Preparing for a Productive Writing Day

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

I’ve always been a big believer in being prepared (yes, I was a Girl Scout all those years ago).  I don’t like hectic mornings, so everything is organized the night before to make sure the mornings go smoothly.  My kids know that in the evenings before bed, they have to have all their homework done,  essays printed out, homework collected in their backpacks downstairs,  and have a handle on what they want to wear the following day.  Lunches are made the night before.  The more time we invest at night, the better and more stress-free our mornings are.

The Lifehack blog recently ran a post by Timo Kiander: “Do You Do This Common Mistake When You Start Working on Your Tasks?”  In it, the writer gives tips for people who open up a document, daily goals firmly in mind, and then basically waste their writing time through lack of preparation.

I’ve never wanted to mess around in the mornings.  I get up before five a.m. to write, and I sure don’t want to waste that time…otherwise I might just as well get more sleep.

At this point in my writing career, I’ve got an outline to follow for each project.  But that’s only been in the last year or so and only out of total necessity.  Although I never fully outlined with my previous books, I always knew what I was going to write the next day.  That way I could hit the ground running in the morning.  Get my coffee, open up my laptop, see my little three sentence note to myself regarding what I wanted to write that day, and knock out a good part of my goal.  I used mini-outlines to keep myself on track.

For me, a good mini-outline should be very concise, but very explicit.  I also include a short summary of where I left off the day before.  That way I don’t have to read what I wrote the previous day (which always makes me want to edit). Then I’ve got an extremely brief sentence or two that explains the point of the scene.  If the scene doesn’t have a point that can be summed up in about a sentence…that’s just not a great scene. Our whole book should have enough of a point that we can sum it up in a sentence.

I also get into a writing mode by thinking about the story before I even make it over to my laptop.  So, as soon as I wake up (gosh, this sounds compulsive, as I’m typing it down), I start thinking about where I left off and where I want to go with the story today.  While I’m pulling on a robe and pouring the coffee, and letting the dog out, I’m thinking about dialogue and plot points.  By the time, minutes later, that I’m finally opening my computer, I’ve got a very clear picture of where I’m going next.

What happens when you sit down to write each day?  How do you get into that writing mode and keep your writing time productive?

Image: MorgueFile: cohdra


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18 thoughts on “Preparing for a Productive Writing Day

  1. Elizabeth – I couldn’t agree more about preparing. And your post reminds me of what it was like to get my daughter ready for school and me for work when she was younger.

    As to preparing to write? I start by making sure the dogs are tended to and the coffee made. Then I open my browser, do one blog round (including comments on my own blog) and then open the document I’m working on. That’s when the ‘buzzer sounds.’ I’ve found I’m much more productive if I take care of all of the little details before I try to focus on writing.

  2. Professional. It shows.

    While I believe in the outline and rough draft, it requires active thought on my part to grind these skeletons out for use.I spend a lot of time holding a cup of tea, making odd little notes with arrows, and staring out the window at the turkey or the squirrels.

    Come to think of it, that’s my professional day, too. (I think for a living – not a bad gig).

    I’m going to join you next week for the wee small hours of writing rather than my natural habit of writing into the wee small hours. We’ll see if my inclination towards mayhem improves. I have a crime to perfect in prose and having just a little trouble casting the crime-behind-the-crime right now.

    Easy to kill one on the page. Harder to make that fit into a larger scheme gone wrong.

    Lovely lesson.

  3. I prepare in advance for my work day, but not a much as you for my writing. I just try to stop at a point where I really want to keep going so the enthusiasm is there the next time.

  4. I try to at least know what I’m going to write about beforehand. It’s when I have no idea what to work on that I get nothing done. I like your system of writing notes, as well as summarizing what you wrote the day before. I do tend to get caught up in reading what I’ve already written, and it takes up a lot of my time.

  5. I wish I could write first thing, but I need to do something to warm up that part of my brain. It might be writing a blog post, or it might be ten minutes of exercise. Those are usually enough.

    Oh, and tea. Always tea.

    I like the idea of an outline, but that part of my brain can get very “you’re not the boss of me!” when I try to be too structured. I’ll simply make a note in brackets “[]” to note what I need to do in the scene next. That’s usually enough, but then again I’m at the point in my series where I know these characters like the back of my hand, so others might need more.

  6. Alex–Good strategy. I’ve used that Hemingway tip before…stop in the middle of a sentence or when I’m on a roll. Makes it easier to jump in the next day.

    Margot–Now that’s interesting! You must have really good discipline to leave the social media alone after that set amount of time.

    Sarah–Yes, it’s both time-consuming to read what we’ve written the day before and…well, it almost makes a switch go off in my brain. I become an editor instead of a writer and it messes me up.

