5 Ways to Make Your Writing & Screen Time More Productive

Typing is the fastest way to write. And computers are pretty obviously necessary for a whole slew of projects. But, it’s hard to keep the momentum going at your 9-5, then to expect to come home and continue slaving away in front of a laptop. But, as aspiring writers, this is often the only writing time we get.

A few months ago, I noticed that I was not using my screen time productively — at all. I’d sit down with every intention of working on my novel or replying to an email I’d been meaning to, only to later realize that an hour had passed and I hadn’t accomplished the task at hand. I decided to shake up my writing routine and try some new things. Here’s what worked for me!

1. Leave your digital workspace clear.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve opened my laptop with every intention of writing a new blog post or starting work on a new scene, only to be immediately sidetracked because the last thing I happened to be doing was derping around on 9GAG. It’s so much easier to resist the pull of distractions if they aren’t immediately staring you in the face.

So, take some time to save your work, bookmark whatever sites you need to, and then shut things down. It’ll give you a lovely, clean new workspace the next time you need to work — and you can choose to only open the programs or projects you really need to.

2. Know what you want to accomplish.

Whether the goal is to write a thousand words, log an hour on a freelance project, or write until the new scene is finished — having it in mind will help you get geared towards accomplishing it before you even start working. Don’t just have a vague idea; make a concrete goal that is specific and measurable. You need to set a task that is either done or not, so you have something to stick to.

It can be helpful (and rewarding!) to find a way to log the task and what you got accomplished. For freelancers, this is a no brainer (it’s a prerequisite for a paycheck), but for those working on projects for themselves, this can be harder to do.  It doesn’t have to be high-tech or crazy (currently I check off a square of grid paper for every 100 words, which is weirdly satisfying), but it can help you keep the big picture in mind and work towards your overall goal.

3. Batch your tasks (and distractions).

Batching is an idea that presented in a lot of productivity books, and it has some good merits. Sometimes when you’re stuck in a rut, it’s to think, well I’ll just check Twitter really quick, or, I wonder if I have a new email. But by going back and forth to check email or Twitter, to log your time, or so on, can waste crucial minutes — minutes that add up to hours. And when it comes to finding the time to write, that’s a big enough challenge as it is.

Not only do they suck minutes, these distractors also suck your focus. It can take you much longer to refocus and set your mind to the task at hand. By putting all these time vampires together, their effect is minimized. Set a time to do all these things — it could be 10 minutes every two hours, or half an hour at your lunch break — and resist the urge to check them the rest of the time. It’s hard at first, but it’s definitely a habit worth creating.

4. Track/manage your time with apps.

Our hardware and software enable us to do awesome things and to work more efficiently. Computers are made for multi-tasking, but our brains? Not so much — especially when it comes to very cerebral or abstract tasks like coding, writing or crunching numbers.

Here are some apps and web browser plugins that help keep track of time and turn your computer into a single-task machine.

  1. Rescue Time: This program tracks how you use your time on your computer, and analyzes it for you, helping you spot time-wasters and get an honest, real-world view of how you’re spending your time.

  2. Stay Focused: A Google Chrome plug-in, this extension limits the amount of time you can spend on distracting sites. My husband, for instance, uses this at work to limit the time he spends on favorite sites to 20 minutes throughout the day — making sure they don’t eat into his work time or focus.

  3. Think – This Mac OS app blacks out your screen, leaving only the task you are working on. You’ll be less likely to click away from your task if you can’t see icons or other windows in your screen’s background! Some word processors and other programs also include a feature like this — I’m currently using Scrivener, for example, and it has a “Compose” button that makes the document I’m working on full-screen, with the option to black out the background.

5. Step away from the screen.

Like I said, we can sometimes go looking for distractions when our brains are feeling tired because we’ve hit a wall or we are bored with the current task. Instead of getting pulled into something else, take a quick break from your screen. You might walk around and step outside for some fresh air. Plus, this can help lower your risk for health problems and get blood flowing where you need it most — your brain!

