4 Tricks to Improve Writing Productivity

coffee(Photo credit: David Niblack, Imagebase.net)

In my last post, I described ways I’ve freed up time for myself to write. Great- I should be churning out novels by the hundred!

Well, no.  Two years later, I finished a handful of short stories, and kept treading water on my novel manuscript.

Something still wasn’t clicking. Then, I joined a writer’s group for a few months, looking for feedback on said manuscript. While attending those meetings, I finished and brought in a new chapter almost every week. Then I stopped going… and one chapter a week became one a month, if that.

There’s something about applying a little pressure to yourself that’s very helpful.  At my full-time job, when I need to get something done, I get it done- even if I have almost no time to do it, even if I don’t feel like it. Why not apply the same discipline toward something I really care about?

Finding time to write is important, but just the beginning. Let’s break down ways to transform opportunity into words on paper.

1. Establish the Habit

I love getting into “the zone” and melting several hours in creativity binges, but getting there always requires me to push past feelings of fatigue, reluctance, and procrastination. I had a long day at work and my brain’s fried. I want to watch this kitten video. Oh wait, there’s this article… oh no, I didn’t study my Spanish for the day!

I mentioned creating a ritual before- a consistent thing you do to signal to your brain, “Put that other crap aside. We’re writing now whether you like it or not, you stubborn son of a bitch.” It should contain a positive element, something you’d miss if you wussed out and didn’t sit down to write. You’re training your brain to respond to this stimulus with writing, and also rewarding yourself for your discipline and dedication.

My ritual: I make a single cup of coffee- something I love and need on weeknights to prevent myself from passing out on the couch- sit down in my writing place, throw on music (I like soundtracks and instrumentals, anything without lyrics) and sometimes light a candle. Then, assuming I’m drafting, I open Scrivener and read a few prior paragraphs to remind myself where I left off. I make myself enter at least a few new sentences, no matter how constipated my brain feels.  If I can’t form sentences, I put down fragments- something I can go back and turn into real sentences later.

vomit_draftActual chunks of word-vomit from my manuscript. Consistent tensing and even full character names are out the window here- I’m just getting thoughts down.

It’s like pushing a boulder down a hill. That momentum will usually carry me into my zone.

2. Eliminate Distractions

If you’re pulled out of your zone, it takes a long time to get back there (I can attest to this as a writer and programmer). Do whatever you can to reduce the chance of something disrupting you.

Some ideas: write in a room with a door you can close (and keep out cats who gnaw on cables to get your attention- ahem). Let your family know you won’t be available during that time. Leave phones, TV, and computers outside if possible.  If you can’t write on anything but your computer (me), but are easily distracted by IMs and tempted to Google this or that (also me), try a few things: first, close out all applications except your word processor and music player. Second, kill any notifications or sounds that might pop up. Third, maximize your word processor window so you can’t see stuff behind it. If it has a “full screen” or “composition mode,” that’s even better.

3. Set Goals and Deadlines. Yes, Seriously

Nooo!  What’s the deal with this?  Creativity doesn’t work on a schedule!

Doesn’t it? I’m not about to diss the revelatory brainstorms we’re all struck with at random points in the day (for me it’s right before falling asleep), and I won’t deny there are days I feel more inspired than others.  However, plenty of good creative work happens as a result of pressure, or a preferred solution falling out.  Coming up with workarounds is a perfect creative exercise, and sometimes those workarounds are better than the original solution.

One example is the famous “duel” scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was originally supposed to be an elaborate melee, Indy’s whip versus the thug’s sword.  As it turned out, Harrison Ford was ill during filming, and couldn’t make it happen.  He asked Steven Spielberg if he could just shoot the guy instead. Fin.  (Read up on the stuff Ford has changed and ad-libbed in various films- he’s really good at enhancing his roles.)

When you treat writing as a nebulous activity that gets done when it gets done, you risk falling victim to Parkinson’s Law, meaning your work in progress might never get done.  Deadlines are a way to create urgency, measure progress, and feel good about how far you’ve come.  You might not always meet them, but striving for them is better than not challenging yourself at all. As mentioned before, I somehow managed to polish a chapter a week around my full-time schedule when I really wanted the feedback.

