How Being Short on Time Made Me a More Productive Writer

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I’ve always been the sort of writer who waited for inspiration to strike. This meant I spent a lot of time waiting and very little time writing. I didn’t start writing in earnest until I was thirty, and then I wrote in stops and starts—but mostly stops. I spent long, maniacal days at my computer when I was on vacation, then months away from it when my laptop was merely a vehicle for Netflix binges, my home row gathering Cheeto dust as I wiled away my hours. That is, until I went to university.

“You won’t have time to write,” they said when I announced my grand plan to become a student at thirty-five.

Well, I just finished my first term, and I think they may have underestimated me. You see, going back to school has taught me more than marketing and graphic design and how to format a spreadsheet; it’s taught me the value of my time.

See, I’ve always treated time like an inexhaustible resource. Didn’t get to that scene today? No worries. Tomorrow is a new day! Don’t feel like working on that plotting spreadsheet? Relax! Maybe it will “feel right” later. Boy, are those lackadaisical days over. Now, I spend so much time studying or working on papers or designs, my time has divided itself into neat blocks without my really taking a knife to it consciously. And there, cleaved away from my student duties, are small chunks of time I would have, until now, simply thought of as down time between distractions. Until I ran out of time.

Don’t get me wrong; one needs to relax, too. But when you’re a writer, you have to grab on to those chunks of meaty time like you’re starving for them. Grab ‘em and make a meal of ‘em.

I learned to take each block of time and make it count. Instead of waiting, I approached these slots proactively. What was my goal? What was the purpose of the scene? If I was stymied, what had gone wrong yesterday and needed to be deleted? I stopped waiting. I wrote for that half-hour. Being short on time made me long on purpose. And I learned that works for me.

Now, I don’t recommend taking out thousands of dollars in student loans and throwing yourself into schooling as a writing technique, mind, but I do recommend rethinking the value of your time. Yes, relax. Yes, eat. Yes, go to work. But if you only have fifteen minutes to write, make a plan. Pick one goal and reach for it as single-mindedly as your chaotic life will allow.

Here are the goals that worked for me:

  • Word count: Watching that ticker go up is like a natural high. Who needs running? (Spoiler: me, probably.) Get your endorphins up! Hit that word count!
  • Purpose of the scene, Plot: Where are you now, and where do you want to be? What needs to happen in order to bridge that divide?
  • Purpose of the scene, Emotion: If you haven’t read Donald Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction, take the time, if you possibly can. Thinking about the emotional purpose of the scene is my number one motivator.
  • Posting a new chapter to Wattpad: You may not be a Wattpadder, but if you are serializing your story, this goal will be familiar to you. Consistency is important to your readers. If knowing you have readers waiting gets your writing motor running, like it does for me, gear up to get posting.

    Those are just a few writing goals that inspire me to compete with myself to make the most of what's in front of me. When I began to hold my own time in higher esteem, my objectives became clearer. What are your goals in a time crunch?