Sometimes it helps to just take the problem to pen and paper — something about working the problem out on a notepad makes your brain pay closer attention, and requires you to slow down as you think it through. Often this can help me find just the perfect turn of phrase I’ve been looking for, or help me see why what I’ve been trying isn’t working.

What are your biggest productivity-busters? Have anything you do that helps improve your on-screen focus?

Slow Writer

Ugh.

That is all I have to say to the months of March and April.

They’ve been a bit of a whirlwind. Chris (my husband) has been in and out of town, to SXSW and a conference in Las Vegas. It’s tough to be home without him.

I haven’t written a lot these past couple of months. I’ve made some progress, but it’s been meager and sporadic. I write at work as an SEO copywriter, and though that is very different from creative writing and other stuff I do on my own, it still sucks the brain power. After having stared at a screen, coming up with new words and typing all day, I often just don’t want to do more of the same at home.

I’ve let my enthusiasm for my current project flicker a bit.

The same fire and excitement just isn’t there. I love starting projects — ho yes, I do. It’s easy and fun and full of possibility like maybe this is the one that comes easy, that just happens, that forms perfectly into a beautiful masterpiece.

But, alas, writing isn’t like that. At least, not for a whole novel.

I’ve committed to finishing the story/book I’m writing on now before moving on. Even though I keep having ideas pop up of stories that want to be told.

I read a piece by Karen River about how to finish a novel that she posted yesterday. It is pretty much spot on for how I am feeling right now.

But I will keep going, I have to do it. I have to finish this novel, and prove to myself, prove to others that I can do this. I’m an author. I’m a novelist.

Originally my goal was to have a first draft finished by my birthday.

Now — I don’t know. I’d still like to try for June 12th, but it doesnt quite seem doable. We’re going on a trip to Poland in three weeks, so there are plans to make for that. Chris is graduating and looking for a job. Soon there could be packing and moving and all kinds of wild fun. There’s no real stretches of quiet or solitude from here to my birthday.

I’m a bit burnt out with everything at the moment, but I’m not ready to give up hope yet that I can still pull it off.

It will take a lot of dedication, to do it. But the alternative? Putting it aside? It just isn’t a choice I’m going to make,

The First Draft: Separating the Wheat from the Tares

I’m in the throes of my first draft, and while February was a pretty terrible month for my word count, March looks like it is shaping up a little better. It’s spring and lovely, and I’m feeling rejuvenated and ready to tackle some serious word counts.

But like many writers, I have a hard time holding back the critic in my head. It’s so easy to get distracted and spend the precious little writing time I have not writing — but instead revising, reworking, reordering, re-everythinging.

I’ve discovered an analogy that is (at least for now) helping me make some sense of this messy business of writing.

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares

To paraphrase the parable (which can be found in Matthew 13:24-30), a man sows a field of wheat, then his enemy comes to the field and sows a bunch of weeds (tares) in it. The field sprouts and the man’s servants see there are weeds growing. So they ask if they should go pull out the tares and get rid of them, to which the man answers:

“Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.”

Now, this parable was meant as a metaphor for allowing the sinners to live alongside the righteous, or something. But! BUT!

Doesn’t it also make a super great metaphor for writing a first draft?

At some point we sit down and start sowing our wordseeds, working through a plot, adding to the wordcount. As the story starts to sprout, we might recognize some problems, see some elements that seemed like wholesome wheaty stalks at the start but have only turned out to be obnoxious weedy things. And we’re tempted to stop the whole process to rip those weeds out of the draft, to get rid of everything that isn’t COMPLETELY PERFECT, DAGGIT.

But what if in that process we pull out good elements with it? When we’re in the middle of a first draft, we don’t have the perspective to be able to neatly excise what’s bad without also sacrificing much of what’s great.

It’s not until the draft is done, has sat for a while, and is ready for revision that we can have the clarity to recognize what is good and what is not. And even then, it takes the help of countless other eyes and minds to take the words we’ve harvested and turn them into a digestible, delightful, nourishing and complete story-book-loaf.

