Writing a book takes time. Unfortunately, time is a resource that is precious and limited, and for those of us without wealth or patronage, it usually has to be found in stolen, fragmentary moments. This can seem to be at odds with the sustained discipline needed for writing a novel or non-fiction book; an exercise that is much more like a marathon than a sprint. There is a certain mythology around writing too – especially literary fiction – that every word and sentence is hard won and must be polished like a jewel before it’s Good Enough.
I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning and took out a comma. In the afternoon—well, I put it back again.
Recently, I started to wonder if the analogy of a marathon is actually apt. There are some nice parallels – you have to spend time training to improve your skill and hone your body/mind before you are ready – but there are also obvious problems. It’s not really possible to write a novel in one go. Even the productivity enthusiasts of NaNoWriMo take a month. Instead, for those of us finding spare moments in the day, writing is more like a marathon built up of a series of sprints. Once that penny dropped, I started to see parallels to other areas of life and other ways of working, and realised that a new perspective on writing could be very helpful.
The efficiency of sprints
I first came across the idea of highly structured bursts of activity at Ultraworking. The team there developed a method they call “work cycles” after years of experimentation about how to maximise productivity. The method is relatively straightforward, and elegant in its simplicity. Essentially, you break a working period up into a series of 30 min blocks with 10 min breaks between. Each cycle consists of a short planning period (where you specify what you are going to do, what obstacles could arise, and how your energy and mood are faring), a 30 min intensive work period, and 10 min to recover and review.
On first examination, this can just look like a control-freak’s idea of work – planning and recording everything you do – but it’s simple enough to try it out and see how it goes for yourself. Full details and spreadsheets about work cycles are here. It’s free, and easy to experiment with.
What’s actually happening, I think, is that the Ultraworking guys have iterated towards a behavioural pattern that aligns beautifully with most people’s psychological predispositions – giving just the right low-effort tweaks of attention and positive reinforcement to keep optimal focus with minimal risk of distraction. When I tried cycles for myself I was very impressed. I ended the four hour stretch (six cycles) completing a manuscript revision that had previously been sitting on my desk for months while I inefficiently tweaked and poked. A series of focussed sprints was way more effective than a long unstructured haul.
Many successful authors use the same basic principle for their writing. In 5000 words an hour Chris Fox outlines a similar practice of “writing sprints” that he uses to build up a novel in a series of short bursts. By taking care to set up his schedule and environment deliberately, he does everything in his power to promote a flow state, in which the words pour out. This method means a series of sprints (of 20-30 min) in which he lays down chapters of new material, building up the first draft of a novel in a series of creative episodes – again with a defined objective and end point, broken by brief rest periods to recuperate before the next sprint. With this strategy, he can sustain a staggering level of productivity.
The habit of winning small races
The final benefit of this approach is that each sprint brings with it the potential for a nice psychological reward if you hit your word target, crack a tough problem, and/or move your project forward by a measurable degree. If you can organise your day in such a way as to allow for at least one sprint a day, you’ll get the benefit of daily reward and begin to ingrain the behaviour needed to ingrain a writing habit. You may never want or need to hit the peaks of productivity that the genre-blitzers strive for, but taking some time to experiment with how best to use the limited time you have, is bound to pay dividends.