Time is the greatest opponent of almost every living writer, whether you know it or not.
We like to think we know how to manage it. But we don’t. Not really.
Yes, you CAN write when you don’t think you have enough time. The question is, will you?
I’m not going to spend this post talking about avoiding distractions and giving certain things up because this is really a given at this point. I will talk more about it in the future because I know many of you struggle with these things and I am clearly here to help in any way I can.
But for now, let’s focus on a few things I know you don’t want to talk about — but we are going to talk about them anyway: Creating schedules, how to stay on track when you fall behind, and why “writing only when you feel like it” usually does not work out in a writer’s favor.
Yes, I wrote a lot this month. I’ve written a lot this year. I have developed plenty of strategies along the way to make sure I don’t let bad time management be my excuse. This does not mean I am perfect.
I struggled just as much as the average person. My “secrets” aren’t anything magical or specifically unique to me and me alone. But by sharing what I have learned, and will hopefully continue to learn for many years to come, perhaps I can help you reach the writing goals you feel are too far out of your reach.
Creating a schedule and (mostly) sticking to it. I know there are a lot of you out there who prefer not to write on a schedule. And this is completely understandable on an individual level, at least in concept. You don’t want to stifle your own creativity by saying you “have to” write at a certain time or on a certain day. I get it. I’ve been there.
But something that has helped me tremendously over the past 12 years of tearing through NaNoWriMo (and other projects) is knowing when I am most likely going to get the most writing done in the shortest amount of time and doing it then, when I can. For me, on the weekends, as early in the morning as possible is my best bet. This does not work during the week, though, so I will almost always work on my book in the evenings after my toddler (puppy) goes to sleep.
If I know these times are when I am most likely going to struggle the least, I am much more likely to actually write during those times. I don’t dread it. Many days, I actually look forward to it. You learn to anticipate the exact time according to your schedule, and it becomes like a meeting you know you have to attend on certain days. When it’s time to write, it’s time to write.
Were there days I couldn’t meet my word count even when I seemed to have done everything else right? Of course there were. I’m not perfect. Just because I have a schedule and strategies to help me stay on track does not mean I always will. You can’t beat yourself up when you mess up one day or two or even a whole week.
Which brings me to my next point. How do you “come back” from non-productive writing days and still meet your deadlines on time? Is it even possible? Should you just give up now?
“Course correcting.” This is probably the method that really saved me when I started falling behind (yes, I did actually spend most of the month behind schedule, and that’s critical to understanding what this strategy actually means). The very short version: When you get off track, it’s very easy to just stop trying to fix it — but with a little work every day, you can still meet your goal even if it seems impossible.
Not even halfway through National Novel Writing Month this year, I fell thousands of words behind. I had a bad week, full of big projects and anxiety and personal family issues I had to deal with. I wrote an average of a few hundred words each of those days. But it was not enough. Most people in that situation, I think, would have simply given up right then and there. But I didn’t. It was going to be difficult to catch up. But I could not afford to wait until the last minute in order to do that … not again.
I knew I was going to have to write about 2,100 words every day instead of the usual 1,667 thanks to my bad week. But this is a lot better than realizing it’s five days before the end of the month and you still have 15,000 words or more to go. It doesn’t do you any good to stay in denial about being behind, especially if you are on a deadline that “actually matters” (and by that I mean someone else is paying you to have something done on time — not that your self-imposed deadlines don’t matter, because they absolutely do).
So you “course correct.” You write a little bit more than you planned to, one piece at a time. You don’t just ignore the problem. You implement a solution before it becomes an actual issue. You catch it before it starts to stress you out and you deal with it. This is, more often times than not, the only way you are going to get it done.
I have learned the hard way that procrastination is very, very bad news. Flash back to three years ago when I think I wrote 12,000 words in a single day to meet a deadline. Do. Not. Do. This. Ever. Please.
Writing even when you don’t want to. Until I started writing posts dedicated to this topic, I had no idea it was such a widely controversial thing among people on the internet who write things. Apparently the idea of writing when you’re not “in the mood” is just unthinkable to some people. I mean, I get it. I used to also subscribe to the belief that you can only write when you are “feeling inspired.”
But I got over it. You kind of have to, if you have a really big goal you are trying to achieve.
Here’s a quick explanation: Quality writing is always, always important. You should never publish or submit something that isn’t the highest quality you could have possibly made it. You should never rush through something “just to get it done.” In no way am I ever suggesting otherwise.
I feel like some people don’t fully understand or refuse to accept the concept of a “first draft.” And yes, you would think that in a post about writing when you don’t have time to write would say you should do your best writing the first go around to save time. But — if we’re talking about a book or even a blog post here — everything you write is almost always going to be a first draft. Everything else should almost always be a rewrite or revision.
What is your aversion to an imperfect first draft? That’s really what I’m most curious about when it comes to this particular subject. Sometimes you just have to write to get it done whether you “feel like” doing it or not. At least then you can go back when you’re feeling a little more motivated and make the story better.
Sometimes you have to write while unmotivated, or uninspired. It’s not always going to be the worst writing you have ever done. And even if it is, does it really matter? As a writer you should be taking the time to learn from everything you write, even if it just so happens to be your worst work.
But hey. I guess that’s just my personal opinion. I’m interested in hearing yours.
The reality is, you just aren’t going to have time to do a lot of things you want to do in your life. You have to figure out how to make time, how to make schedules, how to write when you would rather be doing other things. How to do everything, but not really everything all at once.
You are much more capable of reaching your “big” writing goals than you think you are.
Have faith in yourself. Do the best you can. And be proud even if you don’t make it as far as you hoped you would, because even a little writing here and there is still better than none at all.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.