Many years ago I accepted a two-day-per-week writing/editing contract. I was delighted.
The reliable paycheck gave me some security in my then-new life as a solopreneur. The employer, however, was ecstatic: I replaced someone who had taken five days a week to do exactly the same work. (Don’t worry: She wasn’t fired; she’d simply accepted a government job.)
How did I do her work in less than half the time? It’s not as if I have a magic wand. I’m just a zealot for productivity. Here are 10 ways you be a more productive writer, too.
1. Write a to-do list every day. I have always begun every morning by reviewing my to-do list. Now I can review it in the (free) miracle software known as Wunderlist. This easy-to-use application enables you to list all the things you need to do and attach deadlines to them. (Hint: I even note the tasks I’ve asked other people to do, so I don’t forget to follow up with them.) I like the way Wunderlist helps me to create new categories or “containers” for my tasks. I don’t leave my to-do lists until just before going on vacation. I work through one every day.
2. Always do the most important, most difficult job first. Whenever I have something tough to write, I tackle it first thing in the morning. This is bad news for night owls, but writing in the morning usually works better. You don’t have to get up at 5 a.m., but try to write before you do anything else, especially email.
3. Work with a timer clicking in the background. I’m a big believer in the pomodoro. This means working intensely on your project for a 25-minute chunk of time, during which you refuse to do anything except the work you’ve identified. (Forward your phone to voicemail, and turn off your email.) At first, I’d thought I’d be distracted by the noisy clock to mark the time—but I was wrong. The tick-tock of the clock keeps me engaged and focused. Now, whenever I hear the ticking, I want to write.
4. Make sure your well is full. I’m not talking about drinking water here; I’m referring to the social things you do that make you feel happy: Movies, concerts, coffee with friends, walks in the park. Just as all work and no play make Jack a dull boy, all writing and no relaxing give Jack a bad case of writer’s block. We can’t work all the time, and if we try to, our bodies have ways of shutting us down. So the next time you’re tempted to shove a report in your briefcase so you can review it after dinner, remind yourself that you need to check your well level.
5. Clean your desk. I don’t know about you, but I can’t work if my desk is buried in paper. If an urgent project leaves me without enough time to clean my desk, I sweep everything into a box so at least the surface of my desk appears clear. Then, when my urgent job is done, I go back and file all those papers where they really belong.
6. Break big jobs into smaller tasks. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Stories—even short ones—are best approached as a series of much smaller steps: researching, mindmapping, writing a lede, finishing a rough draft, self-editing. Don’t let your writing project become a giant hairball that threatens to choke you. Cut it down to a size you can swallow.
7. Delegate everything that you can. Corporate communicators often get stuck with the jobs no one else wants to handle—especially in the Internet age. Don’t let this happen to you. Instead, of welcoming the extra work, try to preserve your sanity (and your writing time) but letting other people take up the slack. Is there an administrative assistant who can help you? What about a summer student? What about an intern? Another department? Writing takes time. See if others can help you find that time.
8. Read more books. Good writers are always voracious readers. Don’t just read annual reports and company documents. Even corporate writers should read good fiction. It doesn’t have to be the “classics”—or at least not the old-fashioned ones. Contemporary writers such as Alice Munro and John Green have much to teach you. Don’t overlook the merits of creative nonfiction either. Books such as Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking“ and Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City“ will give you lots to ponder.
9. Forgive yourself. Not everything goes as you plan it. Some stories or writing projects may not succeed. Don’t beat yourself up. Instead, congratulate yourself for trying and forgive yourself for not quite making it. The scientist who invented the lubricant WD-40 gave it that name because his first 39 attempts failed.
10. When overwhelmed, just write a little. If worse comes to worst and you feel you really don’t know where to begin your writing project, resolve to work on it for five minutes right now. The magic of five minutes (which sounds like a ridiculously small amount of time) is that it allows you to start without becoming scared of the project. Who doesn’t have five minutes? The best thing of all? You’re not deciding whether to write, you’re only deciding when.
Develop the habit of writing for comfort, and you’ll have gone a long way toward improving your productivity.