Whole books have been written and courses have been taught on the art and science of prolificacy. A short post on the essentials can only skim the surface, but each step will offer an entry point to further reading for you (and writing for me).
Like fractals, productivity + writing is endlessly complex. There’s always some small tweak you can make, an efficiency to be added.
1. Keep track of your word count.
Anything that gets measured gets noticed…and improves because of the additional focus.
In addition, how can you tell if your writing speed is picking up, if you’re not tracking it?
This is where the rubber hits the road.
It’s nice to keep track of your word counts per day, and how many words you’ve written in a week/per book, etc.
Ultimately, the only count that really matters is how many words an hour you write. Improve that, and everything else rises, too.
I provide a spreadsheet for tracking word counts as a gift for signing up to my newsletter. It will get you started if you’re not tracking already.
You can use anything to track with–Google Sheets, Excel, a notepad and pen, even a Word table. Spreadsheets help you calculate your words-per-hour, though, and average across days/weeks/months/years.
2. Create a schedule for writing
It seems counter-intuitive, but schedules and habits and routines are a creative’s best friends. If you always do what you always do at a certain time of day, you’re not using as much executive decision juice just to navigate through the day. You can use that energy to write, instead.
If you’re moving through a day in habit-mode, your brain can also idle and make odd and random connections…i.e. getting ideas.
I write fresh manuscript (or plot stories) every Monday-Saturday between 6.30 am and noon. I’ve been doing that for years now. My brain is wired to produce at that time and everyone in my family knows that if they contact me, my answers are going to be remote and possibly useless.
3. Learn to stick to your writing schedule
This tip and #1 together will vastly increase your wordage, even if you do nothing else.
Sticking to your schedule is fraught with challenges. You’ll get to know yourself far better than you dreamed while you’re learning to stay on schedule.
If you’ve never built yourself a writing schedule before, you may have to rearrange aspects of your life, and negotiate with family members and loved ones to develop a schedule that suits you. In the long term, the restructuring will benefit everyone, including your readers. But in the short term you may find it painful. Keep going.
The lessons never stop, either. This is an ongoing challenge that even the most prolific and productive writers still deal with.
Prolific writers aren’t flawless when it comes to sticking with a schedule, but they do stick to their schedule more than most other writers. It’s that sometimes tiny difference that make a big impact.
Aim to be 10% better at sticking to your schedule this month. Then 10% better that this month, next month.
4. Write all the hours you should be writing
This sounds like #3, but isn’t. You can stick to your writing schedule and still not produce wordage. It’s what you do when you sit in front of your screen that counts.
There are two challenges to writing when you should be writing.
If you can learn to start when you’re supposed to, you will find your productivity soaring. This is where procrastination can ruin your life. “Tomorrow” is the siren song of the procrastinator. “I can skip writing today and read that novel instead. The novel is market research, anyway, and it’s only one day. I’ll write tomorrow.”
But tomorrow, it becomes easier to put off writing one more day, because there were no dire consequences to skipping yesterday.
If you want to be productive and hate yourself for never seeming to produce, this might be the core of your problem. Face it and acknowledge it, then work to train yourself to always start.
Once you’ve started, you need to keep going. This requires eliminating as many distractions and counter-productive habits as possible.
There’s apps that stop you checking email or surfing the web. That’s the obvious, low hanging fruit.
The more insidious distractions require self-knowledge.
I love playing Spider. I’m pretty good at it, too. Only I found myself opening up a new game of Spider without even thinking about it, every time I hit a snag in a story. I noticed when I started playing Spider before I did anything, because it felt like I wasn’t getting a “breather” (whatever that is) between switching projects, starting tasks, or starting a new paragraph.
I deleted Spider from all my computers and devices the same day I recognized what I was doing. I still twitch every now and again, and think, “I need a break,” but I take a deep breath and get back to work, instead.
Learn to recognize your own distractions and get rid of them.
Remind yourself gently to get back to the story every time you realize you’ve wandered away from it.
5. Don’t stop to edit
Once you are writing, don’t stop. Don’t make corrections, don’t scroll back up. Make yourself move forward. You’re training your writer’s muscle to focus on the developing story, not analyzing what has been written.
You get to analyse what you wrote when you edit and clean up the completed story. There’s an inbuilt reward to not allowing yourself to read back until editing time–by then, the story is as cold as the Arctic, and you will read it with fresh eyes. You’ll get to see all the mistakes in throbbing neon in your mind, but you will also read it as a reader, and see the strengths and the turns of phrase that delight you.
Use this discovery read-through as a lure to force yourself not to stop.
6. Write faster
You can choose to write faster. Not stopping to edit is part of it. So is simply moving your fingers faster. Don’t stop to choose words (get the right word later). Don’t stop to check facts.