Daily/weekly/monthly goals feed into this as well. They can be for whatever is most important to you. Here are mine for example (I keep track of them in a spreadsheet for maximum geekiness):

5,000 new words/week between the following:

  • 1 or 2 chapters first-drafted in my manuscript
  • 1 week turnaround time for The Daily WTF from submission to first draft
  • 1 blog post (about 1,000 words)

goal_trackingJanuary 2014 breakdown so far.

Don’t worry about other people’s output capacity, just strive to improve your own over time.  So far, I’ve been exceeding my goal by a few hundred words every week, even with a day or two each week completely off. I might try increasing this to 6,000 next month as a challenge.

Should your goals be SMART? Up to you. I think stretch goals and are-you-f#@king-kidding-me goals can be rewarding too, if used properly.

4. Work Smarter, Not Harder (Barf)

My biggest weakness with writing is that my inner editor is never satisfied.  I’ll go back and tweak things endlessly before I’ve even got a full finished draft.  I’ve spent hours making scenes PAINFULLY AWESOME… only to have to cut them later.

When writing your first draft, stick to putting words on paper. Resist the urge to go back until that part’s done, and you’ve got a good idea what scenes are staying, what scenes are going, and what needs extra work.  Otherwise, you risk churning over the same crap for years.

If you’re like me, questions pop into your head all the time while writing.  “Did he already provide this info?  Was she carrying this item in a prior scene?  Can people actually drown in quicksand?” (The answer is no.)  Instead of stopping to look up this information, I insert TODO comments into my document to remind me to check during a non-writing time.  If it means I can’t work any further on this scene, so be it- I go to a different scene.  Knowing my tendency to get sucked into mesmerizing hours-long info grabs, I don’t let myself start.

And that’s another point: especially while first-drafting, you don’t have to write from A to Z.  Skip around to whatever excites you most.  The scenes you don’t want to write?  Hold off on those and give them some thought.  After all, if you don’t want to write them, no one will want to read them.  Figure out how you can make those more interesting to yourself and your readers.

Good luck!

Applying disciplined effort toward goals sounds an awful lot like work- but, this is work we define for ourselves.  We’re in it for us, our readers, and everyone who believes in us.  Seeing tangible results faster may be the motivation you need to keep from abandoning a work in progress during one of those “dark times.” More on that later…

In the meantime, feel free to comment and share any other tricks you may have!

8 Tricks for Finding Time to Write

hourglass For most of the time I’ve dabbled in writing, I truly was dabbling. It was a hobby I ran with when I had time and inclination, and let slide when I didn’t. Things got done when they got done, if they got done at all (I have a huge folder of things that petered out in 80 pages or fewer).

And that was OK, for a while. Then I decided I wanted to get more serious- buckle down and actually finish the novel I started in 2009. I’d be done in 2012, for sure! Then 2012 slipped by, as did 2013.

Making that commitment didn’t make me any more productive than before. It frustrated me. How was it that I could always power through my work assignments, even the boring stuff, but couldn’t make progress on things that truly meant something to me?

The problem was that I’d changed my attitude, but not my behavior. I was terrified to make writing anything at all like work. Work was an obligation. Writing was my glamorous secret identity where I could relax and play. If writing gained even the slightest stink of work, I’d start to hate it- then what would be left?

Was it really all or nothing, though? Could it be possible to import my work ethic, but not all the other stuff I disliked (meetings, test plans, dragging my butt out of bed at unholy hours)?

I decided to give it a go. The first step was freeing up time to write. Never mind that I’m a zombie most weeknights- I’d worry about that later. I’ve been experimenting with different tricks to houseclean my schedule, and I hope you find them useful as well:

1. Journal your time for a week or more

Record what you do for every hour of the day. As with all budgeting activities, it’s a truly eye-opening experience.  How many hours are devoted to sleep, work, commuting, chores, TV, goofing off on social media, or playing The Walking Dead (and then curling up in a corner to sob)?  Once you have hard data, you can start on analysis.

wordcountchartCongratulations- you’re a manager!

