Finding Time to Write

Nas Hedron,—Updated 3 July 2017


One of my clients contacted me recently to say that his book wouldn’t be ready for editing when planned. He’d always written quite quickly (and very well), but some unexpected things had come up that had put extra demands on his time and he’d had to stop for a while. And when he did try to fit writing into his new schedule, not only was it hard to find the time, but he felt like he’d lost the flow of his story.

Does this sound familiar?

It can be difficult to write when you have a busy schedule. Sometimes the problem is getting your project started, while other times—as with my client—you get partway through a project and then have a problem getting going again.

But there are ways to do it.

1. No Magic Formula

This article is intended to help you find concrete, practical techniques that will help you keep moving your story forward.

Nothing is going to magically add an hour or two to your day to allow you to write. But several small changes to the way you go through your week—taken all together—can help you make real progress.

2. Notebook? Phone? Both?

You’re going to need something that will allow you to keep your writing schedule with you at all times, and that you can use to take notes no matter where you are. In the past this would have meant a small paper notebook and a pen. These days it often means a smart phone. Or both, since some people prefer to make notes on paper but like the phone for schedules and reminders. Whatever works for you is fine, but don’t try to do without it—it’s essential.

3. Make a Plan

This part is non-negotiable. If your way of coping with having limited time to write is to say “okay, every time I get the chance to write, I’m going to make use of it,” forget it. If that worked, you wouldn’t have a problem right now. What you—like me, and like most people—need is a set of concrete steps you can follow that will ensure that you make good use of any time that you can find. So make a plan and use it.

4. Finding Slivers of Time

You can’t write if you have no time, but you can write in very little time if you plan for it properly and stick to your plan. Most people have small time slots—five minutes here or fifteen minutes there, in the course of their week—that are either free already or could be freed up. Even these little slivers of time can be enough to get something done.

The key is to find a set of time slots when you can reliably sit down to write, even if that time is measured in minutes rather than hours. If you have a half-hour lunch break at work, can you eat in twenty minutes and then have ten minutes free? Before you go to bed, can you get fifteen minutes or half an hour to sit down alone and work on your project? What about the time when your daughter has her swimming lesson on Tuesdays, or when your significant other goes to yoga or to shoot some hoops?

What about creating a time slot or two? Is there something non-essential you usually do for a few minutes here or there that you would rank as less important than getting your writing done? If so, consider cutting that thing from your routine, or simply spending less time on it, and filling in the time with a writing slot. Or, if it seems possible, consider waking up twenty minutes earlier than you do now, preferably before anyone else is up, while everything’s quiet.

These are just examples. Your life will have its own little nooks and crannies—small slivers of time that you can use. They may be short, but they will be enough to move your project forward. Pick as many of these as you can think of and make a schedule for your week. Try to include a small time slot on as many days of the week as you can, but if you can’t come up with as many as you’d like, use what you’ve got.

Put all the slivers of time together to create a writing schedule.

Write the schedule down. Do not try to keep it in your head. This is where your notebook or smart phone comes in. Your schedule has to be recorded in such a way that you can take it with you wherever you go and look at it whenever you need to.

Once you’ve created the schedule in writing, try to find a way to set up automated reminders. If you have a smart phone, it should be easy. There are lots of apps—many of them free, or included in your phone’s operating system—that will set of a small alarm to remind you to do something important, and they typically allow you to create a reminder that’s weekly, so that you can use a set of alarms to cover your entire weekly writing schedule. If you aren’t using a smart phone, try to get into the habit of checking your schedule several times a day to remind yourself of the next upcoming time slot.

5. Stick to the Schedule

Regularity is critical—that’s why you’re picking specific times rather than just watching out for opportunities as you go. Every Wednesday before bed you spend fifteen minutes writing. Or every Tuesday and Thursday you leave your office during the lunch hour, go to a coffee shop where no one knows you or will interrupt you, and write. And so on.

