Want To Finish Your Novel? Try Micro-Writing

Micro-Writing Typing - Damian Zaleski

Photo: Damian Zaleski

I was a stringer for the national newspapers once. My job was to pick up any assignments that the full-time team couldn’t handle, which amounted anywhere from one story every fortnight to two articles a week. That meant that my income was unstable at best, but what made up for it was the lack of daily commute or morning meetings, and all this before the digital nomad movement.

After spending most of my life in hairdressing (ten-hour workdays, six days a week, regardless of holidays) and auditing (in the office before the sun rose and out after the sun set), having my own time at the expense of a higher paycheque seemed like a great deal.

So that was the reason why, after just having landed in Langkawi to celebrate a friend’s bachelor party, I received a call from my editor for a job.

Now, I could’ve rejected the offer, but that trip I was on cost a pretty penny, and I was at a point in my career where I didn’t have much expendable income to begin with, so I said yes. Besides, my editor assured me it’d be an easy job.

“I just need you to interview a handful of people regarding the lies their parents used to tell them about Santa,” she said. “Deadline’s in three days.”

I wouldn’t even have left Langkawi in three days.

But being broke was a great motivator, so told her I’d get it done, and proceeded to spend the following mornings hungover on my phone. I sent in my story three days later, having completed the entire assignment on my Blackberry Bold.

This important experience taught me that one, the equipment you use doesn’t matter, and two, the ‘eat an elephant one bite at a time’ metaphor really does work for writing. And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings me to micro-writing.

What is micro-writing?

This is the act of writing in short spurts whenever you get any brief window of downtime. It works best when you’re on the go, though it’s also applicable to parents who‘re busy taking care of the kids. Procrastinators who ‘can’t seem to find the time in the day to write’ can benefit from this too.

Basically, it’s the age-old metaphor of building a wall, brick by brick. The catch is, you don’t go into every session looking to build a wall. All you need to concern yourself with is laying those few bricks for the day.

You know what the cool part about this is? It’s that you can micro-write your way to finishing projects both small and large. I’ve used this for thousand-word articles as well as for entire novels. 

The trick here isn’t to exclusively write in short spurts. It’s to be happy with writing for minutes at a time, and if you feel like you can carry on after your few minutes are up, you can then feel free to write for however long you want.

So if you’re looking to tackle your writing excuses, then micro-writing could very well be the thing you’re looking for.

Micro-writing Miniature - Hello Im Nik

Yup you’re going to have to go micro. Photo: Hello I’m Nik

Hook yourself up

Now you’re ready to tackle your writing projects one sentence at a time. What will you need? First things first, a medium. I know I said the equipment doesn’t matter, but for long-term success, you’ll have to pick something you enjoy using, especially ones that are quickly deployable during these five-minute sprints.

If you prefer a laptop, then go ahead and lug it around. If it’s a fountain pen and a notebook, be my guest. Heck, you can even use your phone and a Bluetooth keyboard if that suits your fancy. Don’t forget the voice recorder either.

Next, you’ll have to determine the empty pockets of time in your day when you can micro-write. I’ve personally written in transit during my travel assignments, in a bar at said bachelor party, and at the salon while waiting for my girlfriend to get her hair done.

Finally, you’ll need a way to stay on track. Leave notes for yourself the way programmers leave comments in their code. I like to put mine in square brackets, and it looks a little something like this: [Explain why notes are important after this].

So why are notes important? Because you don’t want to waste half of your five-minute spurt trying to figure out the next step. You are, after all, trying to remove your excuses for procrastinating. So be kind and leave little breadcrumbs so that future you will have an easier time finding their way.

Why does micro-writing work?

Because we all have the time to write. We all have idle moments in our day, and those seemingly imperceptible windows can total up to a pretty impressive number after a month.

And I’m pretty certain that in today’s day and age, almost everyone has time for a five-minute YouTube video. If you have time to watch a video, you have time to micro-write.

Speaking of videos, I have a Joe Rogan podcast I’ve been dying to check out. Be right back. [Continue sharing benefits of micro-writing once I’m done watching].

Where was I? Oh yeah, the other benefits. Wanna know something cool? Micro-writing works great in removing your typical writing excuses.

