Finding the Time to Write—Three Power Strategies

When it comes to finding writing time, the advice you’ll get seems contradictory. The major schools of thought boil down to:

  • Set aside big blocks of time to write.
  • Write whenever you can—even if you just have a few minutes to spare.

In reality, you can adopt both strategies. They entail two kinds of thinking that complement rather than contradict each other. The key is to use them at different times.

1. Start with blocks of time

Blocks of time (60 to 90 minutes) are ideal for starting a book project. Why? Because you need to think hard for sustained periods—preferably without interruption.

At this stage, your goal is to distill the core message of your book. In fact, you’ll know that you’ve done some solid thinking when you can summarize the essence of your nonfiction book in one page, one paragraph, and (eventually) one sentence.

This ain’t easy. When creating these summaries, expect to go through many drafts.

Once you’ve discovered the essence of your book, expand it into a table of contents. Write a title for the book and for each chapter. Then list sub-headings that describe the key points within each chapter. (This is an exercise in writing headlines, masterfully described here.)

How do you find blocks of time for all this initial thinking? Well, you could comb the bloated literature on time management for endless tips on optimizing your day. Or, you could preserve your sanity and cut to the chase: Make time for writing by giving up some other time-consuming activity, at least temporarily.

For more details, see Cal’s Newport’s wonderful post on doing a productivity purge.

2. Continue with spare minutes

With a table of contents in hand, you can now seize spare minutes during your day and use them to move your book project forward. Just choose any sub-heading from your table of contents and write about it. Capture your thoughts, even if they’re hazy and unformed.

Having trouble coming up with anything? No problem. Just make notes about what you intend to include under the sub-heading. Perhaps you only have time to capture a single image, quotation, fact, or link to a relevant web page. No problem. For now, this qualifies as writing.

Notice that this strategy comes second, not first. The reason is that you can’t use spare minutes wisely unless you’ve planned—well in advance—what to do with them.

Your table of contents is that plan. It gives you an instant menu of writing options. Just choose any sub-heading and go with it—before those precious minutes pass.

3. End with blocks of time for editing

Eventually you’ll expand your table of contents into thousands of words—a first draft. The thing will actually start to look like a real book manuscript.

Of course, there’s a big difference between a first draft and a final draft. Between them lies hours of editing—another task that’s best done in 60- to 90-minute chunks.

Bottom line: Schedule personal writing retreats to plan and edit your manuscript. In between, use spare minutes to capture ideas on the run.