Aim to write a little bit faster than you would if you were being fussy about the words. In your mind, see the story, don’t string phrases together. Let your sub-conscious put the words together to describe the story you see in your head.
It’ll make you a better writer and entertain your readers, and it will do marvels for your grasp of point of view.
Learn to enjoy the machine gun sound of your fingers on the keyboard, as you watch the story unfold on the screen.
7. Set challenges for yourself
If you wrote 2,000 words yesterday, can you write 2,125 today in the same time?
Have you ever tried to write a book in 30 days? What about 10? What about 7?
Think of personal challenges as fun. Experiments. Nothing bad happens if you miss the target, but wonderful things can happen if you get a bulls-eye, including your confidence kicking up a notch.
8. Use writing sprints/Pomodoros
Writing sprints are Pomodoros on steroids. You don’t just set the timer for twenty minutes (I actually use 55 minute sprints) and start writing.
You set the timer and go fast, no stopping, no editing. You need to have your story sorted out before you start the timer, so you know what’s coming for the next twenty minutes, at least. You don’t halt mid-timer to plot the next bit.
Track your speed for each sprint, and sprint for your entire writing session.
Sprints are one of the most useful ways of training yourself to write faster per hour. Over time, your per-hour speed can diminish as bad habits (like editing when you see typos) grow back–or maybe you never got rid of them.
Sprints will train you out of those disruptive practices, teach you to ignore distractions and interruptions and a lot of other useful practices. When your per-hour speed slows over time, do a week of sprints in every writing period to rebuild the muscle.
Plus, while you’re sprinting you’ll get a LOT of words down.
Some writers, including Chris Fox of 5,000 Words An Hour fame, use sprints all the time.
I actually find them irritating after a while. I’m in full spate and the timer goes off and I’m supposed to stop?
So I do bouts of sprints just to bring the word count up whenever it backslides.
9. Think about your story when you’re not writing
Sometimes your story is so vivid, you can’t not think of it. As an indie fiction writer, though, there will absolutely come a time when the books don’t haunt you all day. There will also be books you just want to see done and gone, too.
Train yourself to think of the story when you’re moving through your day. Just before you go to sleep at night is a great time to consider what comes next in the story, or any problems you have with it, for your sub-conscious will work on the problem while you sleep and you could find the solution occurring to you early the next day (keep an notebook handy).
Waiting for someone? In a line? Traffic lights? Driving?
There are a couple of friends of mine who take forever to marshal their thoughts between one response and the next. While they think, so do I.
Whenever you find your mind idle, even if your hands are busy, is a great time to switch back to the story du jour.
10 Learn to touchtype
If you’re still a hunt-and-peck typist, even if you use three or four fingers, you will save oodles of time, and write so much more quickly, if you teach yourself to touchtype. When you don’t have to think about the keys, the words flow much faster. When you have picked up enough speed, the act of typing becomes invisible. You just see the words appear on the screen.
It might take a few weeks to get comfortable with touch typing, but once you do, even if you’re slow at first, you will soon speed up.
There are dozens of sites and courses that will teach you to type and drill you on the keys. A search on Google will bring them up.
11 Learn to dictate.
This one isn’t for everyone. If you’re still very early in your career, then you may find your writing habits are not yet ingrained enough to make dictating with a speech-to-text program worth the effort of adaptation.
There is a learning curve, but once you’ve made the switch, writing by talking is fast.
I regret that my own writing habits after decades of using a keyboard are simply too calcified for me to make the switch because the speeds you reach and the wordage you can output with dictation makes me pea green with envy.
Alas, several serious and thorough trials of dictation software have demonstrated to me that this is one speed enhancer I cannot have.
Try it for yourself. Windows 10 comes with inbuilt speech recognition software, and so does the Apple operating system, so before you shell out for the super-duper branded variety, you can see if it’s something that will work for you.
12 Take breaks.
This one also seems counter-intuitive, but constant breaks, about one per hour of sitting, will help keep your blood pressure stable and your metabolism burning nicely. It’s different for everyone and dependent upon a ton of factors (health, age, gender, diet, exercise, etc, etc), so use trial and error to establish how often you have to move to keep your energy up and your writing zooming along, without chewing into your writing time too much.
13 Take time off.
This is one I don’t do–very often, anyway. Sometimes the breaks are forced on me (family things, conferences, Christmas, illness.) But I never volunteer to lie on a beach.
However, having been writing for nearly three years full time at a pace that some consider reckless, I know that I would probably benefit from hands-off downtime, when I don’t even think about writing. I’m just not sure I can do that — not write, or think about writing, I mean.
If the idea of a month off to do nothing makes you blanch too, then consider a break of a couple of days to a week off between books–a reward for finishing the last one.
