Does it ever feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day for everything that you want to accomplish?
You want to write a novel or short stories or blog posts or start a daily writing routine, but right now you’re just too busy?
You’re not alone.
Even the most prolific writers struggled with the problem of only having twenty-four hours in a single day.
However, they knew how to optimize their time and work efficiently so they could finish their writing projects and share their stories with the world.
Read on to discover the productivity strategies of Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, John Steinbeck and many other successful writers that will help you to supercharge your writing productivity and inspire more people with your words.
I’ve also made a video version of this blog post that you can watch below:
1. Prioritize Your Writing Projects
Do you find yourself trying to squeeze time for your writing into an already overflowing schedule?
Many writers have faced the same challenge.
Jack London was the highest paid writer of the 1900s and the author of the bestselling novels Call of the Wild and White Fang. In a 1905 article for The Editor magazine, he explained exactly how he got into print. He advised,
Don’t dash off a six-thousand-word story before breakfast. Don’t write too much. Concentrate your sweat on one story, rather than dissipate over a dozen. Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it. Set yourself a ‘stint,’ and see that you do that ‘stint’ each day; you will have more words to your credit at the end of the year.
London’s words are encouraging to us busy writers. We shouldn’t be worrying over having to write a six-thousand-story in one day. But at the same time we don’t want our writing projects to slip to the bottom of our to-do lists and end up writing too little or not at all. It’s important to evaluate how much time we do have (even if it’s only 15 minutes a day or an hour a week) and make sure we treat that writing time as non-negotiable.
Read more about of London’s excellent advice on how to become a best-selling author in my article here.
2. Start Small and Abandon Perfectionism
Once you’ve blocked out your writing time, you might still find yourself procrastinating when you sit down at your desk.
This often happens because you haven’t broken your project down into small, achievable steps you can tackle each day.
In a 1962 letter to his friend Robert Wallsten, the Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck gave this advice for completing a novel-length project,
Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
Steinbeck also cautioned against being a perfectionist during these writing sessions. He told his friend,
Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on…It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material…If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
Since you’re not editing your work during this time, it might be tempting to set a larger word count goal. Some writers challenge themselves to write more than just one page a day with daily word count goals of over 2,000 words.
But starting out with a smaller goal is usually best for busy writers as it will help you stay motivated and avoid procrastination.
For example, Graham Greene, who was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize several times, wrote 24 novels as well as travel books, children’s books, plays, screenplays, and short stories. And yet his daily word count goal was only 500 words.
In his book The End of the Affair, he described his own writing process:
Over twenty years I have probably averaged five hundred words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene. Every now and then during the morning’s work I count what I have done and mark off the hundreds on my manuscript.
Later on when Greene was 66, he admitted in an interview with The New York Times that his word count had actually dropped to 300 words:
In the old days, at the beginning of a book, I’d set myself 500 words a day, but now I’d put the mark to about 300 words.
This is proof that small word count goals can lead to big things. Let’s put it into perspective.
If you set yourself a daily word count goal of just 300 words and work for 200 days straight (that’s only a little more than six months), you’ll end up with a 60,000 word book.
No matter what goal you set for yourself, the important thing is to have a manageable task to work towards during each of your writing sessions and abandon perfectionism.
And also don’t give up if you miss a day or even several days. The Victorian writer Anthony Trollope once observed,
A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.
Discover more tips for writing daily in my article How to Develop a Writing Habit: 7 Effective Strategies.
3. Optimize Your Writing Time
It can be hard for us writers to find time to write in the first place, but when we finally do manage to carve out those precious hours, it is very frustrating when we can’t stay focused on our writing.
Nobel prize winning author Toni Morrison gave this advice,
I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?
Writers like Morrison try to pinpoint the things that trigger their creativity. For example, some writers find they work better in a crowded cafe than alone in a room at a desk.
I shared a quote from Anthony Trollope earlier. He was one of the most prolific and popular authors of the Victorian era. He discovered a method for triggering his creativity that had him churning out books with astounding speed. Over the course of 35 years, he wrote 47 novels as well as many short stories, nonfiction books, and plays.
Even more impressive, he did all this while working a demanding job as a post office inspector. His job required him to travel often and keep a busy schedule.
