Reducing the Stress of Writing—Allow for Three Kinds of Time

Kenneth Atchity’s A Writer’s Time: Making the Time to Write is a classic that changed the way I work. The book is crammed with insights that can reduce the angst that plagues writers.

One is the concept that all writing time is not created equal. In fact, there are three distinct phases of any writing project:

  • First Time
  • Middle Time
  • End Time

Each phase comes with its own dynamics. And woe to the writers who gloss over them. For they shall greatly suffer.

First Time—beginning to write—is the toughest. This is your initial confrontation with an idea, which can feel as hard and humiliating as learning a new dance.

Your first attempts to wrestle words on to the page call for intense effort. If you find yourself staring at a blank screen for 30 minutes or feel like checking your email every few seconds, this is normal.

There are two solutions.

  • Allow for First Time. When scheduling a writing project, give up the expectation that you’re going to produce an equal number of words every day. The first two pages will take more time—and more sweating—than any other two.
  • Eliminate First Time. That is, don’t start at the beginning of your outline. Dive into the middle the story, or the end, or anywhere else that beckons you. This is like walking in to the shallow end of the pool before you start swimming laps in the deep water.

Middle Time is characterized by exhaustion. This is no surprise. You’re plodding through scenes or sections, one at a time. You feel that you’ll never each the end.

Solution: Vacations. As many as you can squeeze in, given the realities of your project schedule.

Vacations don’t have to be long. They can be mini-breaks. For example, don’t plan to write every day. Take weekends off.

End Time is marked by high energy and urgency. The words do more than flow on to the page—they flood all over the place. You find yourself pouring out a page per minute and know that there’s a lot more to come.

Solution: Allow for End Time. Clear your calendar. Eliminate distractions. Go some place with no Internet access and no interruptions. Then write until you drop.

Some people use procrastination for this purpose. They don’t start an article until the day before it’s due. “I don’t do my best writing under deadline,” a journalist friend told me. “I do my only writing under deadline.” Instant urgency. Sudden End Time.

Please experiment with this notion of the three writing times and let me know how it works for you.