Making the Most of Your Writing Time
6 minutes read
December is almost upon us. Many congratulations to anyone who attempted and has already completed NaNoWriMo for the year – and for those of you almost at the finishing line: keep going!
Even for those of us not attempting to hit that 50k, the arrival of winter can feel like the perfect time to hunker down and focus on our manuscripts. It’s a tempting thought – but it’s sometimes easier said than done.
The pandemic has done terrible things for my concentration. Those first months spent refreshing news sites, clicking between various chats with my colleagues and WhatsApp groups with friends and family, meant that things that were previously my sanctuary – hours curled up with a book or a solid stretch of novel-writing time – suddenly felt impossible. I couldn’t get my brain to do it. Things are better now, but where once I found it fairly easy to write 1,000–2,000 words in a session, now it takes much longer for me to find my rhythm.
If you’re also struggling to get the most out of any pockets of writing time, here are some of our tried-and-tested productivity tricks.
Find the silence
Sabrina Broadbent, one of our Writing a Novel tutors, says that if you’re struggling with motivation when you sit down to write:
Find the recreation that works to empty your mind – walking is good for the rhythm of thought. Swimming, running, being outdoors, staring into space. Slumping is rarely conducive to writing. Nor is being online. Dorothea Brande, who was teaching creative writing in the US in the 1930s, talks about writing in terms of ‘rhythm, monotony, silence.’
As well as running and walking, I’ve often found showering and driving are surprisingly efficient shortcuts to this headspace for me – not the most practical or environmentally conscious options, sadly. Sabrina also drew my attention to a letter from John Steinbeck to Robert Wallsten that I’d never read before. ‘Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish’ might be the most freeing thing I’ve heard all year.
Try the Pomodoro Technique
I know there are lots of fans of this one out there, and I’ve always found it really effective too. Set a timer (try https://tomato-timer.com/) for blocks of twenty-five minutes, with a ten minute break between (and you get a longer break after the fourth one). Short, intense bursts are a great way to focus the mind, especially if you too are trying to recalibrate your brain after the chaos of the past two years, and it’s surprising how much you can achieve in them.
Have a plan
This might sound obvious or horrifying, depending on where on the plotter-pantser scale you sit. But even if plotting doesn’t work for you, having a plan for each writing session can help maximise your time – just a few minutes before you begin, thinking about where you’re going now, in these next few pages, even if you’re not sure of the final destination yet. Likewise, even if you have a really detailed outline laid down for the story, it’s worth having a specific objective in mind for the day – zone in on a particular scene or chapter you’d like to finish rather than feeling daunted by the big picture.
A trick I’ve seen recommended a few times is to finish each writing session in the middle of a scene (as Hemingway once put it: ‘You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next’), so that it’s easy to pick that thread back up when you next sit down. Some proponents of this technique even suggest ending mid-sentence, though I’m not sure I’d trust myself to remember exactly what I was going to say. Either way, coming back to the manuscript with your next beats already clear in your mind can help maintain momentum – though for some writers, it may risk losing the flow if you force yourself to stop while the going is good.
One other thing to note is the importance of being realistic with your plan. When we talked about building a regular writing habit last year, Sarah May advised one of our followers:
Don’t set yourself unrealistic targets. If you know you’re only going to be able to write for half an hour a day, don’t set yourself a 1000 word goal. You won’t achieve it, and every time you fail to achieve it, you’re giving yourself a reason not to write the next day rather than a reason to write.
Write out of order
This one works brilliantly for lots of writers, though others may find that jumping ahead to the exciting bits makes the task of coming back to connect it all seem harder. It can also mean a bit more work in the edit, trying to get everything to flow.
But with that note of warning out of the way, it can be immensely helpful, if you’ve hit a bit of a slow day, to skip ahead and write that scene you’ve been thinking about for ages. And it also has the added bonus of solidifying a part of the story in your mind – it exists, there in the document, and when you go back to where you left off, you’ve got that landmark to head for.
Find your magic track
A while back, I saw a writer post about a particular piece of music, Experience by Ludovico Einaudi – apparently known as a productivity-enhancing track – on a Facebook group and curious (and always looking for new ways to procrastinate), I decided to give it a try. And you know what: it actually worked. I was surprised just how quickly the words started to flow and I really like the chapter that I ended up with. It should be noted though, that a) it’s an intense piece, so not likely to help with funny or lighthearted scenes; and b) I’m highly suggestible, so there’s every chance you could tell me that listening to ‘Come On Eileen’ on repeat would make me write faster and it would.
But there is definitely something in finding the right music for your book – something that immediately summons the mood you’re trying to capture and transports you to your characters’ heads. I know many writers favour film soundtracks – Gone Girl’s, composed by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, is a personal favourite. Just don’t let searching for the perfect one for your novel become a handy procrastination tool…
Nicci Cloke is the author of seven novels, most recently The July Girls (written as Phoebe Locke). She is Faber Academy’s Communications Executive and runs our manuscript assessment and mentoring programmes.
Sabrina Broadbent is the author of three novels and numerous non-fiction titles, and an experienced teacher of creative writing at Faber Academy and Arvon, and a Royal Literary Fund fellow at UCL.
Sarah May is author of seven novels, including The Nudist Colony, which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. She has been a tutor of creative writing for over fifteen years.
Sarah and Sabrina will both be teaching on the evening iteration of January’s six-month Writing a Novel course in London.