9 Productivity Tips for Busy Writers


    Life is full of distractions and our writing time can be eaten away if we don’t impose some discipline. We find our work in progress or book idea has sat unfinished for too long and that’s just depressing. Well, I know how you feel. After twenty years of saying I wanted to write a novel, I finally wrote my first one in just over a year. That’s not hugely fast but I had spent so long talking about it that it felt like a breakthrough!

    Here are some of my tips for being productive as a writer that will help you finally finish your book whether its fiction or non-fiction.

    1. Know yourself. I first tried to write a novel years ago but spent a lot of time trying to make it sound like Umberto Eco i.e. literary and important. It wasn’t easy for me to write this way and I wasn’t enjoying it either. If you’re not enjoying the process, chances are your readers won’t enjoy the book anyway. So I looked at my bookshelves. They are full of books on psychology and religion as well as fast-paced, explosion-filled, high body count thrillers. So I decided to write a religious thriller with a female kick-ass ex-military psychologist for a protagonist. Kind of Dan Brown meets Lara Croft! I had so much fun writing it. It won’t win any literary prizes but I’m embracing the thriller genre and loving it! So be realistic. Look at what you like to read and forget what the critics think.

    2. Stop reading and start writing. Most writers have shelves full of books on writing. Learning the craft is definitely important, but you will actually learn more if you put pen to paper. Definitely keep reading for pleasure and research but don’t use reading as a procrastination tactic. Write first, then go find a book that will help when you actually hit a writing problem. This also applies to courses, seminars and events which of course should be done within reason but can also be an excellent way to avoid writing.

    3. Model success. Ok, I know I said stop reading but I do suggest reading books in your genre and breaking them down into areas you can model. Pick one that has been successful and go through it critically. I used James Rollins’ The Judas Strain and went through every chapter, noting first and last sentences, point of view, action, length of chapter, character, dialog and exposition. It took me several days to work out how he put it all together (and Rollins is a master thriller writer!). I then took the principles and worked out how I could apply them, for example, ending every chapter with a cliff-hanger. This is modeling, not plagiarism. You can’t use other people’s plot ideas but you can look at the ‘rules’ in your genre and apply them. Some may criticize this as formulaic writing but readers have expectations and if you disappoint them, you run the risk of not selling your book.

    4. Diarize your writing time. Your family, day job and health will always come before writing but there are pockets of time where you could write if you plan in advance. Go through your diary and identify blocks of at least 30 minutes where you could write. Then mark them down as if they are business appointments and treat them just as seriously. Tell people you’re busy at that time. You can’t interrupt a business meeting for a phone call, coffee with a friend or Facebook, so don’t interrupt your writing.

    5. Use Write or Die for your first draft. You can’t edit a blank page and writing your first draft is just a matter of getting the words down. Write or Die is cheap and simple software where you set a time or word count limit and then you have to keep writing. If you stop for more than a few seconds, the screen starts going red and violins screech. You can even set it to kamikaze where your words start disappearing. It definitely keeps you writing and even in 15 minutes you’ll be surprised at how much you can produce. Of course, you will edit later but at least you have something to work with. This was the key to completing the first draft of my thriller Pentecost and also for writing extra scenes later. It works whether you have a rough outline or if you just want to write stream of consciousness.

    6. Ditch your TV. I hear screams at this suggestion but hear me out! Four years ago, the TV was banished from our house and since then I have written four books, started a business and now have a Top 10 Blog for Writers! (as well as a day job and home life). TV is a time suck, the programs you want to watch are padded with adverts and you end up watching other shows just because they’re on. I still watch programs I enjoy (Glee, Fringe, Bones and Castle!) but I download episodes on iTunes so it takes 45 minutes instead of hours of distraction. This leaves more time to be creative or to spend time blogging/social networking.

    7. Work 4 days a week. This is seriously life-changing but takes some sacrifice. Just imagine what you could achieve if you had a full day to spend on your writing instead of the day job. When I decided to really focus on blogging and writing, I moved to four days a week and dropped to 80% of my income. That extra day gave me the energy boost I needed to kick-start my writing and online business. It also meant I could schedule meetings and marketing tasks by batching them together, allowing me more concentrated time for writing at the weekends. This is the one thing I recommend to anyone wanting to start a business/write a book or achieve more in their lives.