Writing regularly—even if it’s for brief periods of time—does at least four valuable things:

  1. It keeps your story moving forward, getting closer to completion all the time, even if it’s in small increments.
  2. It keeps your mind on your story, so that your thoughts about the story maintain some momentum—some flow—instead of sitting there, stagnant.
  3. It keeps all the details of your story fresh in your mind, so you don’t have to spend time (that you can’t afford) going back over what you’ve written to remind yourself of exactly what’s already happened.
  4. It reduces the frustration you feel about not being able to work on the project as much as you'd like.  That frustration can really get in the way of having a clear mind and being able to be productive when you actually get the chance to write.

6. Take Extra Slivers Where You Can Find Them

Despite what I’ve said about scheduling and regularity, there’s no reason not to take advantage of an unscheduled opportunity if it comes along.

Let’s say you’re a student and one of your profs gets sick and cancels class, and you suddenly have a block of forty minutes on your hands that you didn’t expect. You could sit around having a coffee with your friends, which is a perfectly nice way to spend some time, or you could say aha and head for your favorite spot in the library, or outside under a tree, to tackle one of the bite-sized writing tasks you’ve prepared (more on bite-sized pieces below).

7. Bite-Sized Pieces

One thing you can do in one of your brief time slots is to make a list of bite-sized writing tasks that you can actually try to accomplish in other slivers of time down the road. Keep your list of these tasks in your notebook or on your phone, and add to it any time a new task occurs to you.

Here are a few ideas for bite-sized tasks, but there are plenty of others that you can think of yourself:

  1. Do a dialogue pass on a chapter that you’ve already written. A pass means that you critically review a section of text, focusing only on one aspect of it. Ignore all other issues. When you’re doing a dialogue pass, it doesn’t matter if there’s a typo or a continuity problem or a plot hole—leave those for another day. Focus solely on polishing the dialogue until it’s the best you can possibly make it. A dialogue pass on a chapter, or on an arbitrary chunk of text—maybe forty pages, or whatever fits into your schedule—can be a bite-sized task. Twenty chapters, twenty tasks. (For more details, see The Dialogue Pass)
  2. Brainstorm ideas for how to resolve a part of your plot that you haven’t worked out yet. Your protagonist is trapped in a burning building—how does she get out? Or he has to decide how to break up with his girlfriend, who happens to be his best friend’s sister—what does he say, and where and when does he do it? Whatever’s going on in your book, pick some part that you haven’t resolved yet, and make a note in your list of bite-sized tasks like “Brainstorm burning building escape.” Coming up with a list of possible brainstorming topics is one bite-sized task. After that, each brainstorming session is another.
  3. Pick a scene that you think you want to include in the book, but haven’t written yet, and do your best to write as much of it as you can in one go. Don’t try to do a whole chapter (unless your chapters are quite short)—just a scene, maybe five pages. Your brainstorming sessions from the previous point are likely to generate a lot of scenes that need to be written, so that process can feed into this one.

Even if you try just these three things, the next time a scheduled sliver or an unplanned opportunity comes along, you’ll have plenty to choose from.

8. Writing Without Writing

This is a critical component of any too-busy-to-write schedule. There are times when you can’t really sit down to write, or rewrite, because you have something you have to do, but the thing you have to do doesn’t require a lot of thinking. If your hands are busy but your mind is free, that’s a valuable moment—use it!

Maybe you have to do the dishes every day, or vacuum the house once a week, or drive to buy groceries every Saturday, or work out twice a week. If you haven’t planned for it, you may well end up spending these moments dreaming about how wonderful it would be to finish your book. But if you’ve got your plan in place, you can use these times to actually push your project closer to completion.

Let’s use a weekly workout as an example. You go to the gym, or go out for a run, or whatever it is you do. Before you actually start, you look in your notebook and pick a bite-sized task that involves coming up with ideas or solving problems, rather than actually physically writing anything. For instance, you could do a brainstorming session, but trying to do a dialogue pass wouldn’t work.(However, you can use this time to train your ear for dialogue—see The Dialogue Pass, under the section Preparing by Listening.)

