Be a More Productive Writer While Also Achieving Balance

Stairway by Luba M. via Flickr

by Luba M. via Flickr

Today’s guest post is by Jordan Rosenfeld (@JordanRosenfeld) and is an excerpt from A Writer’s Guide to Productivity, published by Writer’s Digest.

Surely you know one or more prolific writers who produce so much material that you wish you could bottle their energy and drink it down later for yourself.

Perhaps you even feel a little envious or resentful of their output: Hey, that could be me if only I didn’t have to [fill in the blank].

It’s easy to believe that a large quantity of writing is a sign of productivity, and thus, if you are not writing reams yourself, you aren’t being productive. But more writing does not necessarily equal better-quality writing, nor does faster writing lead to faster achievement of your goals.

The Pros and Cons of Fast Drafting

For at least six years, I, like millions of other slightly crazed, well-intentioned writers, have participated in NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—in which writers attempt to produce a 50,000-word novel in thirty days while running on caffeine, blind faith, and a spirit of adventure. The part of me that is like an endurance athlete always thinks this sounds like a great idea and enjoys the endorphin rush of writing toward a fast finish. And it is fun at various stages—particularly at the beginning before reality has set in. But you know what the honest truth is? It kills me every year. By the end of November I am the crankiest, most burned-out, and spent writer I know.

I’m not saying not to do NaNoWriMo—in fact, on the contrary, I think every writer should do it at least once to experience what a true writing marathon feels like. However, just because you write something fast doesn’t mean it will be complete and publishable when you reach the finish line.

So if you are going to undertake fast drafting, be prepared to come out of those sessions with a lot of work left to do. Accept that what you write quickly may need more revision later. And don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t write a fully finished masterpiece in thirty days or less; great works aren’t written in one sitting. Consider, too, that you may need a lot of downtime after the intensity of the process—and that’s time away from your writing, which might ultimately be counterproductive to your overall output.

Set Manageable Goals and Intentions

All of this brings me to a very important topic for making yourself productive in a balanced way: intentions.

When I teach plot and scene to my writing students and clients, I stress the importance of characters having smaller intentions in every scene and larger dramatic goals to move the story along. A character without intentions wanders around her narrative. A plot without goals is a series of interesting but disconnected vignettes.

The same is true for your writing life. Intentions are daily motivators in small, manageable pieces; they spur you into action and carry out your tasks on the way to your goals. Your goals are the big-picture items—to be a published author, to have that story you wrote accepted by The New Yorker, to query literary agents—built from the efforts of your intentions. The more intentions you create for yourself, the more likely you are to follow through.

Don’t Make To-Do Lists

From here on out, I’d like you to stop making to-do lists. Nothing causes more anxiety than a list of items looming like a dictator with instructions to do! You can all but feel a whip being cracked at your rear, can’t you?

Instead, set yourself up with daily intentions. Intentions are a kinder, gentler way to nudge yourself along. In fact, I recommend that you make a master list of action items for the week or month, and keep it in a binder. Each day choose only the most crucial items from the master list and write them on an erasable whiteboard, which will then serve as your daily intentions list. I do believe in creating parameters for your writing so that you are less likely to sit at your desk panicking in front of the blank page because you don’t know where to start. Just don’t create so many parameters that you stymie yourself.

Some examples of the kinds of intentions you can set for a writing session are:

  • to outline a scene
  • to write a specific number of words
  • to write a piece to a specific theme or for a specific publication goal (a contest, a writing prompt)
  • to finish a non-writing-related project that is keeping you from your writing
  • to pick up a scene or story where you left off last time.

Try to avoid putting items like this on your daily intentions list:

  • Finish my novel
  • Write one hundred pages
  • Plot out a new seven-book series today.

You have to learn to corral and guard your writing time so that you use it wisely. It also means that you need to be careful not to set yourself up for failure by heaping more on your plate than you are liable to do or capable of completing. Voracious and prolific writing does not equal success.

How to Set Meaningful Long-Term Writing Goals

If you have one big, intimidating goal, such as “Get published by Random House,” that’s fine, but what does it really mean?

Consider the smaller steps that will make your goal possible. If your goal comprises a series of many smaller intentions along the way, then you might begin to look at it as doable. Goals that maybe once seemed out of reach become possible: A novel is written, after all, in a series of small, manageable scenes and chapters, not necessarily in a month.

Next Steps

  1. Buy yourself an erasable whiteboard on which you can write your daily intentions. Don’t keep a long list of all your intentions in an overwhelming list in front of you. (you may have a master list you keep in a notebook, but hide it away.) Every day, erase yesterday’s intentions and copy only intentions from your master list that you can do that day. Try not to overachieve; instead strive to accomplish tasks in manageable chunks. Try to include “writing” on your daily intentions list every day, and remember to start with the most pressing task (anything that is deadline driven or that is driving you crazy) to get it out of the way.
  2. Which of your goals seems more in reach? Break down A Writer's Guide to Persistencethis goal into a series of smaller intentions or just the intentions you will set for your next session. What goals do you have that should be pushed off to a later date?

Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, I highly recommend taking a closer look at A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld.


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Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Guest Post and tagged , , , , , .

Jordan Rosenfeld is author of the novels Women in Red and Forged in Grace and six books on the craft of writing, most recently How to Write a Page-Turner, as well as the bestselling Make a Scene, Writing the Intimate Character, A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, Writing Deep Scenes (with Martha Alderson) and Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life (with Becca Lawton). Her freelance articles and essays have been published in hundreds of publications, including The Atlantic, The New York Times, Scientific American, Writer’s Digest Magazine, The Washington Post and many more. She is also a freelance manuscript editor and ghostwriter.

