I’m probably not as busy as most of you on here, but recent obligations have been eating away at my writing time.
And these surprise attacks come from all angles too. Maybe a mentee needs an entire day’s worth of guidance. Or maybe the weeds have grown uncontrollably in the garden. Or maybe it’s work on the weekends.
Either way, my adult life is an insatiable blob that only has an appetite for my leisure time. And thus I’ve found myself having to sneak in little pockets of writing time throughout the day instead of having a dedicated hour like I’m used to.
But that’s a small problem for me, right? After all, I did put up this post about micro-writing, so all I need to do is just write, right?
As it turns out, it’s not the writing that’s the problem. It’s attention.
Have you ever started your day with the honest intent of writing, then feel so frazzled after work that you just can’t seem to put words on paper?
I’ve been feeling this way ever since work picked up, and I’ve moved my writing from morning to night because certain adjustments have to be made. Here’s my current routine at the moment:
0630: Wake up, morning pages 0715: Work out, mop the floor, get ready for work 0830: Class prep 0900: Start work or class 1300: Stretch and meditate, WordPress duties (like commenting and being active in the community) 1400: Work 1800: End work, but we don't really end on time sometimes 1900: House chores, playtime with doggo, maybe writing 2000: Dinner and dishes 2100: Prep for the next day (coffee machine, kettle, workout clothes, journalling and planning) 2200: Bedtime prep for doggo (potty, brush teeth) and myself (bathe and stuff) 2300: Write till I'm sleepy 2330: Read a book till I knock out
I have no idea how those of you with kids even find time to eat.
This is what I have to work with in my day-to-day. I have my first meal while I work at 4 p.m. as I’ve been intermittent fasting since 2019 or so. My weekends aren’t much different, except that I replace work with my volunteer programme obligations.
So every time I arrive at the blank page, I’m still thinking about my previous task, or my upcoming one. And switching modes doesn’t happen just like that.
But like any writer who wants to turn pro, I spent a week crafting this essay in spurts so that I can come back to you with a report, and hopefully help anyone in the same situation make the most out of their writing time, and you know what?
You very well can write effectively even when you’re short on time.
Before you start
Even though we’ll be writing in short spurts, you need to know that it’s not all about writing. There’s also the pre-planning and the editing, and here’s what you need to spend time on before you start writing.
Get into the proper mindset
It’s important to note that you won’t be doing much deep work in the span of fifteen minutes. In fact, you’ll probably only start getting the zone when you reach the end of your sessions.
So how do you produce a decent output?
Let me take you back to morning pages. I’m glad I’ve started this practice once more, because it’s taught me how to start at the blank page and just go. A useful skill, seeing how you won’t have the time to mull too much over your story or sentence structure.
If you’re going to make the most out of your writing sprint, then you’ll want to turn off all judgement the moment your pen hits the paper. Don’t even stop for typos or research. Future you will take care of that.
For now, just leave perfection at the door.
Go with the flow
Just because you’re not writing doesn’t mean you’re not improving in your craft.
Your other hobbies do help you improve your writing too. I suggest you nurture hobbies you like that take a certain amount of focus.
Why? Because stealing little bits of time to write often means that you’ll have to be able to write anywhere. Maybe it’ll have to be at the back of a receipt in a restaurant, or on your phone while waiting for your Grab driver.
And having a certain focus will ensure the success of every mini writing session.
I’ll bet you know what that feels like. It’s that focus you put into aiming an arrow, landing that three-pointer, sparring an opponent, or observing your breath during meditation.
Or if you’re into art, it’s that moment when you swing your hand back and forth, preparing to put down a straight line.
The more you train your focus outside your writing, the better your chances of using it during. Personally, I’ve benefitted tremendously from meditation.
As a purebred pantser, it feels blasphemous to recommend this. But if you want to sprint, then you can’t go into a session not knowing your topic beforehand. So it behooves you to prepare some sort of roadmap before you even begin.
Award-winning Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf once told me that outlining her novel was a method born out of necessity. Because as a mother of two, she too had to steal time during the day to write. This often meant writing while her children were asleep, while waiting to pick them up from school, or even while cooking.