“I don’t have the time.” More like I’m just lazy and don’t want to eke out 5 out of the 1,440 minutes I have in a day to achieve my writing dreams.

“I need uninterrupted time to write or else I can’t think properly.” Nobody’s asking you to write your magnum opus. You just need to concern yourself with the next couple of sentences in your project. That’s it. [Also, you can use these square brackets as placeholders for your terrible sentences. Try it. It’s easier to write words when you’re not judging them as the final product].

“I have more important things to do.” It’s just a few minutes. You can procrastinate later. In fact, you know what? Maybe you should start right now. Go on. Stop reading this article. Write that couple of sentences for that project you’ve been meaning to complete. See how you feel after.

Woman holding a stopwatch

Seriously, you have more time to write than you think. Photo: Rachael Crowe

Add your own flavour

But that isn’t all micro-writing has to offer. It also includes the benefit of keeping those writing muscles stimulated.

Want to flesh things out using only dialogue? You’re free to do that. Want to push the plot forward with three-worded sentences? Have at it. When you work at things one snippet at a time, you’ll find a clarity that’s often sacrificed when you approach your project from a bird’s eye view.

Trying to connect an intro to your final paragraph can feel daunting, but just taking five minutes to experiment with one paragraph can free you from all those expectations. Think of it like building a Lego set. Yes, it’d be cool to complete that Star Wars Death Star and put it on display, but first, you’ll need to have the right bricks. And these paragraphs are your equivalent of those bricks.

It’s an art

Remember, writing is a subjective craft. There’s no cookie-cutter method that promises a lifetime of decent writing output. We’re all different, and what works for someone might not work for others.

Also, remember that micro-writing is best used to get started. Procrastinating becomes less appealing when you tell yourself that all you’re going to do is write for five minutes.

So if you think you’ll be able to continue writing after your five minutes are up, by all means, please do. Yes, yes. I’m repeating myself. But I just want to make sure you don’t lose out on all that momentum you’ll inevitably build during one of these little spurts. 

Having said that, just know that micro-writing is just another tool to add to your arsenal. In the end, it’s all about how you mix and match all the different processes to create your own personal workflow.

I can safely say though, that when it comes to writing, it’s almost always better to start with a heap of words than with a blank page, even if you have to rewrite the entire thing. That’s what micro-writing is for. So that you can err on the side of writing bad words than not writing at all.

Because in the end, we’ll all cross the finish line the same way every other writer does, and that’s by writing one word at a time.

59 thoughts on “Want To Finish Your Novel? Try Micro-Writing

  1. Thanks for the great advice! Do you think this approach would apply to research-based writing projects like perhaps science and health? I think that the amount of research I need to do is what makes me procrastinate the most, not the actual writing.

    • Yes! I believe this method works best for procrastination-based delaying, because when your next step involves just researching that one question or section of your writing, it becomes that much easier to get off your ass and actually do it.

      Versus seeing the entire project as a whole and thinking how daunting it is to research for the entire paper, not knowing where to start. Great question!

    • Really? Your blog posts are pretty decently-sized. But yeah, little pockets of time to write do exist in our everyday lives. We just need to find those moments. Thanks for stopping by, Kathy!

      • I always thought 1500 words or more was better for SEO and competitions always seem to want more than a 1000. Most of my posts are 600-900 words and the upper limit is when I’m in a ranty mood. I should do more writing, like you say, by less procrastinating and in short spurts.

  2. I was super excited to read this post because I have been trying micro-writing for the last few weeks! I get super busy with university so I don’t get a lot of time to write but recently instead of trying to write entire blog posts I just write a paragraph or two when I have time and eventually I have a whole post written. It’s been really great so far!

    • Doesn’t it feel awesome to have SOMETHING at the end without noticing it?

      Best example for myself is seeing 50K words in my latest novel. All I aimed for was 250 words per day, and here I am. It really is an underrated writing method, to be sure.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Pooja!

  3. I didn’t think the way I was writing was called micro-writing but I guess it sort of is… But I don’t do it based scheduling short bursts.. I do it when inspiration hits and I always write it down/type it up.. I find as long as I have a seed of an idea and write it down, it then gets acknowledged by my brain and throughout the days to come, I start jotting down related notes and ideas and then suddenly I have a beginning, ending and middle and it’s pretty much written for me :) and I always have a variety of ideas /posts going at once (in this case I’m talking about blogging). ☺️

    • Yeah, you’ll be surprised how many ‘completionists’ there are out there, people who won’t get started if it doesn’t mean finishing that draft in that session itself.

