17 Ways to Make the Most of Your Writing Time – Even When It’s Limited



Image from Flickr by waferboard.

Do you have as much time as you want to write?

Probably not.

(If you’re in the position of having plenty of time but somehow not getting much writing done, don’t feel bad — that happens too. Hopefully some of these tips will help you as well.)

Very, very few writers do nothing but write. Many have full-time day jobs, or more than full-time jobs taking care of kids or caring for elderly relatives. And most of us want to spend time with family, friends, significant others…

So when you do carve out 20 or 30 or 60 minutes to write, how can you make the most of it?

Right now, my own writing time is limited. While I produce plenty of words during my working hours, it’s tough to find the time for my fiction.

Back in January, I wrote about my optimistic plans to write 900 words every evening. (If that sounded rather ambitious to you … well, you were right!)

So here’s my advice for me, and for you too – seventeen ways to make the most of the time that you do have, however little it might be.

#1: Write at Your Best Time of Day (And If You Can’t…)

I’m putting this first because it can make a huge difference to write when you’re naturally energised and focused, rather than when you’re in the middle of a massive slump. Of course, work / children / etc may well mean that, like me, you’re stuck writing at a less-than-ideal time.

If that’s the case, do your very best to help yourself out. Keep distractions far away, find ways to make writing into a treat (chocolate always works for me), and consciously re-focus when necessary. Go easy on yourself, too; you may find that you have to accept that you won’t write quite so fast as you would at a better time of day.

#2: Don’t Let Other People Interrupt You

Easier said than done, I know! Several writers I know, particularly younger ones with parents / siblings around at home, find it easiest to write when everyone else is out of the house – but that can mean writing sessions end up being few and far between.

If you’ve got very small children, you’ll probably have to write while they’re asleep, or while someone else is taking care of them. With older kids (and adults), be firm about your boundaries and your need for time alone. If at all possible, write in a room away from others with the door shut. If that’s not possible, put on noise-cancelling headphones, crank up the music and tune out the world.

#3: Make One Writing Project Your Priority

If you’re struggling to find time to write, it may be because (like me), you have a tendency to tackle a lot of different projects and tasks at once. That’s no bad thing – but it can mean that you end up making slow progress with your writing.

For now, choose one project to concentrate on. That could be your blog, your novel, your short story collection, your fan fiction … whatever it is, choose one thing. You might want to switch after a couple of months.

#4: Create a Plan Before You Begin

At the start of your writing session, plan what you’re going to do. This could be as simple as “write 500 words of my novel” but ideally, you’ll want to add in a few details about the scene or chapter that you’re working on.

Of course, you can plan at a much broader level too. If you’re quite a spontaneous writer, this doesn’t mean you need to plan out a whole novel in mindboggling detail before you can write word one – but it might mean that having a clear sense of where the plot is going helps you avoid wasting time.

#5: Book a Writing Course or Class

If you’ve got something in your diary (and especially if you’ve paid for it), you’ll find the time to attend. Of course, there are many more great reasons to take a class or course – like learning new writing skills, growing more confident about sharing your work, and getting to know other writers.

You don’t need to spend much money, or have much time, to take a class or course – unless of course you want to. Look around locally for day or half-day courses you could attend. For instance, my friend and editor Lorna Fergusson runs Saturday afternoon Focus Workshops at her home in Oxford for £30 per person.

#6: Use a Timer

If you’ve always dismissed this idea as too pressuring, give it a go at least once, either with an online timer like e.ggtimer or with your kitchen timer. You don’t have to race to produce loads of words in a set time – you just need to stay focused on your writing. Setting a timer for, say, 10 or 20 minutes can be a surprising help with this.

You may also surprise yourself with how much you can get written in a short, focused burst. If you start to get distracted (“I should just check my email…”) then remind yourself that you only need to concentrate until the time is up.

#7: Don’t Set Unreachable Targets

As a writer, I have a bad tendency to get really ambitious with my targets, with a rather rose-tinted idea of (a) how much time I’ll physically have available and (b) how much energy I’ll have to write. If you’re determined to finish a novel in  two months yet the only free time you have is an hour each evening, you might well end up disappointed.

