Episode 024: Making the Most of Your Writing Time
If you listened to last week, you know that we’re trying to get our productivity systems on point in readiness for National Novel Writing Month. We kicked things off by going through the process of carving out time for this challenge. This week, we’re going to look at ways to make the most out of that time. Think of it as sort of an expanded remix on #1 from last week: “Finding Your Writing Zone.”
Almost 20 years ago, four researchers of the National Writing Project of Acadiana in Louisiana published a study on writing rituals. They studied over one hundred writers of all types, across a wide range of ages and experience levels. They found that “regardless of sex, nationality, genre, or age, rituals are an integral part of a writer’s creative process.”
While some of the rituals were more compulsive or eccentric than others, all of them helped the writers to: *Decrease writing related anxiety, *Increase a sense of control over their writing efforts, and *Improve their writing. “Who, What, When, and Where of Writing Rituals.” (The Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4)
Sound like something you might like to add to your writing life? Helpful, right?! So how can you find the best ritual(s) for you and your writing career? My answer is to “Get Meta.”
Merrian-Webster defines “Meta” as “showing or suggesting an explicit awareness of itself or oneself as a member of the category: cleverly self-referential. That’s not exactly what I mean. What I’m really referring to is “meta-analysis,” but their definition of that (“a quantitative statistical analysis of several separate experiments or studies in order to test the pooled data for statistical significance”) is enough to put you to sleep.
I think that, believe it or not, the Urban Dictionary actually does a better job. Taking a break from listing the most unsettling things that humans can come up with, the Urban Diction defines meta this way: “Meta means about the thing itself. It’s seeing the thing from a higher perspective instead of from within the thing, like being self-aware.”
Gabriela Periera, the mastermind behind all things DIY MFA and a personal hero to me, says the following when she talks about the importance of this process, which she refers to in a larger way as “iteration.”
When you iterate and test out different aspects of your writing process, it pushes you to become a more mindful writer. Mindfulness and meditation are techniques that I’ve been exploring, both in my writing life and my real life over the years. The idea of mindfulness is to become aware of your mind–to observe your thoughts and where they go– but then to be able to let them go. When you practice iteration in your writing process, it makes you more aware of your habits: both what works and what doesn’t. As you iterate and observe your habits, you’ll become better able to shape your process and become a more effective and productive writer. When you iterate and test your process, it pushes you to adopt a meta-view of your writing. This creates a certain distance between you and your work, distance that can help you gain a more objective perspective about your project. https://diymfa.com/writing/more-productive-writer
Writers’ rituals often involve more than one of these four valuables. To make the most of your writing time, get meta about them to discover your current optimal mix of circumstances.
Mindset or behavior rituals focus on attending to your frame of mind and intentionally setting your habits/actions/responses to situations. We want you sitting down present, open, and available to the work. Some examples include:
Mantras and Affirmations: We’ve talked a bit about this one in Episode 017 | The Words You Say to Yourself. These are the words that accompany you on your writing journey. Bring good ones.
Fake it ‘Til You Make It: Cary Grant, who was born Archibald Alec Leach and grew up with a Cockney accent, once said that he practiced being Cary Grant every day until he was Cary Grant. Do the same thing with your writing. Practice being the writer you want to be until you are that writer.
Little Habits: Sharpening pencils or making coffee are both popular ones. Meditation is becoming more and more popular all the time.
Environmental rituals focus on the actual space where writing happens. Some examples include:
Same/Different: Do you, like Amy Tan, prefer the familiarity of writing in the same location every time, surrounded by your talismans and your pets? Or are you like my friend Robin who likes to write in lots of different places around town? What works best for you?
Home/Away: Maya Angelou was known at times to rent a hotel room to do her writing. She liked for there to be zero distractions (even to the point of having the pictures on the wall removed ahead of time). For some people, there’s already enough unfamiliar and uncertain about entering the writing process itself. They like having the home-court advantage, something familiar
Clean/Messy: E.B. White liked things spare, whereas Jean Piaget felt more comfortable in chaos (see pictures below). Most of us fall somewhere in between. And the way you are in other areas may not carry over to your writing space. Judy Blume tells the story in her masterclass that while she liked her family’s living space neat, her writing office looked like a hurricane had hit it.
Desk/Elsewhere: Meg Cabot famously writes in bed. Hemingway liked to stand while he wrote. I have a friend who can only write in one particular chair. What’s right for you?
Talismans: Gail Goodwin and many others like using or being surrounded by lucky objects. What is something that you can add to your space (whether at home or on the elsewhere, at a desk or elsewhere) that can serve as a reminder to be resilient, to show up, to be free/open/brave in your writing? Or that reminds you of the kind of story you want to write or why you’re writing it?
Time rituals focus on either the time of day that writing happens or the length of time that it occurs. Some examples include:
Pomodoros: Most writers I know these days swear by Pomodoros or Word Sprints. For most people that means some variation of 25 minutes of focused writing and then a 5-minute break. They repeat this cycle until they either hit their target word count or the time they’ve set aside for their writing that day.
Regularity/Spontaneity: How important is it to you that you write at the same time every day? The regularity that some find comforting, others find restrictive or oppressive.