2. Decide what your priorities are

Soul-searching time.  Decide what activities are important to you (ex. work, exercise, cooking) and what aren’t.  Now, where does writing rank among those?  For me, it’s pretty high, so stuff that isn’t as important as writing is getting reduced or eliminated.  I’m not giving up Google+ or sobbing because holy shit they killed off another character, but I split my weeknights so some are devoted to decomposing on the couch, and others are devoted to writing.

Also, are there any tasks you hate doing? Do they sap a lot of your time, mood, and energy? This may be a great time to figure out how not to do them, or do them better. I’ve successfully negotiated work-from-home arrangements because I really dislike commuting, for instance.

Everyone’s priorities and schedules are different. You may have a grueling schedule and can’t do much about it right now. In that case, you may need to acknowledge that writing isn’t a priority for you- right now.  It’s OK- where you are currently is never permanent.  You can always take steps to re-prioritize in the future.

Once you’re down to the essentials, you can look at ways to save time on the stuff that can’t be eliminated.

3. Delegate tasks you don’t have to do yourself

My spouse and I split chores.  We use Amazon Subscribe & Save to have some items shipped on a recurring schedule, saving us trips to the store.  Others go so far as to hire personal assistants from India to handle their bill-paying, blog-writing, and other stuff. That’s a little extreme for my tastes, but the option exists and works well for some people.

4. Consolidate tasks you have to do yourself

Most of us can’t ask to work fewer hours in a day, but we can reduce the amount of time errands and chores take out of our schedules. Tim Ferriss broke down the concept of “batching” tasks in his book The 4-Hour Work Week. Bundle up related items to do just once or a few times each week.

For instance, save up all your bills/invoices from the week and spend 30 minutes on one night of the week reviewing and paying them. Go grocery shopping no more than once a week. Wait to do kitchen-related chores when you’re in the kitchen anyway.  (Waiting for the microwave to beep is a great time to put away dishes.) Other ideas: make meals ahead of time to be frozen/consumed through the week, or run multiple outside errands in one trip.

5. Relax standards where possible

Let things be “good enough” rather than “perfect.” For example, I’m toning myself down from super-anal to just mostly-anal when it comes to keeping the house clean.  Certain chores are still weekly affairs (ex. laundry), but others are now just for when company’s coming over, or I can’t stand it anymore (ex. dusting).

6. If you can’t overcome temptation, get rid of temptations

Cancel cable TV and put away gaming consoles. Write in a notebook, if you find yourself hitting your web browser every five minutes. Drastic perhaps, but you can’t waste a whole evening farting around on the Internet if you’ve put away your computer and unplugged your router.

7. Make writing appointments, and keep them

Once you have room on your calendar, decide when it is you like to write and make recurring appointments at those times.  Don’t let anything short of a true emergency disrupt them. When appointment time comes, create a little ritual to get your brain used to the idea that this is writing time. I like to sit down with coffee, start up music, and occasionally light a candle as well.

hd-wallpapers-valentine-s-day-candle-light-dinner-1196x837-wallpaperOoh baby, you’ll be dropping 3,000 words like THAT

It’s not guaranteed that I’ll throw down gleaming pages of awesomeness every time.  That’s not the point. The important thing is not letting myself wimp out. Even on days I don’t feel up to it, I’m surprised what happens once I sit myself down and grind out a few sentences.

8. “Ninja” writing into your day

If nothing else works, you could try sneaking writing into your normal day.  Jot down notes during your commute, if you’re not driving or biking.  Slip away to write during your lunch break.  At slow points through the day, write in a notebook or application like Evernote, Simplenote, or Google Docs- that way, you can access it from other computers without having to save and email files around.  Throw on headphones and look busy.  If you’re super ballsy, you could even schedule a meeting just for yourself on the calendar so coworkers don’t bother you.  (You could.  No actual endorsement of this suggestion implied, OK pointy-haired bosses of the world?)

Personally, I don’t get good fiction done this way, but it works well for blog posts and articles. Slow time at DAYJOB might also be a good time to do light research for anything you may be writing- unless Internet traffic is heavily monitored. If you’re not an IT nerd already, make some friends in your IT department and ask them about how/if Internet activity is watched. We don’t bite.

Good luck!

With more time to write- even if it’s only an extra 15 minutes a week- you open up an opportunity you didn’t have before. Taking maximum advantage of that opportunity is what I’ll be breaking down next. What are your favorite time-creating tips?  Feel free to comment and let me know!

