During Q&A’s, writers are often asked about their writing habits – How long do they write each day? Morning or Night? In a coffee shop or in an office or by the pool? I have found that the answers vary tremendously. If you ask a lot of successful writers this question, you will probably discover that there is no common element in their answers. This is either depressing – “There’s no secret to lead me to success!” – or encouraging – “The way I’m doing it is okay.”
Despite this, over the years I’ve discovered a few tips that I find are helpful to writers struggling to be productive. One of the best is: write every day. It doesn’t have to be every day – maybe you take Sundays and holidays off. But the most important factor in writing success is the application of butt to chair, and making this a daily habit makes it easier.
It also helps keep the ideas flowing. If you write every day, your screenplay will never be far from your mind. When you sit down, you will be able to get back into the writing groove quickly. Take a week off and it will take time to get back into the flow of your story, to remember what you were doing and thinking in the last writing session.
When I first graduated from college, I had to get a day job – just like most film school grads who are not independently wealthy. This meant finding daily writing time was difficult. (But this was an especially important time for me to establish the daily writing habit as I no longer had class deadlines to keep me on schedule.)
One piece of advice served me well at this point: set a specific amount of writing time and shut out everything else. I did an hour a day, first thing when I got home from work. An hour may not seem like much, but it keeps you mentally in your screenplay and you’d be surprised at how productive you can be – how those individual hours add up over a month. I wrote three spec screenplays in that first year. Some writers set page goals, but that can be intimidating. As long as I put in my hour I didn’t criticize how much I produced. That took the pressure off and I believe it actually allowed me to produce more.
When I sold the Sweet Home Alabama spec script, I was able to quit my day job. That meant, in theory, I had all day to write. I have tried writing eight hours a day. I find that I’m only really productive in the first few hours, and that after a few days I burn out creatively. I think I trained myself to write in short, intense bursts in my hour-a-day period.
So I got in the habit of writing a couple of hours in the morning and a couple more hours in the late afternoon. There was plenty of other things to do anyway – reading the trades, research, meetings with producers, phone calls with my agent, reading scripts of successful films, etc.
Occasionally I would have to put in more time writing, usually when I was on an assignment with a tight deadline. And I can do that for short periods of time.
What inspired me to address this topic today is that I am revamping my daily writing process. I’ve realized that lately I haven’t been giving my writing work the priority level I want it to be. I’ll save it until after other tasks are done – grading student work for the classes I teach at Art Center, writing this blog, etc. I once heard a theory that people tend to prioritize by urgency when they really should prioritize by importance. I’ve definitely been guilty of that lately.
So I’m trying a new technique (it’s not original with me, though I’m not sure who came up with it). I wake up about 7 am every day. I’m going to devote 7-10 am to writing. No answering emails, the phone turned off, no surfing of the internet – though I will make coffee and have a bite to eat.
I think this will work well for me as I find that I write best when I’m most rested. I’ll have three hours with no mental distractions just to write. It will also allow me to turn to other tasks after 10 am without that weight of “I need to get my writing in” hanging over my head. I expect I’ll usually also do an afternoon writing session as well, but I know from experience that I can accomplish a lot in three focused hours a day.
I’m not suggesting this approach would work for you. As I said at the outset, I think the right process depends on the writer. Whatever process you find makes you productive is the one for you. However, if you are having trouble being productive, I would suggest at least trying the one-hour-a-day approach.
And don’t expect to reach me from 7-10am!