      The other awesome benefit of this method is that you won’t get bogged down by perfectionism, since it can seem like you’re just jotting ideas down.

      I love how your brain digests the ideas once you put them down on paper. That’s interesting.

      Thanks for sharing this perspective. I’m sure it’ll be useful for others as well!

  4. while this all makes sense, I tend to like to get all of my writing done in one sitting (unless of course I was writing a novel). Maybe I should give this approach a shot when I have something longer to write…

    • Aw yis. Traditional butt-in-chair-hands-on-keyboard is still the best way to write. This is just for the procrastinators like me who’d whinge at the thought of staring at another blank page, but wouldn’t mind typing out another paragraph just before I browse Twitter.

  5. I am bit puzzled but maybe just me not fully understanding what you mean. what is it what we should micro write? Everything? I can write my book like this? 5 minutes at a time? Feels like it will never end, but maybe you are right. I just do not get how to get into any sort of proper scheduling and not feeling like working all the time, if you basically work in-between and all the time.

    • You got it exactly right. Five minutes at a time, whenever you can. Feel free to write for 30 minutes if you find that’s where your 5-minute session is taking you. The key is to get you to start, and when you tell yourself you’re going to write for 5 minutes instead of 30, it’s much easier to stop procrastinating and get started.

      A little here, a little there, and you get 100–250 words a day. I am on my fourth novel now by just aiming for 250 words a day (of course, most days I surpassed my target).

      And yes, there will be days when you’ll feel like you’ve just written crap, but once you get to a sizeable amount of words, and the entire structure starts taking shape, you’ll feel like you’ll be able to mould something out of your words much better than if you were to start from scratch.

      Also though, if you find that you work better in long stretches, then schedule time to do exactly that. This is only to get you to write when you can’t seem to start on said longer sessions.

      This was a great question, so thanks for asking! Just ask away if you need anything else. Take care and good luck on your journey!

  6. “it’s almost always better to start with a heap of words than with a blank page” Now ain’t that the truth? Personally I find the act of physically writing something on a sheet of paper a useful anchor for thoughts which are drifting helplessly.

    • That’s what bosssybabe said in her comment up there too. You guys share the habit of putting thoughts down on paper so that your brain can ‘digest’ it. Pretty interesting, to say the least.

      And yes, I do feel this with my own writing. If I simply imagine things, I don’t get very far (or maybe I do but my brain doesn’t solidify the scenes as ‘real’).

      Once I write the scenes out though, no matter how crappy they are, then the story moves forward. Weird.

      Thanks for weighing in, Steve! Your thoughts are always welcome.

      • Cheers, Stuart. I find there’s only so much my brain can hold on to these days :-) I’ve had a few goes at fiction over the years, but they’ve all fallen victim to over-planning. My coursebooks have to be meticulously planned, but planning out fiction that way just kills my creativity. At the mo I’m trying a more scene-by-scene approach, with only a vague idea where the thing’s heading, but characters and situations that I find highly relatable. Don’t know if anyone else will, but I’m having a lot of fun with it. Just getting it written without overthinking.

      • You might be a pantser at heart then, lol. I too enjoy writing when it’s just a scene I have in mind that I want to translate onto paper.

        The moment I look at that scene as a small piece in a bigger picture though, that’s when I kinda feel the dread, lol. So yeah, it’s not a method you should use ALL the time, but it can get you writing, and that’s what matters in the end, eh?

      • Absolutely. Glad I don’t have to make a living with fiction, I think I‘d get very poor very quickly. Just want to have some fun with it. I occasionally have fun when writing an EFL course, but not very often :-D

  7. Stuart always nails it. This also reminds me of your theory of the smallest unit of effort. Five minutes of the smallest unit of effort, really how can anyone say they don’t have time? You’re handing our work to us on a platter! And I’m all about leaving instructions for the future in brackets. It makes me feel more relaxed, like it’s okay that the first draft is a messy work in progress.

