17 Ways to Make the Most of Your Writing Time – Even When It’s Limited
This post was first published in April 2014, and updated in July 2019.
Do you have as much time as you want to write?
(If you’re in the position of having plenty of time but you’re still 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 even jobs that require 50-60 hour weeks. Others are on duty pretty much 24/7, 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?
For the past six years or so (not so coincidentally coinciding with the birth of my eldest!) my own writing time has been limited. While I produce plenty of words during my working hours, mostly for my freelancing clients, it’s tough to find the time for my fiction.
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 plsession, 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 bigger level too. You definitely don’t need to plan out a whole novel in mindboggling detail before you can write word one – but 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 occasional Saturday afternoon Focus Workshops at her home in Oxford.
#6: Use a Timer
If you’ve always dismissed this idea as too pressuring, give it a go at least once. You can set a timer on your phone, or use Google: just type “set a timer for X minutes” into the search bar. (I’ve also got a cube timer that I like to use, which I wrote about here.) 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-with-kids, I’ve had to overcome my tendency to be overly 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. One goal that some writers find helpful is “no zero days” – no days where you write nothing. (Thanks LycoRogue for the idea!) Alternatively, you might try for a small, set amount of writing on two or three days per week.
#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. About three times a year, I get away to a local hotel for a full afternoon and evening where I can write for hours on end without being disturbed.
#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. Over the past few years, and particularly since having kids, I’ve got into the habit of listening to music while I’m writing – both for my freelancing work and for my fiction.
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 the music 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. You might see it, at least in part, as a fun hobby.
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 else can see my screen, so I tend to sit at the back of our local library well away from everyone when I write there!
#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 magazines or chatting to other writers on Twitter 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 find another app that works well for you. 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.
You Deserve Time to Write
- Simple tricks you can use to boost your focus
- Setting tangible, measurable, reasonable goals
- Why procrastination really happens … and what you can do about it
- Why managing your time isn’t as important as managing your energy and attention
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
If you're new, welcome! These posts are good ones to start with:
My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.
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