    8. Set deadlines. I always aim to have a book written for my birthday each year which continually keeps me producing. Decide on your deadline for finishing your book and then work backwards from that date and set smaller specific targets. For example, to be publishable by January, the book needs to be professionally edited in Oct/Nov to allow for rewrites, which means a decent draft needs to be finished before then. Assuming that’s the third draft, the first draft needs to be finished in August. If I write 5000 words per week in between working and real life, then I need to start the book by the beginning of June. Plan these steps out and then mark them in your calendar for tracking.

    9. Be accountable. If you set a goal, you need to tell someone in order to make it real. Blogging is fantastic for accountability because you owe it to your readers to walk the talk. Authenticity is critical these days. You can also share with your writing group or a coach. At the very least, write it down in a journal or email it to yourself at FutureMe which will send an email on a specific date in the future when you should have achieved your goal.

    With even some of these methods, you’ll be able to boost the speed of your writing and creation time and finally finish your book. So what are you waiting for?

    About the author

      Joanna Penn

    • steve says:

      just finish wrote a book need some kind of good expertize to help me. write me back if you are intrested to help.

    • Susan says:

      Another suggestion along the lines of killing the TV: as much as I LOVE commenting on blogs/websites, it’s a huge time sucker. Fun, but at the end of the evening I realize I never wrote what I went to the computer to do! I’m “writing” but not the right kind of writing…so many interesting/informative Distractions abound on the internet…including this blog! Double edged sword, great for research, but greater for distraction!

    • These are excellent ideas. I just finished my ebook and my birthday is in March. I like that one book a year thing. I like it so much I may have time for two. Thanks for the inspiration. Now I have to go kill my TV. I promise I’ll do it right after American Idol!

    • Terrific post. We ditched TV years ago and now watch our must-haves on DVD from Love Film.

      Your other points are excellent – I especially like the one about blocking out writing appointments rather than using ‘spare’ time.

    • Dindy says:

      Wonderful tips. #2 is outstanding and definitely where I lose the most time.

    • I think two points really struck me: first the idea of knowing yourself and understanding what your natural habits and tendencies are and also writing more and reading less.

      I agree on the premises of both of these tips but of course there are times where these things are different for each person. Of course I am sure you know that. I love reading and find that often my best writing comes after a long period of reading. It seems like for me reading great work helps me to write great work.

      Thank you.

    • Thanks for these suggestions. Very well written and inspiring.

      Off to write!

    • yxuz says:

      4, 7 and 8 are the same thing

    • I really like this post, particularly the first point about knowing yourself.

      I’ll confess, though, when I’m on a real writing tear, sometimes I have to remind myself to read more. Between writing and my other life responsibilities, I’ll exhaust myself, and won’t feel the energy to read, despite my love of reading. But I find I have to keep reading, to keep my writing juices flowing. If I’m really in a writing groove, reading helps move me along but doesn’t overly influence my own voice.

    • I’ve already cut out TV years ago, but that “stop reading and start writing” advice really hit home. And scheduling time to write. These are my big goals after recently losing a job and finding that I’m still not writing in those extra 7 hours a day. I have to make it a part of my day, every day. So far, so-so. But I’m working on it!

    • “6. Ditch your TV. I hear screams at this suggestion …”

      Accurate description. 🙂

      What i miss is how to be productive when one comes home, tired from a full day of work.
      Any suggestions?

    • Sean says:

      I love Write or Die – cracks me up and keeps my fingers moving.

      Best thing for me is to carve out a minimum of an hour a day. I found I was getting all my other work done, but not my “ME” projects. But if you’re a writer and not working on building your own assets, either financially or creatively, you’re being foolish. I’ve nailed it every day this year.

      Thanks for the great tips, Joanna, and a big fat congratulations on your book!

    • Bojan says:

      This is article worth reading! It got me inspired half way trough it and helped me push trough my 3 days blockade! Writing is easy when you get into the flow of it!

