Getting productive (and staying there)

If you treat writing like any other job, you’ll do maybe one good hour of work every day, and goof off the rest of the time. This partially comes from my own experience, so trust me when I say it is both difficult and unwise to think of writing as “just another job”.

As writers, we have a lot we need to get done. We cannot judge our potential productivity by our typing speed alone. After all, we are not taking diction here. We have to plan, format, rewrite, edit, and a number of other things to properly craft a story. Anyone who tells you they can just sit down and transcribe a story as it pops into their mind, perfect and fully-formed, is either lying to try to look good, or really bad at what they do. Either way, not the sort of writer you should emulate.

However, word count is still a measure that cannot be ignored. Without putting down actual words, we would be less writers and more just idle dreamers. So respect your word count, see it as a sign of progress, but do not treat it as the only measure.

In order to keep myself productive every day, I have a set of goals. Not just a singular target, “write”, but more like a grading curve. Something similar might work for you, if you are also trying to improve your productivity.

First off, I measure my word count for the day. Regardless of what it might be, I consider anything over zero to have been a successful day. Never punish yourself for writing, there’s no such thing as “not enough” as long as you’re making progress. But always feel good for doing better than usual.

If I’ve written four thousand words or more that day, I’m going to treat myself. That is my threshold for an exceptional day, where I figure I deserve a reward. I might feel good after three thousand, but this helps me aim high. Usually my reward for having had an exceptional day is something that makes me feel positive: movie night, for instance, or making cookies – and then eating those cookies.

Under four thousand, but still over one thousand, that it’s what I consider a reasonably good day. While I don’t give myself a big reward for those days, I still don’t punish myself. Negative reinforcement never works in anything, and if you start chiding yourself over something you love, you’re quickly going to lose that love. Not to mention it might make you feel even worse about doing things you don’t like doing. If writing becomes a chore, where is that going to leave actual chores?

Always feel proud of what you have accomplished in a day, no matter how small, and that goes for more than just writing. Even if I only write a hundred words in the day, that’s progress. That’s a hundred more words than I had the day before, after all. Even if they get cut later, that’s progress. They were a hundred words that I now know won’t work in that scene. That’s still progress. It doesn’t matter all that much that it’s less than a thousand. A thousand is less than ten thousand. Ten thousand is less than a million. There will always be bigger numbers, numbers you won’t be able to attain.

But if I don’t reach my goals, I will still question why – why didn’t I get there? What stopped me from getting there? That isn’t punishing myself, that’s trying to improve myself. If I can figure out what happened, I can address it. Maybe I’ve got too much clutter on my desk to focus properly, then I know I should tidy my workspace before I start work again the next day.

Sometimes I will get nothing done in a day, and I will ask why as well. But also what – what did I do in that day that wasn’t writing but was still something I should be doing as a writer. Making one of these posts counts. So does editing, revising (rereading with a critical eye), and planning. Even something like watching a movie can count, if you’re doing so for research/inspiration purposes.

Just be as little critical about what you judge as being “for research purposes”, you don’t want to be too caught up in “research” to actually work. But sometimes it’s OK to take some time out of your schedule to unwind. Your mind and body are the tools of your trade, both of them. Look after them, so you can do the best you possibly can. Stress and fatigue will ruin your schedule just as badly as any amount of distractions.

Lastly, make your own productivity wherever and whenever you can. There’s no reason you can’t do some strategic thinking while in the shower, or while waiting for the microwave to finish. Even if these idle minutes are just minutes, you can get a lot of thinking done in a minute. It might be enough to work out a solution to a tricky scene that’s been stifling your progress.

Case in point, this particular article was composed entirely on my phone during long Underground trips, and edited later when I had more than just my thumbs to rely on. Although I don’t recommend trying to do a full novel when crammed into a standing-room-only rush hour train.