Or, a week every season.
The idea is to completely rest. So no reading how-to books, or thinking about stories. Journalling might be useful, but I would even be cautious about reading fiction, myself, because I can’t read the stuff without the internal editor kicking in, and that’s work, again.
The longer you write, and the longer you maintain a steady routing of writing, the more you will get to know what downtime you need in the long term.
Make sure you take that time, so you can renew yourself and come back to writing enthused and ready to work hard once more.
14 Read about other prolific authors.
The idea of writing fast was once considered so alien and horrific, there were no books discussing prolificacy. Isaac Asimov was considered a freak (and some still say his books are lightweight because he didn’t take time to write them properly).
Personally, Isaac Asimov is one of my heroes. I once owned a copy of his Opus 200, and reread it all the time, not because of the excerpts from his 200 titles, but because of the interstitial essays about how much he had written.
The very first how-to book about writing fast I ever saw was a Writer’s Digest title, How to Write Fast, While Writing Well by David Fryxell and I have acquired another copy since moving to Canada.
The indie revolution renewed interest in the productivity habits of the classic pulp writers, and now there is a small river of books about maximizing your speed.
Read them! Not just to learn how to write fast, but to learn about the authors who are truly prolific. Let those authors inspire you.
There are biographies of pulp writers, too — one of my favourites is Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner. That man was a machine!
15 Celebrate when you’ve finished a book.
It’s possible to get into such a routine with your writing that you roll from one book to the next. I’m guilty of this. Just yesterday, I finished writing one book, and had two hours of my morning left…so I pulled up the files and pre-planning for the next book and starting plotting it out.
You’ll lose sight of why you’re working so hard if you don’t stop to acknowledge the fruits of your labor.
Take a day if you want. Get drunk, binge-watch TV, eat a pint of icecream…whatever your version of raising a glass in acknowledgement might be. It will help reinforce your motivation to keep the pages coming quickly.
16 Don’t delay the next book.
This is the flip side of #15. If you do take a day or a few hours between books to rest on your laurels, make sure you get up off your ass when you’re done. It’s very easy (trust me on this) to let that day stretch into two or three or more and suddenly, you’ve let a week or ten days go by and (for me) that could be most of the next book’s writing window gone.
17 Tell yourself you’re prolific.
It’s a mental thing. If you tell yourself something often enough, you believe it and start acting accordingly.
It’s also a lot more positive a statement to keep telling yourself you’re a fast writer, than to keep beating yourself up as a total loser because you didn’t __________. (The list of “sins” in writing is long and distinguished.)
Perception is extremely subjective, so why not make it work for you? Keep telling yourself you’re a fast writer. One day you’ll look up and realize that you are fast.
18 Don’t compare.
Don’t look at what your neighbor is doing. Don’t let the big numbers authors spill online get under your skin.
If you can only write two hours a day and you’re getting four or six books out a year, you’re freaking fast. Period. The author who writes twelve books a year <cough> has the luxury of writing five hours a day, six days a weeks. Feeling like you’re a failure because you can’t match their output is erroneous. Comparing yourself to anyone is comparing apples to iguanas.
Even when you’re reading about prolific authors in how-tos and biographies, still resist the need to look at their output and compare it to yours. You simply can’t compare. Their life and their brain is not yours.
But do compare you to you. Your tracking sheet/software/notepad will tell you how you’re doing compare to how you were doing a month or a year ago. That’s significant feedback.
19 Don’t sprint.
I’ve mentioned this before. There’s sprinting speed, good for the 100 meter dash, and done in 8 seconds. In writing terms, this is the equivalent of, say, writing a full novel in 7 days. I’ve done it–your life goes on hold while you’re writing it and you’ve very glad to stop once you cross the finish line.
It’s not a pace you can keep up in the long term. You’ll burn out, writing at that speed. Plus, I don’t think it’s possible to stay in flow–where the best writing happens–when you’ve got the gas pedal down that fast. You’re too busy making sure you stay on the rails.
The best speed is a marathon pace. It’s slower than sprinting, but man it chews up the miles! It’s where flow happens frequently and the words pile up, you feel no pressure and writing is fun.
20 Keep the long term in view.
Joined at the hip with writing at marathon pace and not a sprint is the idea of maximum speed for the long term. You must find a writing pace that is sustainable not just for a few weeks, but years. It won’t be the fastest you can possibly write, but if you set everything else up for maximum productivity, it was still be prolific, plus you can do it for decades and still enjoy life.
Everything I’ve mentioned here — routines, taking breaks, sabbaticals, working out your own idiosyncrasies — will gear you toward a long term level of prolificacy. And occasionally, just for fun, you can throw in an 8 second sprint and come up smiling.