    Deb–Blog posts are great for warm-ups, I think. I used to do it that way, too.

    Series make writing *so* much easier. I save gobs of time having so much character and setting, etc. established in the previous books.

    I was like you until I really massively screwed up a couple of books while winging them…decided I’d better start outlining. Plus, I do have an editor now who requires outlines in advance.

    Jack–Staring out windows is an occupational hazard for writers. :) Reminds me of Jimmy Stewart in ‘Rear Window.’ But instead of murder, all I usually see out the window are birds and trees and squirrels.

    Thinking for a living would be a great job! Although half of my thoughts now run to murder, so not sure what kind of a job I’d be suitable for….

    Good luck with your morning writing experiment…and your crime-behind-the crime. That does sound tricky.

  7. I love the mini-outline idea! I used to do that, but I would either get too much down on paper or try to plan out a week’s worth of writing . . . and then I would get ahead of myself.

    I’m going to try this. Thanks for the wonderful tip!

  8. Gina–Hope it helps! Thanks for coming by.

    Tyrean–Keeping it really small helps with the not getting ahead of yourself. I usually just do a mini-outline for the next 3 pages. :)

  9. Preparing, outlining and getting your mind in the zone are the best ways to fuel a writing session!

    This was a phenomenal article, especially because I could relate to everything you said in the 1st paragraph.

    Although I don’t have any children, I love going home early to prepare and pack everything I need for the next day for work or for the weekend. It makes me very comfortable to have everything arranged and organized.

    For my book, I have some organization, but not as much as one would guess. Instead, I’m struggling with free-flow writing versus outlined and structured writing. If I do the former, then the flow of the paragraphs and sections are a bit off. But if I do the latter, then I feel really stifled.

    Love your articles!

  10. Elizabeth–
    You say “I always know what I’m going to write the next day.” For me, that’s crucial. But (again, for me) it’s not a matter of organization, which has never been my strong suit. It’s knowing when to stop. Resisting the impulse to continue for another page means I will have the tail of the previous day’s dog wagging at me when I sit down and get to it tomorrow.

  11. Hi Elizabeth – it just does make so much sense doesn’t it .. one doesn’t run around like a scattered chicken or rabbit …

    I must develop my organisational life .. I used to be like that – but I never recovered from getting married – but that was years ago!! So must do better .. the new year will bring many improvements as I tidy this year away ..

    Cheers – I do think of you at 5.00am, but resort back under the covers! Happy writing – Hilary

  12. Elizabeth, I can totally relate to your compulsive tendencies! I prefer to call it being organized :)

    The first draft is the hardest part for me. That’s what I’m working on right now. I also write a couple of sentences at the end of each writing session, which will guide me through my next session. If I don’t prime the pump, I’ll spend too much time figuring out what I’m going to do next.

  13. Julie–Y’all don’t know how very *happy* it makes me that I’m not the only person who lives with this degree of organization and structure! Ha! So glad I’m not alone.

    I think the trick is not to *over* outline, but just enough to give direction. And give yourself permission to veer off the outline for free-flow writing. I’ve handed in books to my editor before…she’d approved the outline, but the end product was nothing like the outline (or very little like it). The only problem was when the art department tried to design a cover around the old outline. Other than that…a better story is much better than following an outline to a T.

    Hilary–Exactly. We have a saying here “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” An unpleasant analogy, but very apt, I think–that’s exactly how I feel when I don’t plan ahead.

    Now that it’s getting chilly, I want to get back under the covers, too!

    Barry–Well put! I think Hemingway was onto something when he recommended stopping while we were on a roll. Or even in the middle of a sentence.

    Julie–Ha! I much prefer organized over compulsive. :) But sometimes, when I really look at what I do each day…I’ve got to think I’m right on the edge there.

    An excellent way of putting it–priming the pump!

  14. I really like this advice. Being prepared the evening before is something we do in our house for things like work wear, school lunches and school monies, but writing? Nope. I haven’t been treating it the same way. I think I’ll start looking at it a little differently. Thank you

  15. I absolutely hate wasting time and have always believed that preparation is the key to making good use of time. Time is the one finite thing we don’t have enough of on this earth.

  16. Rebecca–I figured if I made the kids be so prepared…I should be, too! Plus, the idea of wasting my time at 4:45 a.m. just isn’t appealing. :)

    Pat–Absolutely. And staring at a blank or half-filled page with no idea how to move forward is pretty miserable!

  17. Great post, Elizabeth!

    I found my daily word count increased when I got myself mentally prepared (thinking about the scene, plot, etc.) before I sat down to write.

    Another thing that helps me is taking five minutes to write a summary of the scene I’m going to write that day. It’s great to get the creative juices flowing and a great reference if I got stuck.

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