour or day.  Set a goal to write just a bit more.  When you consistently hit that goal, raise it.  Challenge writing friends to see who can write the most words in a week (loser buys dinner).
  • Reward yourself:  Set a realistic goal and a reward you'll give yourself when you reach it.  Perhaps you have had your eye on a new watch.  Tell yourself you'll buy the watch when you finish the current novel, or when you send it to a publisher.  Make sure the reward comes as soon as possible after the goal is reached, so help keep yourself motivated.
  • Figure out your ideal writing environment:  Do you know when and where you write your best?  Do you need noise and activity, or quiet and serenity?  Are you better indoors or outdoors?  Once you figure it out, carve out time there and guard it carefully.  
  • Look for alternatives to the keyboard:  You may find that you do better dictating your story to a digital recorder, or telling it to speech recognition software.  Maybe you write faster or better in longhand on paper.  You may find that you're more productive using some other way to get the words out of your head and onto paper (or the screen).  
  • Know when to stop:  It's possible to revise a story to death and never finish it.  No one buys half a novel or two-thirds of a short story.  Write it, take a few passes over it to revise it, then move on.  Realize it will never be perfect and accept that.
  • Skip it:  If you're stuck on a sentence or scene in your story, pretend you've already written it and start on the next one.  Maybe it will be a scene you don’t even need in the story.  Come back to the problem area later when you've finished, or when inspiration strikes.
  • Plot it out:  My first National Novel Writing Month entry sucked, but hit the 50,000 word goal.   I actually thought I could take a vague idea I had in my head and turn out a complete, ready to publish story.  What I wound up with was something like what you'd get if you followed a random stranger around with a video camera.  (Oh, here he is brushing his teeth.  Now he's reading the newspaper.  It's time to take the bus to work...)  The next year I did much better. I plotted that story down to individual scenes, which I described in short one or two-line notes.  Hitting 50,000 words that year was a breeze.
  • Don't plot it out:  Maybe you aren’t a plotter.  If you outline the entire story down to individual scenes (as I just suggested) it sucks the life out of the story for you.  If so, throw away the outline and write organically.  
  • Research (some):  If you're stuck while writing a story, you may need to research more.  For your science fiction epic, maybe you need to learn about certain kinds of stars, or find out how NASA calculates the optimal launch time for a mission to Mars.  Be careful not to let research become an excuse not to write.
  • Unleash your enthusiasm:  Take a moment to think about a scene you’re going to write.  What excites you about this scene?   How could you surprise the reader?  What details about the scene are most interesting?  Taking a moment to do this will help you get motivated to write that scene.
  • Consider your motivation (or lack of it):  If you're finding excuses not to write, ask yourself why.  Why am I not writing?  What's wrong with the story?  What don't I like about it?  Don't beat yourself up.  Just identify your reasons and deal with them.
  • Go analog:  Draw a map of the setting.  Point out where the props you'll be using (light switches, television, phone, books, magazines, breakable flower vase) are located.  Write out a list of the scenes you'll need in the story.  This visual “analog” activity may break you out of a block.

  • Break it down:  If a writing project seems too big or too complex, start breaking it down into smaller sub-projects.  Break a non-fiction book into topics and sub-topics.  Break an epic down into three smaller novel-sized stories, and those into chapters.  Then focus on one of these pieces instead of the whole.
I hope these tips and tricks help you.  If you have some tips I haven't mentioned here, please share them in the comments.

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