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Excellent, excellent post! Since I started seriously to work on my current WIP this year, I’ve been tending toward the approach you outlined here (as I’m trying to balance the writing with everything else that has to be done yet still consistently write). I’ve also experienced that uncertain feeling when bumping into prolific (high word count) writers and I have to remind myself that (for me) consistency is the key. 500 words a day or so will get me to novel length in the end. 🙂 So, all that to say, you summarized all of it here and it was… Read more »

T.O. Weller

Thank you so much!! This article couldn’t have arrived in my inbox at a better time. I’ve been chatting with an author who is well on his way to writing 1 million words and publishing 15 books in 2015. Yes, you heard that right. Of course, I want to interview him and try to comprehend how he’s doing that with two young children and a teaching job. How is it possible?!? Meanwhile, we’ve been renovating our home, finding our dream property, and selling our home to buy the dream property … all in the last month. My fledgling blog has… Read more »


While I love NaNo, I learned about 5 years ago that making sure I have a bare bones draft is the best option to flush out later. I don’t words words for the sake of words. Great point on intentions. Life gets in the way and not everyone is a full time writer. Another job is what pays the bills. I don’t fret as much if I don’t get a chapter finished or write one word most days. Sometimes just quiet reflection on where the story should go is a great way for me to spend an evening.

Sherrey Meyer

Superb post, Jordan! So nice to find you here at Jane’s. And Jane, thank you for hosting Jordan.

I think this is a topic that is cyclical to all writers, at least for me. My intentions are always the best but also the highest expectations tag along. Jordan, you’ve given us a plan of moderation for both our intentions and expections. Just what I needed with my morning cup of java! 🙂

Kathy B

Love this post! I have your new book, Jordan, and am ready to crack it open. But first, I’m going to get a whiteboard! 🙂 Thank you for your wisdom!

Ernie Zelinski

If writing a particular book and getting it published is your main goal in life, I recommend that you read “The One Thing” by Gary Keller. As he says, “Extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.” Some other points Keller makes are: * “The problem is we tend to act on what we believe even when what we believe isn’t anything we should.” * “In the world of achievement everything doesn’t matter equally. Equality is a lie. Understanding this is the basis of all great decisions.” * “When everything feels urgent and important, everything… Read more »

Michael Anthony

sounds like a good book, I’m going to check it out.

Diane Holcomb

Boy, did you nail it about NaNoWriMo. The first year I took on that gargantuan task, on Nov 30th I staggered out of my cottage blinking at the sun, then headed for the grocery store.

As an introvert, small, manageable tasks is all I can handle without feeling overwhelmed. Thanks for the tips. Love the idea of setting intentions.

Shirley Corder

Fabulous post, thank you. I’ve done NaNoWriMo 6 times. I love it. But it’s an adrenaline junkie thing! I need to do more “intention” setting than “goal” setting! And oh yes, right now I’m doing the A to Z challenge. About those intentions . . .

Shirley Corder from
Out of Africa – Topics from A to Z

[…] Be a More Productive Writer While Also Achieving Balance by @jordanrosenfeld via @JaneFriedman […]

Len Edgerly

I love your use of “intentions” for the daily list. It’s a helpful shift from my usual too-ambitious list of Things To Do. The intention resides in my inner place, where as the To Do List comprises moles to be whacked, things outside myself that goad me to action. I also like the idea of a whiteboard, maybe a small one that I could place on a bookshelf near my desk in the den here… I just found one on Amazon measuring 12 x 9 inches for $5.57 Link:
Thanks for your thoughtful guidance!

[…] tips to help you me a more productive and balanced […]

Michael Anthony

I think it’s about taking a deep look though and seeing what your real “Goals” are. Is your goal to lose six pounds? Or is your goal to live a healthy lifestyle forever? I see one as a mission and one as a goal. I think too many of us get lost in the “goals,” and lose sight of the mission. In the military we don’t have goals, we have missions, and there’s a big difference.


Great point

[…] Rosenfeld guests on Jane Friedman’s blog on the topic of balanced productivity. Here’s another book for my “to read” pile . . […]

[…] Be A More Productive Writer While Also Achieving Balance by Jordan Rosenfeld from Jane Friedman. Peek: “Intentions are day by day motivators in small, manageable items; they spur you into motion and perform your duties on the best way to your objectives.” […]

Anne M. Beggs

Helpful and concise. From a writing POV I especially like the character having small intention per scene with the larger goals driving the story! Excellent reminder. To-do’s/goals/intentions, this applies to life on all levels. I’m a list writer, and they serve me well, but with a reasonable and attainable bent. TY.


This is a great post. Knowing that I have several books in my current series drives me crazy because I want them all out RIGHT NOW. I know I have to be patient, but sometimes it’s hard. I actually do have a whiteboard that I use when I have a lot on my plate, it helps keep me focused. What a great idea to help me chill out. I’ll put the things that I need to focus on now, and in smaller steps (not just, “finish current WIP” LOL). Then I’ll stay focused on those instead of all the books… Read more »

[…] Be a More Productive Writer While Also Achieving Balance A guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog by Jordan Rosenfeld (@JordanRosenfeld) that’s an excerpt from A Writer’s Guide to Productivity, published by Writer’s Digest. It’s easy to believe that a large quantity of writing is a sign of productivity, and thus, if you are not writing reams yourself, you aren’t being productive. But more writing does not necessarily equal better-quality writing, nor does faster writing lead to faster achievement of your goals. Read more. […]