While you’re exercising, and even in the shower afterward, your mind is working through that task in a concrete, practical way. As soon as you’re done, before you go home, you sit down with your notebook and take five minutes—even two minutes!—to write out, in as much detail as you can, the solution or ideas you came up with. You can develop the idea more in a later time slot—for the moment you’ve done what you needed to do. And once again you’ve found a way to move your book one step closer to completion.

These writing-without-writing moments are critical for several reasons:

9. Beyond the Bite-Sized

There are some elements of your writing, especially if you’re working on a novel, that simply won’t fit into one of the slivers of time we’ve been talking about. For instance, at some point you’re simply going to have to read the whole novel from beginning to end, preferably in one sitting, so that you can spot inconsistencies in tone, make sure the pacing is working, and so on.

How on Earth are you going to fit that kind of task into the slivers-of-time schedule we’ve been talking about? You’re not—but there are still ways to get it done.

First, have at least one large task ready to go at all times, so that if the opportunity unexpectedly comes up, you don’t have to waste time and energy wondering what to work on. If you have a draft written, then it can be easy to identify a large task—for instance, one task might be to do a “five-senses pass” on the whole novel. (The “five-senses pass” involves making sure that you’re involving all five of the senses—not just sight and hearing—when you write, and will be the subject of an upcoming article.)

If you don’t have a lot written yet, then your large task will probably involve writing rather than rewriting. Your preparation might be to select a chapter that you’ve thought about, or planned in some detail, but haven’t actually written yet. When you get an appropriate time slot, your task is to sit down and write that chapter, or as much of it as you can, doing your best to get a full draft completed. (This is a scaled-up version of writing a draft of a scene, as discussed above.) When you do this, don’t look back, don’t edit, don’t worry about whether it’s any good—those are things you can deal with in your regular slivers of time—just do your best to write as much of it as you can.

So, let’s say your flight back home from a business trip gets snowed in and it might take hours to get air traffic moving again? Bingo. You take out your notebook or smart phone or whatever you use to organize your writing schedule, look for your preplanned large task, and get straight down to work.

But you can’t count on fate to hand a large time slot to you, so sometimes you’ll have to try to create one. It’s not going to be easy, but it can often be done.

Look ahead at what’s coming up at your job—is there a day coming that you expect to be a little easier than usual? The night before that day it might be possible to skip four hours of your usual night’s sleep, spend those hours doing your large task, then sleep for a couple of hours, and still survive work the next day. It’s not something you should do often, but many people can do it once in a while without serious adverse effects.

If your job gives you a certain number of vacation days per year, consider taking one or two over the course of the year for writing, while keeping the rest for actual vacationing. If you’ve planned your large tasks properly beforehand, taking one whole day to write or edit, or a bit of both, can move your book a very significant step forward in a single day.

But sometimes it’s a simple as asking, and perhaps bargaining. Let’s say that work and kids are the main things that prevent you from ever getting a large span of time to work on your book. Talk to your spouse, or a parent, or a friend or neighbor—someone sympathetic whom you trust. Pick a day on a weekend when you’re not scheduled to work (and neither are they), and ask them (well in advance!) to take care of your kids for that day. And offer them something in return, like giving them a free day to do the thing they never get time for, whatever that may be. Or offer them a batch of home-cooked food, or the use of your car for a day, or something else you’ve got that they would appreciate. If they say yes, then you’ve suddenly got that day you could never seem to free up. Get a good night’s sleep beforehand, put aside all distractions, and go for it.

10. Let Your Plan Evolve

Over time, you’ll find that certain parts of your plan work better than others. If some things aren’t helping much, let them go and focus on the things that are. It’s important to stick with your plan, in the sense of actually doing the things you plan to do, but that doesn’t mean that your plan as a whole can’t evolve over time—it should.

Plus, your situation may change over time—you may find yourself with a different job, a new kid, or a new relationship. Any significant change in your life is likely to create both new problems and new opportunities, so adapt as you go.


This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of the things that can help you keep your writing project moving forward in the face of a busy schedule, but it’s a distillation of many things that have worked in the past, so it should be a good place to start.

If you discover new ideas that you find work well, let me know and I’ll consider including them here.


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