Time of Day: Toni Morrison is famous for making the time of day an important part of her writing ritual. She liked to get up while it’s still dark and “watch the light come.” She described as “my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular…Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives.” Mornings are super popular, but not the only game in town. I have a friend who is a night owl and so is her muse.
Before/After/While Something Else Happens: Jennifer Blanchard (and so, so many others) swear by writing before they do anything else. Meg Cabot won’t get out of bed until she’s written her quota for the day. Some people write while they’re riding public transportation (J.K. Rowlings) or while their kids are at soccer practice or right after their family goes to bed for the night. Larry Sweazy writes right after he walks his dogs. Is there something in your life that can serve as a “Trigger Opportunity” for your writing?
Same/Different Amount of Time: Do you like the rhythm of a certain amount of time every day or is it inconsequential to you? For some, it’s about the number of words they get down. When they cross that line, they’re done. For others, it’s about a certain amount of time. For instance, Lauren Graham has some advice (that lots of people swear by) that is about sticking to a set amount of time, even if you’re “just” writing in your journal.
Average Length of Writing Time: Is there a point that you get diminishing returns on your time? Make sure you don’t stay in your writing zone past the point that it’s beneficial. You’ll just drain your batteries. Leave when you’ve still got enough zip left to be excited about tomorrow’s session.
Number of Days Per Week: Stephen King famously writes every day (including his birthday and Christmas). Others, like Jennifer Blanchard, prefers to write five days a week minimum. Others choose to take weekends or days off to recharge their batteries in other ways. I met the delightful Cliff Anthony at a conference. He writes fiction one day a week. Monday through Friday he focuses on his newspaper column and teaching his journalism classes. Saturday is for chores and family outings. Sundays are for him and his writing.
Blitzes/Steady Eddie: Do you like to write for intense stretches (like NaNoWriMo, for instance) and then take a break or does a more steady-as-she-goes the right approach for you?
Ambiance rituals focus on the sensory aspects of writing. Examples include:
Sound/Silence: Katherine Anne Porter wrote best in silence. Stephen King loves to play loud music. Some people can’t write without at least the murmur of voices. (Hello, Coffitivity!) What’s your best auditory zone?
Sounds with Words/No Words: One writer interviewed for the study needed to hear the ticking of his bathroom clock. I have writing friends who swear by movie soundtracks and video game soundtracks as an alternative to classical music. They prefer music when they’re writing, but are distracted by song lyrics. I would’ve said that I did best in either silence or with the murmur of voices, but I have found from trying out different situations that a radio playing Prince Buster’s greatest hits from the kitchen of the restaurant where I was writing was pretty amazing. And once I got to write in a friend’s New York apartment for a week in the summer and my best writing happened when someone a few blocks over practiced their jazz trumpet late every afternoon. Made me feel like I was in some cool 40’s noir film. So cool music just on the edge of hearing works for me, but otherwise, it’s a distraction.
Foods and Tastes: Toni Morrison has another key component to her routine that’s super common among writers: coffee. Agatha Christie supposedly had an apple while taking a soak in the bathtub as part of her pre-writing ritual. What works for you?
Smell: Is it partially the smell of coffee that matters? Or a particular candle that you always light when, like Lisa Scottoline, you sit down to write?
Touch: Dr. Seuss put on a silly hat when he was struggling with writing. Some people swear by lucky sweaters or just love having the feel of a soft blanket or fuzzy slippers. Others like the hard, slightly uncomfortable seat of a wooden chair to keep them alert and focus. Some like it cold, others warm. What sensory details would make the experience that much more appealing to you?
Check out the resources section for lots of info on how other writers work their magic by setting up rituals and routines that work for them. Remember the key to figuring out what’s best for you is easy-peasy:
Get “meta” and pay attention to how it’s working.
Either keep doing it if it’s working or try something else if it isn’t working as well as you’d like.
And in between, don’t forget to take care of yourself, enjoy your friends and family, do whatever other work you may have, etc.
Next week I’ll be giving you an overview of the types of writing tools out there that might make your job a little easier. Obviously, Scrivener will be there, but I’ll be inviting quite a few others to the party so you can become acquainted. Until then, happy writing. people!
#1 Tool to Make You a More Productive Writer by Gabriela Pereira
5 Rituals and Routines that Changed My Writing Life by Jennifer Blanchard
8 Strange Rituals of Productive Writers by Kelton Reid
12 Writers Discuss Writing: From the “Writers on Writing” Column in the NYTimes by Richard Nordquist
13 Strange Rituals Famous Writers Used to Spark Creativity by Ashley Macey
15 Authors on Their Writing Habits and Rituals by Taylor Bryant
Do More and Have Fun with Time Management by Francesco Cirillo, founder of the Pomodoro Technique
Five Famous Authors and Their Strange Writing Rituals by The Writer’s Circle
Get Started with the Pre-Writing Rituals of These Seven Top-Notch Talents by Writing Routines
Who, What, When, and Where of Writing Rituals by Kathleen O’Shaughnessy, Connie McDonald, Harriet Maher, Ann Dobie