Everyone’s A Storyteller

Chances are good that if you’re here, you tell stories all the time. If you don’t think you do, you might think differently in a moment.

Stories are, hands-down, the best way to communicate information in a way that’s engaging and relevant.  Whether you’re trying to make friends at the bar or land that huge account, science proves the benefit of being a good storyteller.

Wired for the Narrative

Before we could print and bind books, the human race gathered around campfires to relate how we killed that lion, or how an unexpected turn in our daily walk led to a new patch of berries. Hearing about someone else’s actions and descriptions lights up our brain in a way that naked facts can’t (more info here if you’re interested).  A full narrative has a beginning, middle, and end. When we recognize the beginning of a narrative, our brains jump on board. If the storyteller advances the narrative in a competent, coherent fashion, we’ll stick with him/her to the end.

I wrote two introductory posts for this blog. One is a brief hello and what I intend for the future of this blog. The other is a story about how I came to be here, and the transition I’ll be making toward more serious writing. Which one’s more compelling? In the first one, Ellis is yet another hopeful would-be author/blogger who wants to do the author/blogger thing- whatever. In the second, Ellis is presenting her unique history and baring large, bloody chunks of her heart (eww- she should probably put those back).

Stories humanize the storyteller.  He/She becomes interesting and relatable, rather than a spewer of words I should probably pay attention to, but… ugh, if this is all in the PowerPoint, I’m just gonna read that.

See the Hidden Stories

Salesmen, marketers, propagandists, and politicians already know how well humans respond to stories. They spin profound tales to influence your behavior, oftentimes without it being explicit. Many of the most infamous ads ever made tell stories- about the noble savage who mourns the destruction of America’s landscape; about an innocent girl vaporized in nuclear holocaust, because her parents voted for Barry Goldwater. Think of the puppy who grows up before our eyes, strong and happy, on the right dog food; or the family Christmas that isn’t complete until a gift-wrapped luxury automobile rolls down the snow-covered driveway.  (The story ends before the years of crushing car payments begin.)

It isn’t all cynical, though. Consider customer testimonials and product reviews. Someone tries something, has a positive or negative experience, and relates his/her story. Sure, it’s nice to get a description of features from a manufacturer, but we feel much better about buying or passing when informed with the experience of others.

It’s Your Turn

What about you, storyteller?  How can/have you put stories to work in your own life? Blog posts, presentations, lectures- they’re all more effective when information is presented as a narrative. Real-life examples are doubly good for showing how  concepts shake out in the wild.  But hey, if you can’t provide the real deal, fiction sells too. Here’s how far too many Computer Science lectures start:

“Today we’re going to talk about queues, a very important data type.”

You can already feel yourself slumping in your chair. Out comes your smartphone for some serious Angry Birding.

How could we make this better? Wake up those eager young minds with a story.

“Our friend Bob just got hired at one of ConMusicCo’s brick and mortar stores.  He’s working in the IT department, but had to spend a few days on the storeroom floor for orientation.  The one thing that stuck with him was all the grumbling customers standing in huge checkout lines.  The store has five cashier lanes and room to add more, but management’s reluctant to do so, claiming customer wait times aren’t a problem…”

You’re just dying to know how Bob comes to the rescue with his amazing programming powers, aren’t you? OK, so it’s not “Who shot JR” levels of suspense, but it beats the heck out of learning about queues in a vacuum.  It’s even more engaging if the lecturer involves the students in telling the story.  They can work together to help Bob build a software program to model customer wait times with and without additional checkout lanes.  By the end, management gets a clue, the story has a happy ending, and the students have an idea of the queue datatype’s advantages and limitations.

The Point

Storytelling isn’t just for word-jockeys with their heads in the clouds (like me). We all respond to stories, we all tell them. People who are really good at it deserve respect.  Applied in the right ways and times, their powers can comfort, inspire generations, or change the course of history. If you’re only an occasional dabbler, get better at recognizing and telling stories.  It could make a huge difference to your career, wallet, and life in general.

Feel free to comment and introduce yourself. What kind of stories do you tell?

