Most writers I know are busy people. Even full-time writers have busy lives. So how does someone with a full-time job, a family to care for, or other obligations, find time to write? As someone who has managed to figure out a way to write every day, despite being busy with life, I occasionally get asked how I do it. Part of it comes down to discipline and desire. Part of it comes down to strategies for dealing with when your routine goes sideways, something that happens frequently when you are busy. Over the last 651 days, I have managed to form the habit of writing every day. Sometimes, I don’t write much, maybe 100 words. Other days I suprise myself with several thousand words. Most typically, however, I manage 800–1,000 words per day. For me, that amounts to 35–45 minutes of my time each day.
The fact is I can’t find much more time than that. If I want to write more, I need to find ways of making more efficient use of my writing time. Over the last few years, there are three things that have allowed me to get the most out of the 35–45 minutes I have each day. These have worked well for me, but everyone is different, so your mileage may vary.
1. Keep the tools simple
One of the biggest time-sinks I’ve experienced as a writer is spending time messing with the tools that I use to write instead of actually writing. Back when I started writing every day, I made the deliberate decision to use Google Docs for all of my writing. I did this because it was a very simple tool. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles, and that means there aren’t a whole lot of things to distract me.
Today, I try to keep my writing tools as simple as possible. When I am writing, my Google Docs window is open in full-screen (distraction-free) mode, and I try to make it look as much like a piece of paper in a typewriter as I can. I use a template for all of my writing, so that I never have to bother with formatting. I just write.
Whatever tool you prefer to use, consider whether it simplifies the act of writing, complicates it, or adds unnecessary distractions. You don’t need to change the tool you use, but you can explore options for making it simpler to use, as well as ways you can eliminate unnecessary distractions.
I’d much rather spend my time writing than formatting, saving, finding documents, emailing files. With Google Docs, I’ve eliminated just about all of the time I spent doing that — time which I now use to squeeze in a little more writing each day.
2. Plotting vs. pantsing
Plotting is the act of planning out a story or article in advance of writing. “Pantings” is the act of writing on-the-fly. Pantsing is not the opposite of plotting. It is a different path to the same end. Often, plotting and pantsing are two ends of a single spectrum. I know writers who have to outline a story in detail before writing a single word. I know other writers who just start writing without any planning at all. After years of experimenting with each of these, I have found that I am closer to the pantsing end of the spectrum. I generally know how a story will start, and where I would like it to end. Then I start writing and see what happens.
My first drafts, in some sense, have become the playground in which I figure out what is happening in a story. No one ever sees those first drafts. I am telling myself the story. Because of this, I force myself to always move forward in a first draft. I don’t rewrite. I rarely spending time proofreading a first draft. Why would I? No one but me is going to see it. But working this way allows me to move quickly through a first draft. I know that it does not have to be perfect.
I am not arguing for one method over the other. By taking time to plot things out carefully, you might be able to write a first draft and never need a second draft, and that allows you to save time. But for the kind of writing I do — in 20-to-40 minute sprints each day, I found after a lot of experimentation that pantsing works best for me. It is worth doing some experimenting of your own to see what method will allow you to spend the most time actually writing.
3. Focus on the creative work and automate the other parts.
When I sit down to write, I want to use as much of the 20-, 30-, or 40- minutes — whatever I have that day — for actually writing. Tracking my writing statistics, preparing manuscripts, sending files back and forth to editors, all of those stuff, while necessary, takes away time from writing.
Over the years, I have tried to automate as much of the routine and repeatable stuff as possible. For instance, I write my Google Docs Writing Tracker scripts, which automate the process of capturing my writing statistics each day. All I have to do is write; these scripts run automatically each night and do the statistical work for me.
Where possible, when working with an editor, I simply share my Google Doc with the editor. We can collaborate in realtime. I can see their edits and comments, and they can see mine. There is no need to spend time emailing files back and forth.
Google Docs also has the advantage of being cloud-based, which means I don’t have to spend time saving files. That happens automatically. I can access the files from whereever I happen to be, so I don’t have to spend time syncing files or copying them back and forth. This is another place where I save just a little time, but it adds up.
When it is time to produce and submit a manuscript, I have scripts I have written for automating most of that process, too. Again, I want to be able to use my limited to write, not perform all of the administrative functions around writing.
Of course, I still wish I had more time to write each day. But I am pleased with the fact that over the course of the last 651 days, I’ve been able to write nearly 600,000 words, all in the space of 20–40 minutes each day. And while I don’t have more time to spend writing each day, I have used the techniques I described above to make better use of that 20–40 minutes.