Sometimes, especially if you’re going through a tough spell, it’s worth going for a very manageable target until you’re back into the rhythm of writing, or into a less busy period. Right now, my goal is simply “no zero days” – no days where I write nothing. (Thanks LycoRogue for the idea!) My writing sessions over the past few weeks have been anything from a couple of scribbled sentences to 1,200 words – and all of them count as a success.

#8: Get Away from Home

Sometimes this simply isn’t practical – but even if you can only do it for occasional sessions, it’s worth trying. Getting away from all the distractions of family, chores, TV, and so on can be surprisingly helpful (and some writers find it much easier to get into “working mood” in a library or coffee shop).

You can go anywhere you like – a local public library, a university library if you’re a student or can blag access somehow, a coffee shop, a park if the weather’s good enough. Some writers house-sit for friends who’re on holiday.

#9: Listen to Music

This doesn’t work for everyone, and back in my early days as a writer, I definitely preferred to work in silence. Now, I’ll often pop my headphones on and play music to drown out background noise – i.e. Kitty. (Only when my husband’s on child duty, I hasten to add!) As I write this, I’m listening to Blackmore’s Night’s Fires at Midnight.

If you do want to try writing to music, it’s usually best to pick albums that you’re really familiar with so you can let it fade from consciousness while you just write. If it’s something unfamiliar, it may be too distracting. It’s also a good idea to avoid anything you can’t resist singing along to (especially if you’ve followed tip #8 and are writing in a library…)

#10: Don’t Let it Become a Chore

You’re writing (I hope!) because you enjoy it. I’m sure you have other reasons too – you might well want to make money, or even launch a professional career – but you definitely don’t want your writing sessions to start to feel like a tedious chore or a job you hate.

While it can be good to give yourself a little nudge into writing (I know that I’m a bit prone to feeling lazy at the start of a session), if you’re forcing yourself to write and hating every minute of it, stop. You’re allowed a break from writing, or even a few weeks off.

#11: Ignore Your Inner Critic

When you sit down to write, or when you think about writing, or when you’re in the middle of writing, do you ever have a little voice in your head saying, “Why bother? Your writing isn’t that good. You probably won’t get published.”

That’s your “inner critic” – and while it can be useful when you’re editing your work, it’s really not helpful when you’re in the planning and writing stages. It can be really tough to switch off this inner voice, but try to rein it in for now (it’ll help you out when it’s time to edit).

#12: Write With an Untidy Desk

This might be heresy to some writers … but you do not need to have a perfectly tidy desk, with all your pencils sharpened and all your favourite pens close to hand, in order to write. Yes, it’s nice to have things neat and tidy around you, and clutter can be distracting, but if you have space for your keyboard / notebook and a mug of tea, you can write!

It’s really easy to get caught up in displacement activities at the start of a writing session: you tell yourself that you’ll just tidy the desk first, but it’s then very very easy to get sidetracked. Write first, tidy the desk after your writing session. (And by that point, you might decide a tidy desk doesn’t really matter after all.)

#13: Get Comfortable Before You Begin

This is the exception to #12, when it is worth a tiny bit of effort before you start writing. Get yourself comfortable – both physically and emotionally – before you launch in, otherwise you may well find yourself ending the session early, or at least not enjoying it as much as you should.

Physically, check you’re sitting comfortably – if your chair doesn’t support your back well, try an exercise ball (you’re looking at around £15) or use a cushion or pillow to prop yourself up. Emotionally, make sure your environment feels safe. Personally, I find it really hard to write anything (fiction, blog posts, emails…) if someone’s overlooking my screen.

#14: Don’t Get Obsessed with Word Count

Like many writers, I have a tendency to focus on words written – and it’s easy to feel disappointed if I don’t clock up enough in a session. But writing with one eye on the word count can be counter-productive.

Sometimes, to really make process with a project, you need to take a step back and do some re-planning, or draw a mindmap, or tackle some research you’ve been putting off. Although it’s great to see that word count go up, it’s not always the most productive use of a writing session.

#15: Stop Reading/Tweeting About Writing

Although it’s great to read books on the craft of writing and to connect with other writers, these aren’t things you should be doing during your writing session itself. (The same goes for Googling writing courses in your area, taking a nostalgic look at your old notebook, or planning a shortlist of agents you want to send your as-yet-unwritten novel to.)

While all the activity that surrounds writing can be fun and worthwhile, it’s all too easy to get sucked into flicking through Writing Magazine instead of actually making progress with your current project.

