What’s Presently Working for Me

A couple of year ago, I took a month and attempted to write as many words on a single project (a book I was working on) as I could. My goal was to write 2000 words per day. At the end of the month, I had written about 45,000 words. That included a weekend where the goal was to write a many words as I could, and I wrote about 9,000 words in several hour or hour-and-a-half bites.

What I had during that month was time. I also had an outline, which was basically just all of the scenes, numbered in order, with two- or three-sentence description. Both of those helped me quite a bit in being able to sit down at the keyboard and write, usually with little hesitation.

However, after a while, it sometimes became more difficult to sit down and start. It wasn’t exactly writer’s block (the outline helped with that). It was mostly a matter of motivation. What I began to do was to make every writing session a “free”write session (in line with Peter Elbow’s terminology, it might be more accurate to call it a guided freewrite). The rule was simple: start a new scene, or pick up where I left off, and type without stopping, even if I was typing total and complete gibberish. That helped a lot. I might have to whittle a 1500-word segment to an even 1000 words, but it was progress.

More recently, I have a slightly different technique. I’ve essentially returned to the same project (with a couple of major changes), but this time I’m experimenting with no outline, except for about five scenes spread throughout the beginning, middle and end of the book. When I sit down to write, unless I’m finishing up a scene, I literally do not have an idea what I’m going to write. I might take a couple of minutes to think about what I should write next, but other than that, I just put my fingers on the keyboard and write.

Along with intentionally eschewing an outline, I’m trying to write in a strictly limited 30-minute session. My only goal for each day, in terms of writing, is just to write. Write everyday. (I can take one day per week off. I’m a Christian.) Then, assuming I have written, my next goal is to write 1000 words (unedited) each day. I type fairly fast, so I’m able to hit my 1000-word mark at almost precisely 30 minutes. Because I’m writing in such strict time constraint there is a great deal of pressure when I sit down to write. I cannot waste a single second. I have thirty minutes to put 1000 words on the screen. If I’m finishing a scene, then my material is ready to go. But if I am starting fresh, I only have a rough arc for the plot. I have to come up with something. (To be clear, this “something” is a wholly unedited first draft.)

Both of these approaches, though not wildly different from the other, seem to work well for me. Having the outline gives me material to write from whenever I sit down to write. I may (and have) cut out scenes and substituted new ones, or added new ones. But sometimes this was unhelpful and limiting. Sometimes it felt forced, and the words were hard to get out. Forcing myself to type without stopping helped overcome that. Writing from no outline is helpful in that it allows me to keep the project fresh, though it is somewhat daunting to stare at a blank screen and come up with something to write about. What helps with this technique is the time pressure. If I waste five minutes thinking about what to write, I won’t hit my 1000-word target.

The common denominator in both these scenarios is pressure. In the first, the pressure is to not stop typing. I may have set material to write about, but several times I got started writing and then stopped. I didn’t know what to have the character say or do next. By both forcing myself to keep writing and giving myself the freedom to write total gibberish, I was able to be both productive and creative. In the second, more recent, scenario, the pressure is time combined with a word-count goal. I can take my hands off the keyboard. I can backstroke and correct error. I can delete and rewrite sentences if I want. But I only have thirty minutes to write 1000 words. In this case, however, about half the time I’m starting from scratch. I have an eye to the overall arc of the plot, but the rest is almost entirely blank. In both cases, I have to write. The pressure is intended to turn on the word tap and let the words flow. In one case, I can’t stop typing, and I have an outline. In the other, I have only 30 minutes to write, and I have no outline.

Having spent some time with both techniques, I like the small, but significant, differences each one brings to my writing endeavors. I’m going to continue on with the current technique of timed writing with no outline. I want to see how much I get out of it. But given my writing habits when I was younger, I will probably go back to using an outline. However, rather than free write, I think I’ll focus on trying to write a target number of words in a defined time. We’ll see how that goes.

Addendum:

By the way, I have found Scrivener an immensely helpful tool. The corkboard is incredibly helpful in seeing the 30,000 foot view of your project with scenes/chapters represented as notecards. Also helpful for me is the Project Targets feature, in which you can set wordcount goals for your entire project and for each writing session. (Disclaimer: I have no connection to Scrivener other than an enthusiastic end user.)

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