But the revising can’t happen until the writing is done.

Letting the words get on the paper is difficult for me, because revising is the stage I love. It’s the part where I start feeling like, “Hey, maybe there’s something here that’s not completely embarrassing. Maybe I’d actually let someone else read this.”

So I’m going to let my little wordseeds grow and flourish. Some of them will have to be thrown out or burned. But I have to hope that maybe, just maybe, there will be some weedy little bit that will flourish into something wonderful and surprising.

Because I love surprises.

Do you find it easier to draft or revise? How do you overcome the inner critic when drafting?

Try it: Visual Inspiration

Has February been a crazy month for you? Because it’s been a lot of insanity for me. Some of it good, some of it not so good. But most of it time-consuming. Which is my way of making excuses for the fact that I’ve probably only written about an eighth of my word-count goal for the month.

Pathetic much?

I’m need inspiration, peoples! So I’m trying something new: I’m going to conduct a “writerly experiment.” Yeah! EXCITEMENT!

The Experiment: using visuals!

For my first experiment/challenge, I’m going to utilize visual inspiration to get the creative juices (and the word count) flowing. I got the idea from Nova Ren Suma, author of Imaginary Girls and writing blog Distraction No. 99. She mentioned using a Pinterest board to make a collage of inspiring pictures, and after checking out her hauntingly creepy collection (from which I borrowed the above image; click on it for the source), I was excited to try it myself!

The Parameters:

Spend a good five minutes at the start of each writing session looking at visuals that represent an aspect of my work in progress (setting, character, theme, mood, etc.). This will take the form of a Pinterest board. Write for at least twenty minutes, trying to hold onto the feel of the pictures as I’m writing, referring back to them as needed.

Hypothesis (benefits+/setbacks- I anticipate):

  1. + More detailed/textured setting, characters, world-building.
  2. +Visuals may provide inspiration, kickstart writing sessions.
  3. +Holding onto visuals may help my brain stay focused, and I can refer to them to get back ontrack.
  4. -Visuals may present a distraction.
  5. -I’ll probably get sucked into a mindless Pinning session at least once. Probably more.

I’d love to hear if/how you use visuals in your writing. Have you tried something similar before?

Trusting the Plot

plotting a story can be a scary headache.

Plots are tricky beasts, aren't they? Visuals can help. Sometimes. Image c/o flickr user HJ Media Studios.

The past week of writing has been both hard and great. I made a LOT of changes to the plot of the YA fantasy I’m working on. But I’ve also had some breakthroughs and I feel much more confident about the direction I’m going in.

But I’m still having a hard time letting go.

I miss the plot points that have been wiped away. Some of them had to do with the essential premise of my story. Saying goodbye to those also means I have to rewrite, retool and rework a LOT of the copy I have so far.

Plotting is probably one of the most difficult parts of writing for me.

“What if?”

It’s the question that drives so much of my writing, thinking of weird premises and possibilities, brainstorming impossibly awkward situations to put characters in and so on. But it also holds me back. As I was looking at my plot, the whole of it, it was hard to commit. What role will a certain secondary character play in the climax? I couldn’t decide between heroically saving the day, getting fatally wounded, or a dozen other possibilities. As soon as I’d settled on one, my brain would answer with a, “But what if… what if…?”

A lot of being able to move forward with writing is learning to TRUST THE PLOT–that is, finding the strand of storyline grabs me, sticks to me, and gets me excited. To have faith that when tugged, that plot strand will stay firmly attached rather than coming loose or flying apart. Trusting that following the storyline may lead somewhere different than I expected, but that it will still be wonderful and exciting and worthwhile.

While I have been plagued with indecisiveness, I am making progress! I’ve managed to meet my January 2011 writing goals:

  1. Plot the whole story.
  2. Write 7500 words.

And I’ll be starting on my February goal, which is simply to write 15k words. Which will hopefully put me a third of the way through my novel! Woooo.

Do you have trouble “making decisions” about your story/book/plot? How do you move forward with confidence?