I was chatting with a good friend the other day and we started to talk about optimal writing time and how to structure a longer project. The thing is that when you write anything long you don’t simply have to consider the project itself – you’ve got to fit it into your life. So I thought I’d jot down some of the things we discussed to try to make sense of them.
Look back and learn
Do you know when you write best? And by ‘best’ I mean when you’re able to focus, when your energy is most likely to be right for the task? Look back on times you’ve written successfully before. By ‘successfully’ I mean you finished the thing you were working on – over one session or several – and you were pleased with the result, or that you successfully turned up and wrote something. Now ask ‘why did it work?’ Simply list what was good about it. Then ask ‘why didn’t it work?’. List what didn’t go so well.
The 5am wake-up call
Here’s a made up example. I turned up at 5am and worked on my novel for three days out of five. This worked because I wrote 2,000 words of a complicated scene, there was nobody else around, and this is the time of day I feel most inspired. It didn’t work because on two of those days the kids woke up earlier than usual meaning I didn’t get the two hours I planned.
Discovering your optimal time
To work out your optimal time, if you don’t already have a sense of it, put a notebook where you’re likely to see it regularly (by the kettle for example) and every time you see the notebook, write down what you were doing prior to your break and what your energy was like. Do this for long enough to get a sense of how you’re spending your time and what your energy is like over the course of a day. It could take a couple of weeks. This is called time tracking. You can read more about it here.
Experiment with different writing slots
Your optimal writing time is not necessarily when you are most energetic and it’s definitely not when you’re tired. To discover when and where you write best, try writing for half an hour at different times of the day, in different locations. If this is a new habit for you, set yourself reminders and carry a notebook with you during the day.
What’s the ideal length of a writing session for you?
Now work out how long a writing session needs to be for you to feel you’ve done a good job but that you’re not burnt out by the end of it. Try writing for a specific length of time – set a timer or get someone to interrupt you with a cup of tea – how do you feel at the end? Worn out? Energetic? Wishing you could carry on? Experiment with this, because you might find you stop naturally after a certain amount of time. Once you know how long your ideal writing session is, work out how many words you tend to write over this period of time, and whether you need to take a break half way through.
An alternative approach
The other way of identifying your ideal length of writing session is to start with a number of words. (By the way, if you’re a poet, this way probably won’t work – do it the other way – and if you’re a screenwriter, use number of pages.) Work out how long it takes you to write the first draft of a certain number of words based on writing you’ve done before – 500 or 1000 words are good targets to aim for. Or try going to your favourite cafe and writing 1000 words – don’t leave the café till you’re done. Record how long it takes you and how you feel energy-wise afterwards.
What does it take for you to get into a flow state during that writing session?
When people suggest ‘warm up activities’ before you start a writing session, they can sound superfluous, but I think their main purpose is to get you into the flow state. The flow state is the creative state of mind where you focus on your work, are totally absorbed by it, and forget about the time or what’s going on around you for a while. Think back to something you’ve worked on before – a time when have you previously been in the flow state – and ask yourself what worked. Here are two techniques you can try to get into a flow state: freewriting and direct observation from life. I talk about both in my free course on Starting to Write.
How long do you need to warm up?
Take the amount of time you need for your flow state activity and add this to the optimal length of your writing session. So my best time to write is first thing in the morning, my optimal length of session is two hours including a half an hour warm up, usually spent freewriting. I don’t take a break but I really need one at the end of the session, preferable a walking break, and I need to sip water throughout. If I don’t, I get burnt out quickly. These observations occurred to me because I deliberately thought about the writing process, what worked and what didn’t. Everyone’s process is different, but everyone is able to observe and record what works well and what doesn’t, given some time and flexibility and a willingness to experiment.
Where will you write?
Now you know the optimal time of day and length of session, focus on where you’re going to write. Time and space to write go hand in hand. Be flexible in your thinking about this. Your space could be portable – have a writing bag that you take to the same cafe with you, or keep your stuff on a tray by your bed and write for half an hour when you wake up. Your space doesn’t have to be perfect.
Use mental markers
If in doubt, brainstorm all the possible writing spaces in your life. Could you use the spare room, or go to the library? Make use of the information you already have. Where did you write best last time you worked on a writing project? Don’t set up a writing space elsewhere just because you read about someone else doing it! When you set up your space, try to include some markers to make your brain think of your writing project – a special notebook, a postcard or photograph, or an object that makes you think of your research.
What to do with the information you’ve gathered
So now you know your optimal writing time, session length and writing space, how do you fit this into your day? Here’s what I suggest. Look at your whole week and decide if there are any opportunities to fit in a writing session. You will probably have to compromise on your ideal time / length / space at first but you can work towards them. Ask others for support, work out if there’s anything you can delegate or share and take a look at how you are using your time generally. If you need help doing this, I have a couple of resources for you: have a look at Find Time To Do What You Love. I’ve also put some 30 second tips up on YouTube.
Now work hard to establish a writing habit because, more than anything else, it’s turning up that will get your book written. Don’t feel that you have to write every day for this to work. Regular is much more important that every day. In fact, the ‘rule’ that you have to write every day (if it’s unachievable) can stop you from turning up. If you have trouble establishing a writing habit, try my free ebook Find Time to Write, which gives you a series of writing prompts to use to get started.
What to do with your writing time now you’ve got it
Remember that redrafting is the secret sauce that will make your writing process work. Start gently. Work on generating words first. Make lists. Use freewriting. Use direct observation from life. What you do next depends on what you want to write.
- If you’re writing poetry, making lists of words, and using direct observation from life and freewriting regularly may be enough to kick off your writing habit. Take a look at my course on poetry writing, where I address some of the issues specific to poets.
- If you’re writing nonfiction, I suggest taking a topic you’re interested in and coming up with subheadings. Then create mini-subheadings underneath each one and treat that as a task list – either for research or as a guide to show you which bit of the narrative you need to write next.
- If you’re writing a story, a novel or a script, invent some characters. There are tips on how to do that here. Once you’ve written as if you’re in your characters’ shoes, as if you were playing them on stage or TV, take a look at some of the information out there on plotting. I like K.M. Weiland’s books on structuring and outlining a novel. You can also get the information from my book on writing a novel – called How to Write a Novel and Get It Published – and I’ve got a free video series on planning a novel that you can access here.
If you’d like to work out how long your writing project will take, have a look at the next blog post in this series: Remember You’ve Got a Life.
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