#16: Think About Your Writing Frequently

While you may only have a short amount of time to actually write each day, you’ve probably got a few spare minutes here and there when you can think about your novel / blog / poetry collection. I often get good ideas in the shower, or while doing the dishes.

Can you recapture a few minutes on a regular basis to daydream? Sometimes, having time to mull over a plot problem (or get excited about what’s coming up next) makes it much easier to get started straight away when you actually sit down at your desk.

#17: Make Sure Your Tools Are Working For You

This is a bit of a mundane point … but sometimes the mundane problems are what hold you back from producing your best creative work. Are your writing tools working well for you?

If you find Microsoft Word distracting or a pain to use, try using Scrivener’s full-screen writing mode, or use my personal favourite DarkRoom. If you find that the words flow more easily when you write long-hand, grab a notebook to use – it’s not “less efficient” as you’ll find yourself editing and honing your work when you type it up.


Whether you’ve got an hour a week or several hours today, these tips should help you make the most of your time. And if you’ve got one to add to the list, pop it in the comments below.


Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

24 thoughts on “17 Ways to Make the Most of Your Writing Time – Even When It’s Limited

  1. These are great tips, Ali. For me, it’s about gaining the discipline to write when you don’t want to write, or in my case, waking up early enough to get something down. I have to have a notebook when I partake in projects. It’s too hard to silence the inner critic if I type anything. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks George! I find the getting started bit is often hardest; once I get going, it’s much easier to stay in motion (writing’s a bit like exercise in that way…)

  2. What works better for me than music is nature sounds, particularly rain, or white, pink, or brown noise. I’ve been using the Noisli website (noisli.com) a lot lately; it has rain, thunder, running water, dripping water, wind, coffee shop (if you can’t get out to one, you can get the sound), and the three colors of noise. I Googled “rain sound” and found a whole bunch of places. There are also MP3’s, smartphone apps, YouTube videos, and programs that will create the right environment.
    John Holton’s last blog post ..Two for Tuesday: Allan Sherman

    • I find it really difficult to write when I’m travelling (I think I switch into holiday-mode) so maybe I’ll have to try that. Thanks, Marcello!

  3. I think I definitely have a tendency to put off writing when I’m feeling stressed, like I’ve got so many other things to work on that I’m somehow being frivolous by spending the time writing instead. I’ll have to give some of these tips a try!
    Icy Sedgwick’s last blog post ..#FridayFlash – Last Words

    • It can be really tough when things are stressful — I agree it’s hard to avoid the feeling of “I should be doing X, Y, Z…” and it’s also hard to feel in a particular creative mood when things are stressful. For me, a time limit works well (“I can write for 15 minutes and the world won’t fall apart without me…”)

  4. Wow, I’m honored that you are not using the Non-Zero Days approach, but that you thanked me. ^_^

    The real thanks should be both my friend Summer who blogged about it first, and for the Reddit member Ryan who came up with the concept. For any of Ali’s readers who want to know more, Summer’s blog can be found here: http://blogs.psychcentral.com/panic/2014/02/how-to-start-loving-your-unmotivated-self/

    And Ryan’s original post (beware of a few foul words) can be found here: http://www.reddit.com/r/getdisciplined/comments/1q96b5/i_just_dont_care_about_myself/cdah4af

    Okay, now back to Ali. ^_^

    Even though it’s been rough for me to get around to reading your posts lately (or anything at Writers’ Huddle), I appreciate that you obviously keep up with my blog. A bit humbled and honored, actually. <3

    I have to say that I had a nice chuckle at #2. My husband knows I'm in "writing mode" when I blast my computer speakers and re-angle myself at my desktop so I don't have a clear view of the TV any longer. I still have an IM up so he can contact me (or he'll tap my shoulder), but he more-or-less gets the idea. ^_^ So, obviously I also follow #9. I even have a playlist entitled "Writing Music". It's mostly upbeat songs to keep me pumped, but I also have a "sad playlist" for when I have to get in touch With The Feels.

    I also had to giggle at your first tip since I had JUST commented on that on my blog (which, you probably already know). First thing in the morning for me. Best time. 😀

    Honestly, I already do most of these tips and they are a super big help. I still can't do the timer thing, it seems too restrictive for me. I'll set the timer for 1/2hr, it will go off, and I'll be like "But I have so much more to work on!" It is a bit rewarding to know that I'm working on writing projects for so long, but I just always feel pressure to write faster. 😛
    Dana’s last blog post ..Writing Recap and Original Stories

    • Thanks for the no zero days links, Dana. 🙂 And with the timer, you don’t have to stop if you don’t want to …! For a lot of people, it’s just a good way to get going.