That meant that when he sat down to write, he needed to make sure he met his daily word count goal.
His solution? A pocketwatch.
In his autobiography, he wrote,
It had at this time become my custom, — and it still is my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient to myself, — to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went.
By timing his writing sessions, he challenged himself to stay focused on his writing and not break the intense flow of his work.
Like Trollope, timing your writing sessions might help you sharpen your focus or perhaps you will find another method.
The important thing is to pay attention to the times when you are working most productively. Is it at a certain time of day? Or when you’re listening to music? Or when you’re at your desk or outdoors? Try to recreate that environment when you sit down to write.
4. Stop When You’re Going Good
When you’re in a creative flow and your productivity is at its peak, it’s sometimes difficult to know when to end your writing session. You feel like you could keep writing for hours.
Ernest Hemingway, however, warned writers to make sure they didn’t use up all their creative energy. You don’t want to show up at your desk the next day and have no idea what to write.
When asked by an aspiring writer how much someone should write each day, Hemingway answered,
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.
Always stop when you are going good and donʼt think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start. Once you are into the novel it is as cowardly to worry about whether you can go on to the next day as to worry about having to go into inevitable action. You have to go on. So there is no sense to worry. You have to learn that to write a novel. The hard part about a novel is to finish it.
Hemingway’s advice applies whether you are working on a novel or a short story or an essay. At the end of your writing sessions, make sure you know exactly what you will work on the next day.
Discover more wonderful advice from Hemingway in my video below:
5. Transform Dead Time Into Planning Time
Planning ahead is a surefire way to make sure we know what to write when we sit down to our writing sessions. Our writing time doesn’t always have to involve typing away on our computers.
Damon Knight was the founder of the organization Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He wrote twenty novels and over seventy short stories, one of which was adapted into an episode of the Twilight Zone. In his book Creating Short Fiction (Amazon affiliate link), Knight observed,
When a writer is sitting down, looking at a wall with a blank expression on his face, it is easy for a companion to assume that he isn’t doing anything…Getting ready to write is a complex mental process and a very delicate one; what it feels like to me is that I have laboriously climbed a ladder, carrying my brushes and a can of paint.
Having time to think about our writing projects is absolutely essential before we can dive into the actual writing.
Unfortunately, if we only have a precious hour or two to devote to writing each day, we may not want to waste it in staring at the wall, trying to think what to write. If we already had a clear idea in our head of what we wanted to write about, those writing sessions would end up being much more productive.
So instead of staring at the wall during your writing sessions, find those minutes for thinking in the dead time scattered throughout your day: when the car is stuck in traffic, when waiting in line at the bank or post office or grocery store, when folding laundry or vacuuming or doing yard work.
It’s remarkable when an idea for a story can come to you, how a new plot twist or a new topic for an article can just pop into your head.
This was the strategy of the mystery writer Agatha Christie. She wrote 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections. Guinness World Records lists her as the best-selling fiction writer of all time with her novels selling more than two billion copies. But that doesn’t mean she spent all of her writing time at her desk.
In a wonderful quote attributed to her, she advised,
The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.
6. Get Away From Your Desk
Sometimes we may think that spending a longer time at our desks means we are being more productive. But often this is not the case. Overtaxing our brain can tank our productivity and creativity. In fact, it might be better to get away from our desks.
Hemingway wrote, “I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.”
Hemingway’s advice isn’t just anecdotal.
The study found that walking indoors or outdoors similarly boosted creative inspiration. The act of walking itself, and not the environment, was the main factor. Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting…
A person walking indoors — on a treadmill in a room facing a blank wall — or walking outdoors in the fresh air produced twice as many creative responses compared to a person sitting down, one of the experiments found…
The study also found that creative juices continued to flow even when a person sat back down shortly after a walk.
If you’re feeling lethargic or struggling to concentrate on your writing, a walk might be just what you need to stimulate your brain’s creativity and get you back in writing mode.
Read more about the writers who loved long walks in my article here.
In the end, all the productivity strategies in the world won’t help you unless you take time out of the day to pick up your pen and start writing.
As Ray Bradbury observed,
Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.
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Thank you! Wishing you every success with your writing projects! God bless.