People often ask writers about their writing process and habits. I’m always happy to talk about mine, though I believe this is an individual thing and what works for one writer may not work well for another. That said, I have a few tips that I find improve productivity, and I think they’ll work whatever your process.
1. Set aside specific writing time. If you are serious about writing, you ought to set aside a specific time to do it, and protect this time. Eliminate distractions. These days people have become accustomed to being constantly connected, but that doesn’t lend itself to productive writing. When you are writing, don’t answer the phone, don’t look at email or texts, don’t let yourself go on Facebook or Twitter. For the period you determine, you are doing nothing but writing.
For me, the key to making this work is I don’t put pressure on myself to turn out a certain number of pages or scenes or whatever. If I say I’m going to write for two hours, it’s okay if I only write one sentence, as long as I don’t do anything else during those two hours. Even if I don’t feel creative, eventually I’ll get bored staring at that blank page and start to noodle with something, and inevitably I’ll get more work done than I thought I was going to.
Some writers, particularly novelists, prefer to set a page or word count target. This is one of those “whatever works best for you” things. But if you take this approach, you should still block out all other distractions until you hit your goal.
2. Write every day. Or at least six days a week. There is momentum to writing that will carry over day to day, but if you take a couple days off, you’ll lose it. The longer the gap between writing sessions, the more time it will take you to get your imagination back into your story and characters. I find it’s much better to do a short writing session every day (or twice a day) than long writing sessions only on weekends.
You also get an advantage because your brain will work at your story for awhile after a writing session. You’ll find ideas popping into your head while you’re cooking or in the shower. But if you don’t get back to the writing soon, that will fade. Writing every day turns your whole day into a “writing session.”
3. Prepare the next day’s work at end of your writing session. Some proponents of the “setting aside a specific time to write” will advocate stopping mid-sentence when your writing time is up. This goes to the momentum idea. If you stop in the middle of something, you will be primed to jump back in the next day. I don’t take things quite that far. In fact, I prefer to finish any scene I’m working on if at all possible.
However I have found it’s dangerous to finish a scene, save my document, and then walk away. The next day I’m faced with that first page anxiety even if I’m in the middle of my script. It’s much better to spend the last ten minutes or so of your writing session planning out what you’ll do first thing the next day. Brainstorm ideas or bits of dialogue for the scene. You won’t feel any pressure because you don’t have to write it until tomorrow, but when you do sit down tomorrow, you’ll have some rough material to work with. And you’ll also prime your subconscious to come up with ideas between writing sessions.
A bonus technique: Outline. I like to outline my screenplays in great detail. Some writers don’t – including some very successful writers – so obviously this is not the only way to go. But one of the advantages of working from an outline is you always know, at a macro level, what’s going to happen next. You won’t write yourself into a corner and then be stuck for days trying to figure out how to get out. And as a practical matter, if you become a professional screenwriter you will often be forced to break your story for others before you can start your first draft, so you might as well get in the habit.
Another bonus technique: If you need a day job, get one you hate. It will motivate you to write every day so you can quit! Just try to get a job that doesn’t have a lot of overtime.
There is a caveat to all of this. You do not want to put yourself in a mindset where if conditions aren’t perfect, you can’t write. Life is busy, even once you are able to make writing your full time job. You may have to write in a hotel room or the lobby of a building between meetings. When you’re starting out, you may have to write during your lunch hour of your day job.
The most important point is that if you want to be a professional writer you have to commit time to do the job. If you don’t start digging the ditch, the ditch won’t get dug.