On writing: Writing more productively

Last week I wrote about cultivating a better writing atmosphere. Here are some additional tips and reading recommendations for those who want to focus on writing more productively.

Shut off your devices

Here’s one that’s going to be hard for a lot of people: turn off your internet and cellphone while you write. Internet, messaging apps, cellphones: all of these things are just fancy distractions keeping you from being more productive. To write more, you need to buckle down and focus, and this means eliminating as many distractions as possible.

Some writers go so far as to have a computer that does not have an internet connection and they use this computer for their writing. George R. R. Martin shocked the internet back in 2014 when he shared that he still uses a 20 year old DOS computer for his writing. While his point seemed to be that he preferred the word processing software of the older computer, I still imagine he must get much more done on a machine free of the distractions of modern software.

forest stop phubbingSo turn off those distracting devices and get cracking! Obviously, there can be some exceptions for this rule: if you have a special situation—such as being a caregiver—you might need to keep your cellphone on for emergencies. If this is the case, try using an app such as Forest to keep your hands off your cellphone. Forest is a free app designed to keep you from “phubbing,” or ignoring others in favor of your cellphone. But Forest encourages users to use it for working, studying, everything they need to get done, but struggle with when their cellphone is too distracting.

With Forest, you plant a tree and set a timer—as little as 10 minutes, all the way up to 2 hours. During this time period, if you use your phone to use any apps, games, or browse the internet, the tree you planted “dies.” If you successfully keep your hands off your phone and on your work, your tree will be planted after the timer expires and your phone will be free again for use. At the end of the day, you can admire the digital forest you’ve created through all your hard work. Another cool aspect of the app is that the developers behind Forest included an option to plant real trees in the world with the digital coins you earn from your trees.

For those worried about needing to be contacted in an emergency, you can set “safe” apps, such as phone calls or texts, that won’t kill your tree if you use them.

Write in short “sprints”

Do you force yourself to sit down for hours to write? Do you designate long blocks of time for writing and force yourself to sit, staring at a blank page, until the words come to you?

Now, this strategy goes a bit against what most writers might expect: break your time up into 15-20 minutes “sprints.” Outline your scenes beforehand and go into your sprints with a battle plan. If you must write for longer, don’t go over an hour. Stop forcing yourself to sit for hours at a time, writing non-stop or agonizing over an empty page in front of you. With writing sprints, you should not write until you get stuck with an attack of writer’s block. Think on Ernest Hemingway’s words from A Moveable Feast:

“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

"Writer's Block I" by Drew CoffmanIf you write until you get stuck, until you don’t know what to write next, you become bogged down. With writing sprints, when your time is up, if you’re still feeling fresh and full of ideas, you can set up another sprint or you can take a break. But always stop where you have some notes left or an idea of where to go next. That way, while you step away from your writing, your mind will turn over your plan of where to go next, adding to it, expanding upon it. If you stop when you’re stuck with writer’s block, you might still be stuck when you return to writing the next day.

After your sprint, you can either take a break and step away from your writing, or switch to a different task that’s still related to your writing, something to help you refill the “well” Hemingway referred to. Since I don’t stop to Google things as I write, I like to use my break time to research any questions or ideas that came up during previous writing sprints. And after a couple hours of writing sprints, usually I will break completely to something not writing related.

This tip goes hand-in-hand with the Forest app or a Pomodoro timer, which will help you keep track of time and let you know when you’re up for a break.

Need additional reading?

If you need more tips on cultivating a better writing atmosphere, or mastering the art of the writing “sprint,” check out some of the guides written by Chris Fox and Monica Leonelle. While these books may be targeted more for the NaNoWriMo crowd, they are still very helpful for anyone who is struggling to put words on a page or who is frustrated with their slow writing process.

5,000 Words per Hour: Write Faster, Write Smarter by Chris Fox (2015)Chris Fox’s guide 5,000 Words Per Hour: Write Faster, Write Smarter outlines his techniques that help him achieve a pretty impressive record of words per hour. (If you don’t believe it’s possible, he documented on YouTube his process of writing a full-length novel in less than 21 days.) His second writing guide, Lifelong Writing Habit: The Secret to Writing Every Day, is focused more on building the every day habit of writing that most dedicated writers aim for.

Monica Leonelle also has a book for improving writing speed, Write Better, Faster: How To Triple Your Writing Speed and Write More Every Day, as well as another book targeted towards even shorter writing sprints, The 8-Minute Writing Habit: Create a Consistent Writing Habit That Works With Your Busy Lifestyle. These would be good for those writers who are really struggling to get words to paper in the few precious minutes they can spare. Not everyone can dedicate hours a day to writing, but anyone can find a handful of minutes here and there to get a little writing done, and Leonelle focuses on making the most of those minutes.

Are you bad about “phubbing” while writing? Or do you stay on task pretty easily? What have you found that helps you to write more productively?

Center photo: “Writer’s Block I” by Drew Coffman (CC BY 2.0)