How To Become An Insanely Productive Writer

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice!

Laptop lady
Laptop Lady by Aidan McMichael (used with permission)

If you really want to become a good writer, in this lifetime, you have to write. You have to write a lot.

Here are seven of the best tips from last year’s StoryADay participants, to help you become an insanely productive, happy and sane writer. Plus one bonus tip and a question for you, at the end.

“Nothing will work until you do.”
-Maya Angelou

Insanely Productive? Yes, Please!

1. Have ideas ready to go

There is nothing worse than carving out some time to write and then being stuck for a place to start. So start now: pay attention to all the ideas you have, all the time, when you are away from your desk. Carry a notebook around. Capture snippets of conversation, what ifs that occur to you as you people-watch, thoughts spurred by other people’s stories. Write them all down, ready to be picked up again when you sit down to write.

2. Write First

When you sit down to write, actually write. Don’t check email, don’t check Twitter, don’t even check the StADa site (unless you need the daily prompt). Just leaf through your ideas until you find one you can work with, and go. Turn off your email notifications, close all the browser windows. Don’t worry about fonts and formatting or whether it’ll be any good. Just write.

@Gabi If I think too much about writing before I actually start doing it, I tend to psych myself out. Instead I just start writing and before I know it, I’ve got a bunch of words on the page and it’s time to call it a day.

3. Keep writing until you finish

Starting stories is all very well, but anyone can do that. The point of StADa is to help you learn to craft a whole, finished story. Keep writing until you finish. Even if you hate it, keep writing. You’ll thank me later.

4. Unless you must take a break

Obviously, if your kids are screaming or someone comes to the door to tell you you’ve won $10million in the lottery, or your boss calls to ask where you are, you might have to get up from your desk before your story is finished. In which case, go. But keep thinking about your story. Leave it in the middle of a sentence, so that you’re ready to leap back in, and go. But keep thinking about it. When you’re walking to the coffee machine, wonder what your characters will do next. When you’re doing some menial, mindless task (can you tell I’m a mother?) let your mind wander and picture how you’re going to resolve the central mystery of your story. If someone turns on a radio, listen to how people talk and steal yourself some dialogue.

@KristenRudd says: “My trick so far is to mull my story all day, while I’m doing whatever it is I do. I think about the directions it could go, but I mostly think about how to open it. Then, when I can finally sit down after the kids are in bed, the dishes are washed, and I’ve done everything else that needs doing, I’m excited about the story that’s been buzzing all day.

5. Make it priority #1

You can put off watching TV shows and you can turn down an occasional invitation for coffee without your life falling apart. Tell people you’re working on your writing this month, that you’ll be a better friend next month (maybe). Take some time to make your writing your top priority. You’ll always wonder, if you don’t, what you could have achieved. Explain to friends that you are investing in your dream of becoming a writer, just as they might make time to invest in a course of golf lessons or an art workshop. If you want to take your writing seriously you will find that something’s got to give, but the good news is: that could be the housework!

StADa: How do you make time for writing?
@AdorablyAlice This is a good question. And when I have an answer that doesn’t involve neglecting chores/cooking, I’ll let you know.

6. Write Wherever/Whenever You Can

It’s tempting to think that you need solitude, silence and a particular pen to be able to write, but that’s a rookie mistake. Professional writers write wherever and whenever they can squeeze in some time.

  • Ray Bradbury rented a typewriter in a typing room in the basement of a library and typed until time ran out. That couldn’t have been quiet or private or relaxing, but he’s one of the most prolific writers around.
  • Stephen King wrote in a passageway in the back of a trailer, with two toddlers, a wife and a full-time job in a laundry jostling for his attention.
  • PD James worked for the Home Office by day, visited her sick  husband in hospital on the weekends, and put her two daughters to bed alone, and wrote her first novel — all during the London Blitz!

You may need some peace and quiet to get a story started, but once you’re up and running, write! Write when ever you have 15 minutes, wherever you are, with whatever comes to hand. Write!

(Hint: you full-time workers have the gnawing envy of stay-at-home parents of young children: you get a lunch break. Are you sneaking off somewhere and using it for writing?)

7. Be realistic

You’re not going to write an epic or a polished draft in a day. You’re going to write something and it’ll likely be bewtween 30 and 2000 words. The more frequently you write and finish a story, the more you’ll get a sense for how to pace yourself and your story. Don’t waste time on backstory or explaining anything at the  beginning. Jump in half way through and unpack the story as you go. Some of it will be terrible, some of it you will learn from and some of it might even be quite good. On a good day you’ll write a character you’re proud of or make yourself smile with a twist, or discover you can write really convincingly about a gardener.

@GabiOnly a handful of the stories are worth keeping and working on. One of them has spawned into an idea for a middle-grade book that I am in love with.

Every lesson enriches your writing. Every day you practice, you’re one step closer to Carnegie Hall.

Bonus Tip: Be part of a community.

I know a lot of us are loners (I certainly crave my ‘alone’ time) so the idea of joining a community seems strange. But one of the most valuable lessons I have learned in the past year is the value of having people on your side, people who understand what it’s like try to write, people who are rooting for you (because if you can do it, maybe they can too).It was incredibly inspiring to drop in to the StoryADay.org forums during May – and afterwards ‘meet up’ with people on Twitter – and trade stories of how our writing day is going.

