Ah, blissful! After a demanding spring of teaching, summer has arrived — and with it, long days of novel revision. As often as I post about Novel Revision Strategies, one of the biggest strategies is how to manage time to get the most out of time to write.
Today, this had me reflecting on the strategies that help writers work long days on novel writing or revision to successfully reach writing milestones but not burn out or kill energy for the work.
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1) Purge all those distractions.
If I were only going to write for 30 minutes before going to a day job, this step would be considered a distraction. But, on days when you plan to write or revise all day, there’s only so far you can ignore other tasks (trust me, I’ve pushed it). Here’s a quick cycle I let myself run through to remove distractions before writing:
- Get refreshed. For me, it’s coffee. For some writers this might be push-ups, a quick run or walking the dog.
- Keep it clean. Allow a quick 5-15 minutes to make a pass at household tasks. Picking up after the boys, dishes, laundry — whatever handful of things keeps the house going. Generally, this fits in while coffee is brewing. Sometimes I use “count to 10″ for this: pick a random number like 10, 20 or 25 — and quickly knock out that many of something. As a parent, this step usually involves cleaning; another writer might need this time to schedule an oil change or other kind of maintenance. Or be so lucky as to be able to skip this one altogether. Jealous.
- Follow up for 10. We all hear warnings to stay away from email, social media and other distractions. But look, we take time to build important connections – so while I agree it’s important to write first, I give myself 10 minutes to tend the fires I stoked the day before. I don’t tend client projects here; those I schedule other times in the day.
- Know your plan. Whether you have a written to-do list or a general idea in your head, have a sense of your writing goals for the day, with all materials on hand.
Everyone good? Kids busy with an activity? Somebody fed the cat? Nothing is on fire? Then hunker down.
2) Write. One hour (or two). Uninterrupted.
For the work I’m doing today, 1 hour works. You might rather 2 hours. Whatever your number, it’s pure writing time.
Somewhere in the fidgeting above, I will already have in my head what the morning’s work should be. This week, the goal is to get as far through a complete read through (and revision) as possible. I’m working from a printed draft, so I will have shot that print job to the printer in 100-page chunks while checking email or some other menial task prior to writing. Yeah: no “I couldn’t write because I spent my hour fixing a printer jam or replacing print cartridges.”
No chat. No email. No phone or text or social media. No pausing for drinks or bathroom. If you’re a clock-watcher, use the timer on your cell phone to remove that distraction. Fall purely into writing for one straight hour.
3) Time for a break.
When I’m draft-writing, I write for hours on end, as long as the ideas are flowing. For revision: blocks of time. In the breaks in between, I might be revisiting some of those same tasks from morning’s distraction purge. Check the kids. Switch the laundry. Walk the dog. Get a snack. Another coffee. A phone call. Short tasks from other areas of my to-do list.
Again, I’m not a proponent of staying away from social media, so I would check Twitter, Facebook or my blog. I might share an accomplishment from the morning — connecting with other writers working on their goals at the same time is a great way to keep yourself going.
But I aim for a break to be 30 minutes, not longer. Sometimes it’s just a stretch, refill coffee and…
4) Back to it.
Lots of successful writers will say their complete writing goal for a day might be 2 hours’ work. For me, during summers away from teaching, my aim is 4 hours on a short day, but as long as 8-10 hours for a full day of writing or revision. I get there by repeating these 2 hour blocks of work.
Do I have to stick with the clock? Not precisely.
Using time blocks helps structure the day and keep you honest – both in your discipline and the need to stop for breaks. But the day’s goals may dictate more organic work-blocks: retyping chapters one and two might fit neatly into one hour, or might prompt a sidetrack into research over the actual date the TSA was started. Maybe that block will be 1.5 hours, and maybe another block will be just 30 minutes, since it involves an intensive re-evaluation of my character’s inner motivation that requires a breather for reflection afterward.
I don’t stop to a factory bell if I am in the middle of something. Likewise, sometimes a task goes more quickly — or is more draining, so you need a break sooner than expected.
Having minimum or maximum time blocks can help you stay on track. If I planned to write an hour, I’ll push myself to keep going if it’s been less than 45 minutes. If I planned an hour but keep going off on tangents, I might control this by stopping if it goes past 2 hours.
Are you working at home with family? Honoring time blocks also helps to manage that temptation to get lost in writing and forget a promise you made to take kids to the pool or go out to dinner with your partner.
5) Break up the work
To achieve 8 and even 10 hour days, I’ll keep repeating breaks and time blocks to stay refreshed but productive throughout the day.
Time blocks also help to create natural shifts in the work.
For me, this might mean 4 hours on the novel, then 2 writing for my blog or clients, or to work on submissions. Or I might break it into hours for revision, versus hours for research or drafting new material. Shifts in work help keep you from burning out. I use a color-coded Outlook calendar to keep a visual of the time needed and available for each, throughout the week.
You can also shift location. This morning I have certain work (like this post) that has to be done on household wifi. But I’ve packaged afternoon revisions so I can take them with me to the beach, which allows me to honor time with my boys. Flexibility in where you work is a great strategy for buying time to write.
6) Celebrate an accomplishment.
Keep yourself going by celebrating a milestone. Intrinsic rewards can be something as simple as flipping through all the editing marks you’ve made on a printed manuscript or reviewing your word count for the day. One friend kept tally of her word count on her mousepad at the end of every day.
Make it social by sharing this. Lots of us keep each other going by posting our day’s milestones to Twitter or a goals group with writing friends online. Some share their word counts on NaNoWriMo software during challenges throughout the year. Tell your partner or your kids. Build in a fun reward, like a festive drink or night out with friends.
Or… yes, there are days when the “celebrate” step is replaced with “chastise.” Do reassess goals for the following day if a milestone wasn’t reached or new issues came up.
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What About You?
What time strategies do you use to reach your writing goals? Am I alone in trying to work 8-hour writing/editing days (I doubt that)? How do you keep yourself both refreshed and moving toward your goals? Or, post a question if you think readers here could help you solve your writing-schedule challenges.
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