Hello World 2.0 – At the Edge, Staring Up

(Picture I took at the top of Mt. Evans, Colorado – June 2012)

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Ellis. Sort of.  “Ellis” wasn’t her real name, but let’s overlook that for now.  Ellis was encouraged to do well in school so she could get a degree and a high-paying job, so she tore through 7th to 12th grade earning As in every class.  This was good, because it earned her a full ride to a nice university.  This was bad, because amid all that memorizing and studying, Ellis never figured out what kind of adult she wanted to be.

The elders in her life nudged her toward Computer Science, a field that was sure to be in huge demand.  It took a whole semester to figure out what the hell she was doing, but after that, she liked programming.  It just wasn’t something that excited her.  She never lost herself in loops and case statements for hours on end, the way she lost herself in stories or sketches.  Her programs behaved properly, but weren’t elegant.  Her brain shut down in protest any time she even peeked at advanced problems in algorithms.

Four years later, Ellis earned a Computer Science degree… and the knowledge that she didn’t want to be a full-time developer.

An office job seemed the only way to go, though- something to do for eight hours, then off to peace and freedom and a big paycheck.  It seemed even better than school, because there’d be no homework or studying.  The ample nights and weekends would be Ellis’ “real life” full of fun stuff, like the hobbies she hadn’t fully abandoned in college- story-writing, drawing, etc.

That theory worked, for a little while. Ellis progressed through a string of jobs, occasionally switching up locations as well. Most of the time, the next new job came from a positive recommendation, for which Ellis was always grateful. Truthfully, though, she accepted each position more for the fact that it was there and paid more money than for the prospect of something fulfilling and enriching. Her real life happened on nights and weekends, right? If she actually enjoyed herself at work, that was just a happy accident.

As the years flew by, Ellis’ resume filled up with things she understood but wasn’t passionate about. She also came to realize her theory was bullshit. More American employers were expecting 40 hours in the office and 24×7 attachment outside of it. She had to be on-call during off hours, and could get in trouble if she didn’t answer her phone. Plans to go out, vacation, even sleep became less a given and more an allowance to be yanked away at the company’s discretion. After a frustrating day, and the long hikes through the elements that formed her commute, she faced her evenings with the vigor of a frozen snail. Weekends vanished with increasing speed, and a dwindling sense of recovery from Friday to Monday.

Most of Ellis’ hobbies atrophied or became occasional pursuits- except for writing. For whatever reason, she refused to let that one go. It was her escape, a secret identity of sorts. Whenever possible, she loaded up on coffee and ground out prose. After a few years, she summoned the courage to find a writer’s group to trade feedback. She started writing for an IT humor site, and editing for a Purchasing blog. She even managed to sell her first hard sci-fi short story to a national magazine, in one try.

While it occasionally felt good to finish projects at work, these literary successes were more exciting. The only problem was, they had to remain secondary pursuits.

Did they, though?  Why?

Oh, lots of reasons.  I have a secure job and make a good living. Other people would kill to be where I am now. I have a chronic condition that requires medication- I need good health insurance. There are already a zillion writers. It has to stay a hobby, or I’ll start to hate it.  Besides, I’d never support myself that way. I’ll lose everything and be broke. Suck it up!

For a while, this was enough to scare her back into line.  Over time, though, it felt more and more like excuse-making designed to make her feel good about sitting back and coasting, not having to make any hard decisions.

What if I “suck it up” and stay put? It seemed reasonable she’d end up like the older people at work, who’d been coasting for twenty or thirty years. She had trouble relating to those people. On some level, they scared her. They had no identity outside of meetings, emails, more meetings, and make-work projects.  They put in unpaid hours without complaint- even during vacation, even when there was no emergency.  Despite unlimited sick days at their disposal, they soldiered into the office hacking and sniffling.  Having nothing else to be proud about, they were proud of their suffering. They said skin-crawling things like, “If I retired, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

Programmers are warned all the time about leaving variables undefined.  Ten years after graduating college, Ellis finally understood the danger of leaving herself undefined.  If she didn’t seize control of who she was, someone else would- again.

To her great fortune, she has some money saved up, and a supportive spouse and family behind her. She’s not jumping right now, but preparing for it- urging herself to focus on the beauty of the view and not the terror of the fall.