How to be a productive writer

by | Jan 2, 2020 | Writing Advice | 8 comments

Painting of a paper machine to accompany the post How to be a Productive Writer

The start of a new year is often a time for reflection and renewed commitments. Many of you may be looking toward the days ahead hoping this will be the year you write a book or improve your productivity.

Here are my 7 steps for being a more productive writer:

  1. Reclaim your ability to concentrate
  2. Get in touch with your goals
  3. Block off the time you need to write
  4. Avoid obvious potholes
  5. Hold yourself accountable
  6. Power through
  7. Believe

Read on!

1) Reclaim your ability to concentrate

In order to write a book, you have to be able to concentrate for long stretches of time. You need to be able to block out distractions.

Phones and social media are kryptonite for writers and not just because they are time wasters. The constant pings, notifications, and your pavlovian urge to swipe and refresh wreak havoc on your ability to concentrate on literally anything for longer than five seconds.

When I was struggling to write a new novel last year, I realized I needed to turn off my phone notifications, go on a social media detox, read more books for pleasure, close my thousand open browser tabs, and learn to block out distractions.

Even if you don’t want to go as extreme as an internet diet, go on walks without your phone, exercise, meditate, and READ BOOKS.

For further reading:

2) Get in touch with your goals

Before you even start writing, it’s worth taking a moment to think about what you want out of your book.

Do you want to be traditionally published? Do you want to self-publish? What genre is your book going to be?

The answers to these questions don’t have to be set in stone, but if you know roughly how long your book should be, how long you want to spend writing it, and what kind of a book you’re writing, you’ll have a clearer idea of the task in front of you.

If you have even a passing notion that you’d like to pursue traditional publishing, you’ll need to be at least somewhat familiar with word counts, genre conventions, and reader expectations. Knowing these things will help prevent your book from getting away from you.

For further reading:

3) Block off the time you need to write

Time is a finite resource. And at the end of the day the only way to write a book is to sit in a chair long enough to finish it.

If you only write when you feel inspired, I’m sorry to say you will never finish a book. That’s just not how it works. You’re going to have to write at times when you would rather be doing nearly anything else in the entire world.

I am a fervent believer in tracking your time. You only have so much time in any given week, and seeing what you spend time on will help you see where you’re wasting it.

I don’t set page count goals for my writing, but I do set hourly goals per week. Put workblocks into your calendar, and get in the habit of visualizing your day and sticking to what’s in your calendar even if you don’t feel like it.

Once more for emphasis: the only way to write a book is to spend the time it takes to write a book. Sure, some days will be more productive than others, but when you start thinking in terms of sheer time and not magical alchemy, you’ll have the right mindset to organize your life accordingly.

For further reading:

4) Avoid obvious potholes

Being productive doesn’t just mean working hard. It also means working smart.

Be efficient!

While you’re inevitably going to make mistakes and have to re-do sections of your book, you can save yourself a ton of time and heartache just by avoiding the most obvious errors.

Does your novel have a plot? Do you have a sufficient platform to attract a publisher for work of nonfiction? Do you know your novel’s perspective?

Simply avoiding the “what not to do’s” will save you so much time.

And when you’re editing your work, prioritize your changes intelligently so you can avoid spending time on parts of your books that you’re going to rewrite anyway.

For further reading:

5) Hold yourself accountable

All the extreme calendaring in the world is not going to be effective if you let yourself be lazy every time it’s time to write.

Set deadlines with teeth. Give yourself rewards and penalties. Engage an accountability partner if you need help sticking to your commitments. Pretend you’re operating on a book contract even when you don’t have one.

And don’t even entertain the notion that you have writers block, which I contend does not exist. You don’t have writer’s block. Writing just got hard. Don’t let yourself off the hook.

For further reading:

6) Power through

When the going gets tough, there’s really only one thing you can do: keep writing.

As I write in How to Write a Novel: You have to want it. You have to work at it. You have to be able to write when the weather is teasing you with its pleasantness and when your friends are merrily drinking bottomless mimosas without you because they are happy non-writing jerks.

Writing is not always fun. You don’t have to do it every day. But you do have to find a way to power through and get the thing written.

For further reading:

7) Believe

Sometimes our greatest obstacle is ourselves. It’s easy to get bogged down by the hugeness of the task of writing a book and to come up with reasons why we shouldn’t be writing.

“I’m not a creative type.”

“I’m not creative enough.”

“This is crazy.”

“Why am I doing this?”

Give yourself permission to believe in this dream. Think of how upset you’d be with yourself if you never gave it a shot.

The most important thing of all: Believe this is really possible.

For further reading:

Do you have any favorite productivity tips? Take to the comments!

Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!

For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.

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Art: The Paper Machine by Carl Grossberg

8 Comments

  1. Janiss

    “You don’t have writer’s block. Writing just got hard. Don’t let yourself off the hook.” THIS.

    Reply
  2. jyoti mckie

    Thanks Nathan, this list is really helpful, especially as we begin the new year!

    Reply
  3. JOHN T. SHEA

    But, if a million monkeys could write the Bible, eventually, I’m sure just a few thousand could write a novel. Now, where do I get a few thousand monkeys? Amazon or Ebay?

    Reply
  4. Kristin Wolfgang

    Thanks, just the kick in the pants I need.

    Reply
  5. Barb Ristine

    Yes to all of these! I have experienced everyone of the pitfalls you’ve listed over the course of writing my novel. But I put my butt in the chair, turned off my phone, put on noise-cancelling headphones, and powered through. On New Year’s Day I finally typed “The End” on my first draft.
    Now I am taking a break from my story as you advocate in “How to Write a Novel”—and then I’ll dive into revisions, applying all of these techniques once more.
    Happy New Year!

    Reply
  6. Hugh Hughes

    One of the most helpful writing tips I have found- from my friends who have written Ph.D. dissertations- is to (like you said to block out time) but beyond that, I use a timer. So, I will tell myself that tonight I am writing from 5pm- 8pm. I will usually do 35-55 minutes of timed writing, and then 5-15 of not writing and I try to do something entirely different (i.e. going for a walk, looking at the sunset, prepping my dinner, playing Rocket League, etc.). Then I get back to it. This has been so helpful for the times when I am so tired from my day job and don’t want to write that night. Once I get going, even if just for 10 minutes, I am always glad I did it. Thanks so much for all your tips and real-talk. I just finished How to Write a Novel and I loved it. I’m in the editing phase of my first two books, and it has been a lifesaver for me. Thanks, Nathan!

    Reply
      • Hugh Hughes

        I’m gonna be recommending it to my friend’s who are beginning the writing process!

        Reply

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ABOUT NATHAN

Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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