    • Kristan says:

      Re: #7-
      YES! I did that for almost 3 years, and that was HUGE in helping me progress and develop as a writer. Now I’m at a point where I think I can “make it,” so I actually quit my job to pursue fiction writing full time.

      @Lee Cole-
      You’d be surprised what you can do if you just ask. When I dropped to 4 days, I was in a professional salaried job, and I was 1 out of 3 people who were part-time at my company. Again, all salaried professionals.

    • Sometimes you can’t just drop off a day of work. You can if you work for Home Depot, but you can’t if you’re doing a professional salaried job. How about a transition job, where you purposefully move to a job that won’t take so much energy and time while you get your writing career going?

    • Joanna, I love your article! (And your website, The Creative Penn.) I’ve been using Write or Die for about a year and a half, and it really has made a huge difference. Now, if I only have fifteen minutes when my four year old son is playing cars, I can still make significant process on a scene by setting the Write or Die for that block. It’s been a lifesaver, and a game-changer.

      Great article!

    • Amazing, this article has come around just at the right time. I’ve just finished writing the second draft of my book and also work part time (3 days at the mo, but have to move to 4). I would never have got it done if I hadn’t had that day and a bit to write. I was feeling guilty about not working full time but this has affirmed by decision, especially since I need to talk this over with my boss at my annual review 😐

      It was only until I set a solid goal, that I achieved real writing – that, and closing the door to my room and insisting I couldn’t be disturbed for anything.

      Also TV – when you’re not watching it and actually working, life is so much more fulfilling that you do not miss it at all.

      Thanks for such a great and sage advice!

    • Excellent tips Joanna!

      I never heard of the “Write or Die” software. Sounds intense and hilarious!

      CONFESSION: I used to be obsessed with cable news and news in general. I would waste hours and hours trying to be “informed” but really I was just stressed and afraid out of my mind because I was learning about things I had absolutely NO CONTROL over, and what was worse is that I was not getting ANYTHING DONE.

      I cut out news and mostly TV {I too only watch Glee, Modern Family and 30 Rock on Hulu} and because of that I was able to finish the first draft of my novel AND become a Top Ten Blog for Writers!

      There you have it folks. Not ONE but TWO Top Ten Bloggers telling you the wonders of cutting out TV.

      Do it.

    • Amy Weaver says:

      This is great! I am getting to the end of my first book and all of these points hit home for me! I’m bookmarking this one!
      By the way, TV is my enemy! I’m gonna have to turn it off. I can only imagine how much I will get done when i do!

    • Great tips, Joanna, each and every one. Under “Know yourself,” I’d add “Know your weakness.” I’m a perfectionist and letting that get in my way is a serious time suck. Better to just suck 😉 and fix it later.

    • These are great tips. Thank you for sharing them! As far as number nine goes, I’ve also found that tweeting about my blog makes me accountable to actually post something on there from time to time, so this accountability trickles down this way, as well. What’s particularly funny about that is that I feel accountable to people I don’t even know because no one in my “real” life knows about my blog. Thanks again!

    • These were great tips but especially #6 & 7. I got away from tv about six years ago and now run four businesses, including just launching my new book, Chronicles of A Broken Spirit. I decided to write this book as a marketing tool for my national association last year in February, set the goals and started the writing journey in March. Your words about productivity are so on target because I started strong, then interruptions and distractions came, delayed my writing in periods and here I am almost a year later completing a project that I initially intended to complete in 6 months. This was my first book and a great learning experience. Any new writers or those considering writing a book should definitely take and post these 9 tips as they will carry you to the finish line. Awesome work, Joanna!

    • Joe Wilner says:


      This is a perfect article topic for me at this time. I’ve been trying to coordinate my writing time, and have recently taken a break from writing a book. I was utilizing the philosophy or writing at least a page per day. It was working very well, though of course, other opportunities developed and priorities changed. This offers some well needed motivation and inspiration. Thanks for the great resources as well!

      • I’m glad you found it helpful Joe! I really find chunking time so important for balancing consumption and productivity. I’m more of a binge writer as well so have to manage my time so I have the creative space in between the other things! All the best with your book.

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