“That’s why I have to outline,” she said. “The idea is not to sit down and then be overwhelmed by the feeling of ‘I have no idea what I’m doing.'”
I tried it for this exact article, and this was what I could muster as a pantser:
- The challenges of not having time to write
List my troubles of sticking to my blogging schedule
- Techniques I used to get more writing done
I’m going to try various techniques and share what helped me best
- Lessons learned
Now I didn’t exactly follow this plan to the tee, but it did give me some comfort knowing that I had something to fall back to in case the blank page became too intimidating.
The actual writing
Okay, so you have your foundation set. You’re now ready to sprint your way to a complete story, beginning, middle, and end included. Here are the techniques that have gotten me through the grind.
Write a letter
The heading says it all. You write a letter to a friend explaining what you’re writing about.
While authors like John Steinbeck wrote letters as warm-ups to their actual writing, I’ve found it to be pretty effective for the actual writing. That way, I trick my brain into writing by making it feel as though I’m not.
Then all I need to do is remove the ‘Dear Joe’ and the paragraph about the weather and I have myself a very usable section for the story.
Admittedly, I didn’t need to do this for the entire article, but it’s proven useful for the times when I had no idea where to start.
I know you’ve probably grown weary of this statement, but morning pages have helped me heaps with my output. It’s through this practice that I learned the two modes of my writing: conscious and unconscious.
The first involves a lot of thinking—the message I want to convey, whether or not a sentence is beautiful enough, if there’s a piece of research that will better support a paragraph—and unfortunately, that’s also where the inner editor resides.
And we all know what happens when the inner editor clocks in.
The second mode, however, is when I just let my hand glide across the page, the words seemingly materialising out of thin air.
Weirdly enough, when I’m in unconscious writing mode, I can think of what I want to have for dinner while writing. It’s as if another consciousness is helping me with the work, and I’m just observing, kind of like when you zone out while you’re driving to work.
That’s where I want to be when I write. How do I do this? It’s hard to describe. Try writing longhand and not stopping to think. Do that long enough and you might notice two different consciousnesses, the one doing the writing, and the real you. I know how woo-woo this all sounds, but trust me, it’s there.
And the end result may not be entirely polished, but we’re sprinting right now, aren’t we? Besides, editing is future me’s problem (note from future me who’s currently editing this drivel: damn you, past me).
Treat each section as its own short story
In his book Consider This, Chuck Palahniuk mentions treating his novels as collections of short stories. He works on each chapter like a subassembly waiting to be fed into the main line.
So when you have fifteen minutes to write, you need to go micro as well. You can’t concern yourself with juggling the flow of your entire article while trying to crap out the words you need for a certain paragraph.
Take this section, for instance, I’ve forgotten what I’ve written in the previous paragraphs. I’m serious. All I’m focused on right now is coming up with a beginning, middle, and end for the subheading titled ‘Treat each section as its own short story’.
Do I know if it’s going to work for this article? I don’t know. Heck, I don’t even know if the article’s even going to be published (note from future me: yes it is). All I know is that I’m here, and I’m going to tell you a story for this exact section.
Sure, it may feel weird focusing only on these couple hundred words, but these things do add up. And pretty soon, you’ll have your own collection of subassemblies to piece and glue together into a shabby little model.
Then you’ll learn that writing isn’t about having a flawless run at a word processor and publishing a finished product the first time you sit down and try.
Sometimes it’s about building a house, brick by brick, even though it may not look like much every time you get to work.
The editing phase
I hate editing, so I don’t have tips for you here. However you want to approach it is up to you. Just know that it is possible to edit your story fifteen minutes at a time. The above advice about going section by section is gold.
It’s not just you I’m trying to convince
I’m a writer who can’t move on until I get a sentence just right, so writing this article with my new constraints proved to be a challenge, and even now, I’m still unsure if I’ve managed to assemble something decent for consumption.
That’s for you to decide.
But I guess I needed to write this article for myself as much as it was for you. To serve as a reminder that sometimes it’s not about going out and doing great things, but about doing the small things that lead you there.