    • Sometimes my brackets even outweigh the actual work, lol.

      Yeah, I don’t know what it is about doing things in short spurts, but it doesn’t feel like work to me, YET they’re accumulative. I started realising it was a legit technique when my word count from these little spurts overtook the output from my ‘proper’ writing sessions.

      Aw, you remember the units thing. I really appreciate that, as well as you, Hetty!

  8. Great tips and guidance. I reblogged your article to my blog, for my readers. It should appear after 11 p.m. eastern time USA. Thank you for taking the time to assist writers.

  9. Pingback: Want To Finish Your Novel? Try Micro-Writing — Stuart Danker – I Write Stuff – Life Time Writer, with Nancy

  10. Being a selective interactor, I rarely comment on blogs. Sure, I’ve commented right in this box a few posts back, but this time I really feel the need to do it.
    ‘Cause as you might expect, Stuart, I am damn wanting to write a book right now… and, as you probably also expect, I’ve been wanting to do it from prehistoric times.
    Except I’ve got the ‘issue.’ You know, the usual: I start a thousand novels, complete zero. Heck, the largest chunk of text I wrote was my to-be novella A Game of Minds, which I was 25k words in when I realized NaNoWriMo was way too hard for a beginner like me.
    And that was NaNoWriMo — you know, National Novel Writing Month, where I’m supposed to bang out some 50k words in November. So I went for 1-2k words a day. I lost fuel by day 13.
    And then here comes the exact opposite from a trustworthy writer: Very tiny bursts of writing.
    My problem is, I can’t just forget my novel so easily. Sure, I’d always be able to take up the challenge of five minutes — heck, even fifteen — of book writing a day, but I’d always have an aura of excitement around me, so I’d make a fuss of novel-writing.
    I don’t think that made sense but whatever.
    Recently, I read your post How I Overcame Procrastination, and it talked similarly to this one, except this one seems to focus more on the novel-writing gig. Both of them are great, though.
    I’m looking forward to starting writing a very little bit every day. Hope it works.
    Also, I noticed that the 1.5k followers mark’s nearly arrived for your blog. Congrats!
    Continue blogging,
    Continue writing,
    Redoubtable Writing

    • This is a great comment to wake up to. Let’s break this down. You want to write and you feel too excited to contain your writing to five minutes. Then go for an hour on those days! This method is only for the times when you don’t feel like writing at all. That’s when you squeeze in these little 5-minute windows.

      And it’s not just for the day either. You can do it multiple times a day, and it’ll total up to a pretty decent wordcount at the end of it all.

      Also, please don’t call yourself a beginner. You’ve written 25k words before. That’s 25k more than what my friends who write for a living (PR, Marketing, Comms) have done.

      But the issue of not finishing though? That has to stop. You HAVE to finish your work, just so you know what to do once you meet the saggy middle again. It’s one of the most important lessons to learn in novel writing, in my opinion.

      Take your time, keep hacking away at it, and one day you’ll end up with 80,000 words. Hope this helps, and thanks once again for your thoughtful comments!

      • And that certainly was a great reply to read.
        I love your simplified answer. ‘Then go for an hour on those days.’ I guess it was my misunderstanding that five minutes MEANS five minutes.
        Earlier today, after sleeping on it, I was thinking I should try micro-writing to begin a novella or novel, and I thought I’d surf back here to make my mind. And that comment made it for me.
        I’m very glad you clarified that five minutes was for the days I didn’t feel like it — that’s a greater and fairer mindset than having to stick to a daily word count.
        I like to take ‘don’t call yourself a beginner’ as a compliment. Why, thank you, I was apparently foolish enough to think that 25k words was my neighbor next door’s daily word count.
        For me — and for most people, I should think — it’s not a writing issue that I can’t write at least 5 mins a day; It’s truly a mental issue of having to wrestle yourself from the ground to get yourself to write a little after losing the initial push of fuel.
        I guess to simplify your message, I should write every day, at least five minutes.
        I agree that it’s important self-discipline to finish. I truly should start writing a novel. [Say who to thank if I write a book.]
        Hey, got you there with the square-bracketed notes, didn’t I?
        But if I do end up with a decent book in my hand, I’ll have one person to thank, and that’s you.
        Oh, and an early thank you — Thanks!

