What If You Can’t “Just Write”?
How to write when you have no time
Most writing advice boils down to variations of “just write”. It’s not bad advice, per se. You will not get that novel done if you don’t write it.
But what good is that for those of us who can’t “just write”? Those of us with full-time jobs (or more than one job) and young families?
Take my situation. I’m 34, with a full-time job, a marriage, a baby daughter and a cat. I often do overtime at work to make ends meet, which sometimes means rising as early as 5am. Getting up an hour earlier than normal — or staying up an hour later — to squeeze some writing in isn’t doable. At least, it’s not doable if I want to perform well at work to earn the money that keeps the lights on.
I can’t write at work, my job doesn’t allow it, and my lunch break is just long enough to eat lunch. Banging out a novel in that time is not an option either.
And when I get home there’s simply no time. I can’t just make time. There are things to do around the house. Most importantly spending time with my family, then there’s cooking dinner, washing up, maybe laundry, or vacuuming, or cleaning a room — often it can get to 9 or 10pm before the opportunity to sit down and write presents itself. And sometimes, the opportunity doesn’t crop up at all.
Yet I still manage. I write on Medium, I spent a year combining writing and sub-editing gigs for Just Football, I’ve written for Movie Pilot and WhatCulture and for The Mighty, and have published two short story collections. Finishing a full-length novel is my white whale but I’m confident I’ll get there.
Set a goal of 10 minutes per day
This is a tip I first heard from Shaunta Grimes and it’s stuck with me. A lot of writing advice suggests setting aside an hour (or more) or giving yourself a certain word count to aim for. But that can be daunting. If you’ve somehow carved an hour from your busy day and know you have to write, say, 2000 words, you might find that the words don’t come.
Ten minutes, though, is easier. No pressure. No word count. Just ten minutes, and get out as much or as little as you can muster. Ten minutes isn’t a chore, ten minutes isn’t as impossible to find as an hour. Ten minutes is a daily habit you can stick to — and you might be surprised by how much you can get down in ten minutes!
Use your phone
Smartphones are a blessing and a curse for the modern writer. They can be a time suck — how many novels are unwritten because of the easily availability of Facebook and Instagram? — but they provide the ability to write anywhere.
I rarely have time to sit down at my laptop, but I can grab my phone for a few minutes. Google Docs is brilliant for this, I can tap away at my phone and then, whenever I get any time at the computer, what I’ve written is waiting for me. If your writing something for Medium, then the Medium app is great for this too. This is also a good idea if you commute to work on public transport. I got a lot of writing done this way when I used to commute by train.
Can’t type? Dictate!
These days I commute by car, so any writing going to/from work is a no-no.
Or is it?
If you’re driving you could use your phone as a dictaphone. Most smartphones come with some kind of built-in app for recording voice notes, and I find this is useful for a quick recording of ideas while I’m driving — because you know you will have forgotten that idea when the journey’s over.
Others use more sophisticated voice-to-text apps to dictate their novel as they drive. Remember you might have some typos to clean up (depending on the quality of your phone’s mic and the app you choose) but it’s easier to edit that than a blank page. Just remember, though, that you’re still driving and don’t take your eye totally off the road.
Acknowledge your distractions
I know I said above that I rarely have any free time to just write. And that is true often. But sometimes I do, and I need to acknowledge that sometimes, I waste that time.
Not that I need to write in every second of free time I get. Sometimes it’s nice, and necessary, to just relax with no particular obligations. But I also have time where I know I could — and should — write but get distracted instead. Facebook is a big distraction for me (even though I also hate it a bit) as is Netflix. And I’m not a big gamer, but Football Manager is a huge problem. A particular “bonus” of the game is that I can play it on my laptop in “windowed” mode, so I can play it with my work in progress open at the same time and convince myself that this is productive writing time (spoiler: it is not).
I’m sure we all have similar distractions in our lives. The solution? For me, it’s drastic measures. I have a browser extension that will block certain domains for a specific time period. When I plan to write it’s set to block my favourite websites. If my phone is nearby, I’m either turning it off or putting it on airplane mode. With more willpower than me it might be a simple case of acknowledging that you won’t be able to use Facebook — or whatever your distraction is — for ten minutes or however long you plan to write for.
Use your allies
We think of writing as a solitary pursuit, the creative genius alone in a secluded cabin or creating an unseen masterpiece in the dead of night.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Whether you live with your partner, children, family and/or friends, let them in on your writing schedule. Book in some time with them, in advance, when you want to be writing. Ask if they can leave you be with no distractions for that time, be it an hour or just ten minutes.
An hour a day may not be workable if you have a particularly busy household, but an hour a week might it. It may not sound like much, but an hour a week of pure writing time could result in a lot of words (if you don’t procrastinate!).
The people we’re closest to want us to succeed as much as we do. If you can’t find any time to write then let them know — they will help find some space for you to do it.
It isn’t as easy to write as some online gurus would have you believe. But it can be done if you maximise whatever you can carve out, and accept help from people close to you.