Tips for Writing in Short Blocks of Time

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

I received an email last week from a busy writer with a full-time job and young children.  She asked if I could provide some tips for squeezing writing into a very challenging schedule.

I was happy to do that.  For years, this was the only way I wrote.  Now that my children have gotten older (and one is now driving himself places), I’m getting a bit more time to myself.  But I still write in odd pockets of time: in the middle school carpool line, before the basketball game my daughter is cheering at, waiting for a doctor  appointment, waiting for a friend to show up for a coffee…you get the idea.

There are two big rules for this kind of writing.  #1:  You have to actively look for these pockets of time or else they disappear while we check email on our cell phones.  #2: You have to be prepared for writing…with writing materials and your writing mindset.

Ways to prepare for any size block of writing time:

  1. Have an outline or a mini-outline (for that writing day only and what you want to accomplish with the upcoming scene…explained more below).
  1. Maintain a to-do list of writing-related tasks to accomplish. Mine may have anything from “brainstorm more character names/last names” to “write descriptions of Lulu’s house” to “research Destroying Angel mushrooms.”
  1. Make sure your writing to-do list is available to you for the shortest periods of free time that you might encounter.  I like to upload mine to my online calendar so it’s on my phone if I need it. You could also upload it to SkyDrive or Google Drive. Or just copy that sheet of paper and keep copies in your car or laptop bag or purse.
  1. In addition to the writing to-do list, I’ve found it’s also helpful to have headers of lists to fill out.  This is great for even the shortest amount of time. So you could have headers like this: “5 ways to describe my protagonist,” “7 ways to describe the main setting,” “5 potential subplots involving secondary characters,”  “5 possible endings for this book,” “7 ways my protagonist can grow,” “5 things my protagonist fears more than anything,”  “my protagonist’s biggest goals”…you get the idea.

If you have an hour:  You know, really, this is all you need unless you’re under a deadline.  Generally, I do most of my writing each day in an hour’s time.  The danger for having this much time, if you’re like me, is that you might waste it.  If I feel that I can’t stay focused on the manuscript for an entire hour, I’ll write in 20 minute increments with 5-7 minute breaks.

To make the most of this time:

Either have a full outline or at least know what you want to write for the day (a mini-outline) and a brief summary of where you left off the day before.

Example:  What I wrote yesterday:  Beatrice finished interviewing Mary about Jim’s death.  She learned that Cindy wasn’t where she said she was. What I will write today:  Beatrice confronts Cindy and learns that she has a secret she’s protecting with her false alibi.  Kim interrupts their visit by confronting Cindy.

If you have 30 minutes:

Honestly, in 30 minutes of focused time, you can accomplish much of what you can in an hour.  I probably do better in 30 minutes of time because I know I’m limited and I focus better.

In 30 minutes I’ll either write the next scene of my book (off my outline or the mini-outline explained above), or I’ll knock off as many things off my to-do list as possible.

If you have 15 minutes:  If you’re using mini-outlines or full outlines, you should be able to pick right up with your story for 15 minutes of writing.  This is a writing sprint…if you need motivation, there are Twitter users who announce sprints with the hashtag #writingsprint.  More on writing sprints in the post “Host a Writing Sprint” by Julie Duffy.  I’ve written an entire book in 15 minute increments when I had a toddler and several others were mainly written that way.

A proviso—the books that I’ve written in 15-minute increments needed transition editing when I was revising.  The transitions between scenes tended to be abrupt.

Otherwise, if you don’t want to work on the manuscript, pick a short item on your to-do list (researching interesting character names may take about that long) or a heading on a list and work on that.

If you have 5 minutes: This may sound impossible, but I’ve gotten tons done in 5 minutes in the past—by filling out the lists I mentioned above.  Incorporate the best ideas from your lists into your writing (maybe by adding them onto your to-do list for another day).  These lists are great for everything from getting a handle on your main character to discerning character motivation, and more.

If you have very small children:  Timers are good, even for children who can’t tell time yet.  Start small and explain that you can only be interrupted if it’s an emergency (might have to explain what constitutes an emergency). Put it right outside whatever closed door you’re working behind.  No child of mine was ever injured during the creation of one of my books!

Stumbling blocks: If you’re stalling and don’t want to write the next scene:  Skip the next scene and go on to the following one… the idea is to keep pushing through.  Or make a list of ways to approach the scene and pick the best one from the list in your short block of writing time.

Do you write in short blocks of time?  How do you prepare for it?

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48 thoughts on “Tips for Writing in Short Blocks of Time

  1. I have found that, even when I have all day, I’m much more productive and focused in small bursts of time. I have a ten minute timer that I use for more than sprints — I use it for bursts of prep work, house work, everything when I have a lot to do. (For writing, I found I nearly doubled my number of words per hour when I wrote in four 10 minute bursts within an hour rather than for an hour straight.

    It really helps with health matters such as RSIs and inactivity too; you have a built in time to move around when the timer goes off.