Join our Serious Writers’ Accountability Group (SWAGr) and post your goals for this month…today! (We’re “Serious”, not sombre. All are welcome!)

Thanks to all the previous participants for their comments and suggestions, quoted here or otherwise.

What do you do to keep writing? Share  your best tips in the comments.

To be among the first to hear when sign-ups open for this year’s challenge sign up for the Advance Notice List. (No spam. Just StoryADay.org news)

16 thoughts on “How To Become An Insanely Productive Writer”

  1. I’ve heard other people mention the Alpha Smart. I use IAWriter on my iPad and turn off the wi-fi, because I, too and weak. IAWriter has a ‘focus’ mode that only shows you four lines of text. I hadn’t realised how much time I spent ‘just checking’ or playing with fonts, until I started using this bare-bones approach!

    Love the notebook idea. I have taken to making notes on my phone because I’m always losing paper!

  2. If I don’t face a deadline, my writing tends to wander aimlessly. I carry around a notebook and write down bits of conversation, personal reactions, or anything that hits my imaginary eyes. I never know what’s going to be the spark for a story so it all gets jotted onto paper. Whether or not I can read my notes is another story . . .

    I turn off all extraneous electronic devices and downloads before I write; they’re too tempting for me to “just take a quick look”. If they’re up and running, I have no willpower. My favorite tool is my AlphaSmart – a battery-operated word processor with a 4-line screen display so I can’t waste time rereading my work. I pound out the story with no looking back until I upload it into my computer.

  3. Hi Summer, I’m with you on the prompts thing. Even if it’s just a line, a little, a snippet of dialogue, a character or a vivid memory. I need something to wrestle with when I sit down each day.

    I’ve joined a Real Life writer’s group in the past year and found that very helpful too, just for reminding me to see this thing we do as something I should be taking seriously every day!

  4. Honestly- I have learned a great deal of self discipline since last May- I think in order for me to sit down and write a story everyday, I need prompts already set up. (which I so have this year) I’m a prompt person in general when I’m trying to write fast- I need starting fluid and some time. I also talk about it with friends and they periodically ask me how my writing is going.

  5. The biggest opportunity for me is: Write First! I’m guilty of checking email and ten other things before I start.

    Thanks for pointing out the obvious. I’m sure I’ll be more productive immediately.

  6. Krissy, I know what you mean, and the guilt is coming whether or not you write!

    I found that when I made time for my writing, without really asking permission, it started to get more respect from the people around me because I was showing it respect. Now my husband sends me off ‘for some writing time’ if I start getting grumpy;)

    It helps if the writing comes in concentrated bursts, like StADa or NaNoWriMo, though, because then you can say ‘It’s only a month, honey!” (even if it turns out to be longer, which it tends to!)

  7. I really needed this post today–thank you! In terms of Point #5: Making Your Writing The #1 Priority, this is probably the toughest one of all, since people in our lives tend to (whether intentioally or not) make us feel guilty for spending less time with them. It can sometimes be hard to create that “too bad” attitude that you need in order to take the time to write, but in my opinion the guilt you feel towards not accomplishing your goals is much worse than the guilt others try to place on your shoulders.

  8. You’re absolutely right about not waiting until there’s peace and quiet to write. The children’s book I’m working on now began at the dentist’s office while I was there with my daughter. I didn’t even have a pen or a piece of paper – I know, shame on me, but the dental assistant provided those! What did I realize? ALWAYS have a pen or pencil and a piece of paper (at least) with you to write down ideas, even when you go to bed!

  9. Elisa, I couldn’t agree more. I love the drop-in nature of online communities.

    And yes, it is one of the cruelest tricks of nature that you get your best ideas when you can’t possibly act on them!

  10. Great points! I just recently learned to write regardless of whether it comes out good or not, that I need to just get it out and practice, practice, practice.

    The best part about online communities is that it lets you be social whilst still being a bit of a loner, fulfilling both sides of you (though you obviously need some real-life friends or else your brain will implode from all the dialogue going on in your head).

    Writing whenever/wherever can be annoying but fun. My brain is evil to me because sometimes I come up with the best stuff in my college math class, before and especially during lecture. I think my subconscious is trying to tell me something.

  11. Thanks for this, it’s encouraging. I do writer when/where ever I can. School, grocery store, waiting in the car, etc. Visions of my novels and short stories are always going through my head and I always have some writing thoughts going on.

  12. You’re not wrong there.

    I think it is important to be willing to write wherever/whenever you can, but nothing beats a great wodge of focused writing time.

    Did you see Zen Habits’ post yesterday on ‘focus’? It’s a good one: http://zenhabits.net/focus/

  13. You are right on the money there…these are some great tips. As writers I think we often lose focus while we are working, and it is this lack of focus that often prevents us from accomplishing any sort of writing. For me, it’s really important to not have any distractions, so when I can I try to go out to a more rural location or somewhere with no Internet so that I am forced to concentrate on just my writing and nothing else.

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