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.
- 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.
- Which of your goals seems more in reach? Break down this 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.
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.