      • Wow, your comment game is out of this world. These really are some thoughtful pieces of their own. I think they’ve even surpassed the categorisation of ‘comment’, with all the personalised mentions of square brackets and all, lol.

        Thank you for spicing things up around here. I really appreciate it.

        It would be a great honour to have encouraged someone to finish a novel. I guess I better hold you to your word so that could happen then, lol.

        Have you put in your five minutes for the day yet?

      • Aww, thanks. Lol I subconsciously have so much going on in my comments, I rarely realize they’re a meter and a half long.
        I have no idea if you’ll be reading this reply, since the reply box on your website seemed to want to limit our exchange comments to 4. Might be a switch you fumbled with at some point in the Settings.
        And yup, I’m starting today. I’m 100% pantser, so I don’t even like to with a simplified roadmap — I’ll leave developing an understood storyline to my editing rounds. I’m currently setting up my word processor and looking for places to notch the tiny thought that’ll start my novel — and then fly with whole book-writing thing.
        Thanks once again for the complements!
        To my success,
        Redoubtable Writing
        (Ah, well, you and I understand that ain’t my name but cha know — with the size of the internet, I suppose I’d like some privacy :))

      • Yep. You know how with pantsing (is that a word?) it feels like you’re reading a book not writing it, eager to find what happens next.
        My opening scene looks like it could be more in a ghost cartoon than in a book, but I’m confident it’s not too bad, and it’ll change with editing.
        I’m gonna start my bit for today right… about now.
        Thanks!

  11. Pingback: Want To Finish Your Novel? Try Micro-Writing – Kreativ Solo

  12. Hi Stuart,

    This is almost how I approach writing a novel, after discovering that a lot of my procrastination came from forcing myself to write for longer periods than I could stand. So I write a “sneezable” amount (following Chuck Wendig) just about every day, and it adds up sooner than you might think….

    Thanks for coming by my blog, by the way.

    Regards

    • Chuck Wendig is the bomb when it comes to writing advice. I especially like his voice when it comes to blogging content.

      The ‘sneezable’ way has worked wonders for me in all aspects of my life. Because I’ve found that if I substituted 30 minutes of exercise for just 50 push-ups (on the days I don’t feel like it), I’ll have 350 push-ups by the end of the week, instead of the 0 should I continue to procrastinate thinking of them long workout sessions.

      Thanks for stopping by, Mike! I appreciate it.

  13. I loved this post. It’s definitely tough to find time to write, especially when its just for fun! I’ve decided to start responding to writing prompts so that I have a focus when I’ve only got 5 or 15 minutes to grab the pen!

    • Doesn’t it feel much more efficient whenever you already have a plan in mind before you hit the ground—or paper, in this case—running? Not exactly easy to keep track of your writing, especially in five-minute windows. Thanks for stopping by, Catherine. I appreciate it!

  14. Pingback: [Repost] Want To Finish Your Novel? Try Micro-Writing – Daybook of Pixels

  15. I use micro-writing all the time, especially with my fiction work. With my blog posts, it took me longer to realize that I was actually more productive in short bursts rather than trying to slog through a couple hours straight. One of my favorite micro-writing time slots is waiting for my breakfast to cook. It’s so short, it’s actually helped me speed up my writing because I find myself wanting to squeeze in just one more sentence! 😄

    • Whoa, I like that you’ve even pinpointed your best writing time. I haven’t found mine exactly yet. Maybe it’s that hour-long break I get from work (though I don’t spend all of it writing).

      Am always intrigued by other writers’ creative processes, so thanks for sharing yours!

  16. I tend to go the opposite way, having done the 3-Day Novel Writing Contest three times, or booking a week of vacation to go all in, even 4 day Easter Weekend at times. It takes me time to get momentum, though with regular practice, I may be able to do micro-writing rather than warm-up writing not used in the main projects, for short bursts of writing.

    • Whoa, I admire your focus. Even when I drop into the flow, the most I’ve been able to maintain a single writing session is like two to three hours?

      Awesome stuff there. And yes, we definitely all have our own creative processes. Thanks for sharing!

  17. Pingback: What’s Good Poetry These Days? – Digital Citizen

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