    1. Camille–I am, too. Maybe because short bursts of time provide structure in a way that a huge block doesn’t.

      Oh, I love my timer. I primarily use it when I’m on social media so that I don’t get sucked in.

      Good point about RSI and inactivity. I do frequently do active housework (vacuum, go up and down the stairs returning things to their proper places) when I’m finished with a writing sprint.

  2. To do lists are smart. It’s those little things I can slip in at work, like looking up names. (This time, my characters will all have names with a British but alien flair. Ironically, some of the older British names I won’t even have to mutate to make sound alien…)

  3. Elizabeth – I really like your ideas for making the most of small amounts of time. I’m always surprised by how much one can accomplish in just little dribs and drabs. I especially like your emphasis on being prepared. The more you have read, the less time you need to plunge right into writing. And one thing I’ve found: you can’t focus on getting everything right when you only have a few minutes. Revising’s for later. Just putting the story together comes first.

  4. Elizabeth–
    Another excellent post, thank you. It’s no exaggeration to say I’m humbled by your discipline. I have always marveled at young parents keeping so many balls in the air. And the young parents I know aren’t also writing novels–amazing. Your advice gives busy people a game plan for how to “get the work out.”

    1. Thanks, Barry! That’s the thing–it can be done. Now sometimes I do miss the quiet moments of just nothingness…but I’m trying to work those into my schedule now, too. Sure does help to have one child driving.

  5. Hi Elizabeth .. love the caveat!: that’s good to know .. no injuries to child.

    However – yes utilising all the time we is essential isn’t it … I still relish the time in my head – but next year must knuckle under and get organised to use each block of time available ..

    Cheers and happy fitting in a few Christmas blocsk?! Hilary

    1. Hilary–Yes, and some of this goes out the window with Christmas…ha! Travel and company both. But I still fit it in or else I get too rusty. I like to have the quiet time in my head, too…I need more of that!

  6. Bloody awful – isn’t it? Big pile of time all set aside for writing and …. make more tea. Oh. look at pictures of penguins, we might right about penguins – right? Ah, something sparkly on the ceiling.

    Regular compressed sessions? Eight minutes – another scene ! Yes! Write, mule, write.

    I’ve cured the “little scraps of paper” dilemma lately. Carrying the small notebook doesn’t help because then …the side notes are in the small notebook and the outline is in that notebook and text is over there and …

    So, working copy on full size unlined paper in 2″ 3-ring binder. Outline, prose, revision notes and observations, little arrows to changes…all of it.

    Out and about? Five sheets of three-hole punch folded folio-style in the little front-pocket notebook.

    Stray ideas ?( hey – rhinos! I like rhinos! I should make a main character a rhino. Yes ) then in the notebook.

    Current work in progress ? ( he chokes on a starfish, scene five. ) it goes on the full sheets and is incorporated into the “big book.”

    Solves tons of my problems of “where did I leave that thought?”

    Lost three hours on Saturday just piddling away one scene. Wrote two last night from the outline in 45 minutes.

    I’d fire an employee with work habits this poor.

    1. I’ve wondered if I might have adult ADHD…*so* easily distracted. I do much better with my timer and a short block of time.

      I love that you’ve got all the scraps in one place! For years I had a nightly ritual of collecting sticky notes from the car, my purse, the downstairs, beside the bed and compiling them in one spot. And the notes made it look as though I were either insane or homicidal…all these disjointed ideas on murder and bits of character dialogue. Now I’ve got it mostly digitized….email and text myself. Those messages look crazy, too…

      I read somewhere that writers were easily distracted and it’s the very fact that we *are* easily distracted that makes us so creative…we see and hear things and it takes us on a separate train of thought with that one piece of an idea.

  7. Thanks so much for this post! Your ability to clearly articulate your process is so helpful, especially for those of us working in small bursts of time.

    Can’t wait to put these tips into practice–I’ll let you know how it goes!

  8. That you can get so much done in an hour is inspirational. It takes me an hour of writing to get warmed up. I do my best work in the second hour. Unfortunately, I’ve not yet learned to quit while I’m ahead and I write drivel for a third hour.

    One question about your comment “No child of mine was ever injured during the creation of one of my books!” When were they injured then? :)

    Peace, Seeley

    1. Seeley–That’s when we should use Hemingway’s tactic of stopping in the very middle of a sentence when we’re on a roll! But I’m with you…frequently I just keep on writing when I’m on a roll.

      Oh…I can answer that one. :) Whenever they went into the woods! Now I know how all those old fairy tales about misadventures in the woods came about. Rarely do they exit the woods without a gaping wound of some kind…

  9. While making dinner is a great way to get in some short blocks of writing time: while water is boiling, meat is cooking, vegetables are steaming. As long as I’m near the oven and stove to keep an eye on dinner, I can get some significant work done!

