As a writer, editor, college writing instructor and author of time management books, I've heard that phrase a thousand times, and that's a conservative guess. So how do writers find time to write and how do they make the most of that time once they're able to find it?
Whether you're a beginner, or a seasoned writer facing "If only" when you want to start new projects, here are ten tips for finding time and avoiding the unproductive "If I only had the time."
Over and above these tips for writers there are the evergreen tips we've all heard again and again -- Use "To Do" Lists, Avoid The Telephone Trap, Learn To Say "No" -- and other constants. All are important and timeless, but since they're repeated so often we'll bypass them for specific "If onlys" that give you more writing time.
1. Write yourself a mission statement. Businesses write a mission statement that empowers them to move ahead, so when you want your name on the cover of your first or latest book or a magazine article or story, take a lesson from businesses and write a mission statement. Yours might be: During the next 12 months I will study the current magazine market, write a short story that matches the needs of the market, revise it until it is of publishable quality and do a blitz submission to editors without giving up. I will also start a file of ideas for a novel and put everything I think of or find that pertains to the idea in that file. I will read books on writing, take a course and attend a writers' conference. At the end of 12 months I will evaluate my progress and determine what I need to do next.
2. Put your writing first once you know your mission. Yes, you've heard that one before, so it's not like a bolt of lightning that scares you into action. But it's something that has to be reckoned with to get your writing off the ground, so during your writing-first time get to work immediately and refuse to let things that appear to be urgent (but really aren't that crucial) interfere with your writing time. Spend as little time as possible on, or eliminate altogether, less-important- than-writing tasks you could do in non-writing time without shaking up the universe. If at all possible find a place to write where you can close a door (or put up a screen) with a "Do Not Disturb" sign. Eventually people will get the message not to interrupt with distractions that can wait.
3. Keep a time journal to show you how you spend your time. For a workable and easy-to-keep time journal, divide each day of the week into Morning, Afternoon, Evening, and Weekend segments like this:
Set up as much space as you need for this chart and beside each time segment, and under each day, write in what you do and have to do in that time frame. Obviously there will be many things that have to be done in certain timeframes: your job, family life, personal care, home chores, errands, volunteer work, exercise, appointments, whatever. But you'll still see things you can minimize, consolidate, or cut out altogether to fit in more writing time.
[Editor's Note: Writing-World.com offers a free downloadable writers' time journal/datebook. Visit http://www.writing-world.com/year/index.shtml for details.]
4. Avoid wasting too much time thinking instead of writing. Since all writing begins with thinking, thinking time is essential. But too much prolonged thinking steals time from actual writing. Rather than doing all of your thinking while you stare at a yellow pad or blank computer screen train yourself to do preliminary thinking while you're involved in other things - for example, routine chores, commuting, gardening, exercising, waiting at appointments, and stuck in traffic while driving. Thinking time will always serve you well, but rather than letting it become an "If only," know when it's time to stop thinking and begin to write.
5. Stop using "If only" as a postponement. There isn't a person who's publishing today who hasn't experienced the fear of failure. For all of us, until we start developing an idea, we're safe from risking failure and can envision the joy of success if we had the time to work on the idea. But instead of holding yourself back with such haunting questions as "Is this idea really good enough?" or "Will it be rejected?" evaluate and work on your idea until you know it's good and has potential. Then put fear of failure behind you and refuse to let negatives (and the inevitable rejections every idea receives one time or another) get in the way of keeping you from what you want to do.
6. Start and keep going. Writing something is better than staring at that blank computer screen or yellow pad, so use a "Just begin" approach and take whatever is on your mind about a piece -- whether it's a setting, description of a person, dialogue, whatever -- and write it regardless of how off-the-wall it seems at the moment. It will start the juices going and may lead to material, or partial material, that you can eventually move to a beginning that will get you started.
If "Just begin" doesn't work for you, another approach that helps some writers is outlining plans for a piece. Admittedly, whether or not to outline gets mixed reviews from writers, but for many planning is the way to go. After all, coaches don't go into games without a game plan, pilots don't leave the ground without a flight plan, and surgeons don't cut without a plan.
7. Focus totally on the project in front of you. Avoid letting your thoughts wander to other things you want to write or do "when you have the time." If you're the type who does this and who must jot down notes not relevant to what you're working on, keep a pad beside you and do your jotting fast. In non-writing time file your jottings for whatever you want to do in see-through containers with tight lids. Lids that are hard to get off will discourage you from checking on other things when you need to stay focused on what's in front of you.
8. Remember that technology isn't always your friend. Most writers would never want to return to pre-computer days, but technology isn't always user-friendly when, during your writing time, computers tempt you to check e-mail, read the latest online news or participate in forums or chat room discussions. To help yourself avoid this, set up your desktop with a screensaver that says "The Business of a Writer Is To Write." Then take this message to heart when you turn on your computer. Be equally disciplined about turning off the tube and boycotting TV during writing hours -- unless you're the kind of writer who needs the background noise and can work uninterruptedly without getting hooked by the pictures on the screen. [Editor's note: Another option, if you can afford two computers, is to have one computer that is not connected to the Internet, but is reserved solely for writing. When you sit down at this computer, you will immediately be reminded that your purpose here is only to write, and you can't even be tempted to check e-mail or surf the web.]
9. Train yourself to produce. While you strive for quality as well as quantity in your writing, develop and practice skills for working quickly by allotting yourself a certain amount of time to do a job. Set a minute timer for that allotted time. You won't always complete a job before the bell rings, but even when you have to go overtime, the timer will keep you from dawdling.
Along with your regular writing schedule, increase your productivity by making good use of in between times. Write "15 Minutes is 15 Minutes" on a colorful post-it and stick the post-it on your computer or on the desk where you write. Even writing one paragraph during that 15 minutes moves your writing further ahead.
10. Proceed one step at a time. Along with being productive, be realistic about how much you'll be able to do in each writing session and know the difference between the ideal and the possible. Rather than looking at the total of what you want to do and feeling you must draft a whole story, article, or book chapter in one or two writing sessions, focus on achievable tasks and be satisfied with one or two pages. At the end of your day's writing session, prepare ahead for the next day by leaving things in order so everything is set up for starting to write. Finally, talk to other writers about how they find and use time and discuss your ideas with them. Just talking about these things with others can motivate you to start writing and avoid the unproductive "If I only had the time."
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