      I like the sound of your different playlists. My last couple of novels have each had a particular Metallica track to get me in the writing mood…

  5. Great Tips! As an aspiring (to-be-published) writer/stay-at-home-mom to an 18 month old, I have a lot of trouble finding writing time. A few months ago I started going out to a coffee shop one night a week to write, and this has been amazing for me. I found that just this limited activity has awakened my writing thought process so that I frequently do #16 — which means when I do get my 3 dedicated hours/week, most of what I want to write is already composed in my head and I make great use of that limited time. I find also that the renewed interest has given me more energy to write on my “off-nights,” whereas before I just always felt too drained at the end of the day after the child was in bed.

    I am looking into finding a class or two. I also love this idea of writing something every day. I am pretty sure I can manage this, and I think it will have a similar self-propelling effect as going out to write has for me.

    Thanks again–I really enjoyed this post!

    • Thanks so much, Jean! I’ve got a 13 month old (who still has two naps a day, thank goodness) and my husband and I split the childcare, so he has her 50% – 60% of the time. Getting out to a coffee shop one night a week sounds like a brilliant idea.

      I know just what you mean about energy — for me, once I’m on a roll with the writing, it’s easy to stay motivated, but it can be really tough to get into it if I’ve not written recently.

      Good luck on your road to publication, and good luck with writing something every day. Honestly, even if it’s a single sentence on most days (it often is for me!) the days when you actually get going and write a page or two will make it well worth it. 🙂

  6. I agree with #5 Do a writing course or class! Ever since I started my course, I’ve been much more focused on my own writing as well, *and* I’ve met some really nice people who are just into writing as I am. The course is run by a local arts centre, and they also know about interesting events to go to and how to start a writing career. Basically, attending a course, class or workshop, is not really about the learning you get (most of the learning you can find on the internet most of the time), but about the people you meet and talk to and the network you build. That’s pretty invaluable stuff.

    Number 4, having a plan for your writing session, is something I should work on. All too often I only make vague notes of what I want to do that day/session, but I could get a lot more out of it if I note exactly what I’m supposed to work on. Reduces the amount of time I spend on decision making which I can instead spend on actual writing.

    My best way of making the most of my writing time thought is unplugging the internet cable! I don’t have wifi in my place, just an old-fashioned internet cable that I physically plug into my laptop. It’s rather short, so if I sit on the couch with my laptop, the cable can’t actually reach the laptop! It’s dead simple, but works wonders.
    Corianne’s last blog post ..Unhappiness = Lack of Progress

    • Corianne, I used to physically unplug … and I still sometimes switch off the wifi on the laptop (problem is, it’s far too easy to switch it on again).

  7. What about using the dictation function available on some computers? I use this on my iPad sometimes, and it’s OK for short descriptive snippets, plans, synopses, brainstorming. It works quite well, I find, though I do have to be on your own when I use it. If only tablets were completely waterproof; I do a lot of my thinking in the bath.

    • What a great suggestion, Denise! I’ve got Dragon Naturally Speaking, and I’m sure if I could get used to dictating rather than typing, I’d find it a more efficient way to work (at least at times).

    • Congratulations on plugging away, Kristen. I only have one little one and finding time to write on non-work projects is already a challenge! I think slow and steady is definitely the way forward — even if you can only write a little bit each week, it’s going to add up over a year.

  8. #16 has been my biggest help by far. I daydream all the time about what I’m going to be writing next (whether I want to or not), so by the time I sit down at the keyboard I’m ready to go and it doesn’t take long at all. It’s more like “retyping” (just the original being in my head) than writing.

  9. Great ideas. Here’s one more. I like to spend some time thinking/ meditating before writing, and keep a digital notepad or cellphone handy to jot down any ideas that pop into my head. These get sent straight onto my computer and help kick-start my writing sessions

  10. Make one project a priority…boy, did I need to hear that now! I’m taking a much-needed break from writing so I can recuperate from the stress of juggling too many projects.

    Great post!
    Diane Holcomb’s last blog post ..Books for Writers

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