    Happy reading and writing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

    1. Good point, Laura! I’ve relied so much on my crockpot that I haven’t even needed this tip lately…ha! But you’re right…cooking and other forms of housework can really provide time to squeeze in some writing.

  10. Those little moments to write are everywhere. With non-fiction, I really need a block of time to get myself going. But with fiction, I can pick up a manuscript and work on it for ten minutes and have a page or two. Those add up.

  11. Hi Elizabeth
    great post, thanks. This one resonated after what we were saying the other day about making mistakes in location etc after dropping a scene halfway through and having to pick it up again.
    As I’ve got greedier with my daily word count, so I’ve started using more and more of the tiny chunks of time! It’s almost impossible to find a quiet space at school, but getting in an hour or so early gives me time for drum practice followed by a twenty minute write.
    I’ve also started sneaking out for the first ten minutes of my half hour lunch break to have a sprint.
    I thought your idea of the list: 5 ways this book could end, etc, is fantastic. I tend to just open my laptop and carry on where I left off. I struggle with the whole planning thing :) as it could be time spent writing, but I’m a sucker for lists, so I think that might work. Great fodder for blogs as well.
    My best preparation tip would be to start thinking yourself into the story for a few minutes before you write. I’ll think about what just happened in my WIP, what’s about to happen, and how the characters feel. The more I immerse myself in the feelings, and the pictures I have in my head of the scene, the quicker I get going when I sit down.
    cheers
    Mike

    1. Mike—You and I are the same in that respect….I get most of that writing done first thing in the morning. And a great tip for thinking about the story, getting into that mindset, before you even open up your laptop.

      And you’re right about the problems associated with this type of writing…both the transition issues and the continuity errors. I always have to search those out during revisions.

  12. Awesome tips! I rarely get an entire hour to write at a time and I’ve used many of these to help me out. I do have to get better (much, much, much) better at outlining those next steps!

  13. Elizabeth, thank you for an inspiring post. I currently apply your tips to reading “in short blocks of time” anywhere and everywhere. If you’re outdoors, what do you write on? Do you use an iphone or cellphone or a tablet? A laptop can be used indoors any place outside of our home and office. I’m sorry if I missed this aspect in your post.

    1. Prashant–If I’m at home or if I’m going to be writing outside the house for at least thirty minutes, I’ll take my laptop. If it’s a very brief bit of time, I usually use a spiral notebook…then I make sure I transcribe those notes into a Word document when I get home. Otherwise, it gets lost. I’ve also emailed myself information on my phone (I’ll use the speech recognition tool to do that, since I’m very, very slow to type on my phone, although I’m very fast on a keyboard).

      1. Thank you, Elizabeth. I’m slow on the phone and fast on the keyboard too. It never occurred to me that notebooks are still used to write! You can’t go wrong with that. I know people who still use their fingers or pen and paper to calculate figures instead of a calculator. I guess some things will remain. Speech recognition is a handy tool.

  14. I cannot begin to extol the virtues of a to-do list enough.

    The last thing I do before going to bed around 5 AM is write out 6 to 7 goals for the next day. Here’s my list for today:

    1. Vonnegut – IN, NG, Edit
    2. MT Article Progress
    3. Blog Finish/Publish
    4. ESL Book – 500 + organize
    5. Tour: 2, 4, 5.
    6. Society – finish
    7. Outline

    Sometimes I put word counts, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’ll write down word count goals like 250, 500, 750 for that project I don’t really want to do. Crossing off that 250 feels good, and often when I start on it I’ll do more than I thought I would. Sometimes I put small goals within each goal just so I have more to cross off.

    I love putting easy things down that can be crossed off easily. And having that fat little 250 page notepad fill up after a few months feels good. It’s all about tricking your mind. It’s real hard to eat that last big piece of pizza when you’re feeling full, but if you eat all the big ones first and just have that little piece left you can probably find room.

    1. Greg–You are so smart to make this list at night before you turn in. I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately, but I keep making my lists first thing in the morning. But then all night long I’m waking up, remembering something I need to do the next day. You’d think I’d learn.

      Crossing things off the list is a huge psychological factor, isn’t it? I put things on my list like “put wash into the dryer.” That will be its own item, instead of “do laundry.”

  15. I like the analogy Greg gave. I tend to write in spurts, though. And I write down a scene when it pops into my head. I carry a notebook in my purse to jot down ideas. So, now I have several blocks that, hopefully, can be put together to make an intelligent scene. I have found that 4 x 6 cards hold a mini scene very well or a description of a character along with their importance/goals. Putting them on a storyboard can give me a sense of the action and the cards can be arranged to make a scene come more alive. In doing this I realized my main character needed a brother to make the situation more believable. I had no idea she had a brother!

    1. Jane–Isn’t it wonderful when you get an idea like that….and it works so well? Something small like a brother or a sidekick, etc., can make a world of difference! I don’t use storyboards myself, but I’ve heard writers swear by them.

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