A novel I started and then put on the backburner but that I’m meaning to return to any day now. A non-fiction book project that got held up because I needed to do more research. Four article ideas I should really get around to pitching one of these days. A blog post I know will resonate so deeply with my readers but that I haven’t yet begun writing. A personal essay that’s in first draft form but needs polishing.
Projects, so many projects, that lie in states of half completion. All that I intend to finish any day now, but just never get around to.
Here’s the thing: Even if you’re a prolific writer (and I am—I’ve written 240,000 words in the last six months in personal projects alone), you’re only going to be able to tackle between two and 10 projects a year. Which means you still have the difficult task of picking those few projects that are the most important, the most beneficial to your career, or the most potentially profitable, and then run with them.
How to Create a Writing Habit that Sticks
Picking the project you’re going to commit to for the next few weeks or months is, however, only the first step.
Then it’s time to consider how long it will take to complete.
Do you need a whole year to finish your nonfiction manuscript or can you get it done sooner? Perhaps it will take even longer. How are you to know?
This is where it becomes magical.
Because the best way I know to not only determine when you’ll finish your project but also create a writing habit that you can actually stick to involves creating a production schedule.
How a Production Schedule Leads to a Daily Writing Habit
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and let me address this right away. To the creative writer, “production schedule” sounds like a very business-like, no-nonsense term that grates like fingernails on a chalkboard. Calling a book a “product” is like someone calling an article “content.” I don’t like it.
Yet, I’m a firm believer in looking at your work as art when you’re in the process of creation and a business when you’re looking at it from a career standpoint. In that sense, think of yourself as a publisher who has books to ship. By doing so, you’ll have the best of both worlds: the joy and satisfaction that comes from creating art, and the money, sales, and motivation that comes from running a business.
Just because a production schedule involves numbers doesn’t mean it has to be dry. Find beautiful and artistic calendars for your walls that you can color in when you meet your goal for the day. Or, if you’re like me and you enjoy crossing things out, buy a moleskine and cross out word targets as you go along. The more fun and entertaining you make this, the more likely you are to stick with the process. Just remember to make it simple and not overly complicated.
How to Create a Production Schedule
Here’s how to create a production schedule that works.
- Figure out how many new words you can write in an hour. We’re talking new words and not rewriting. For me and most writers I know, this number is around 1,000.
- Now think about how many hours per week you have available that you can devote to writing new words. Again, we’re talking first draft—new words only. If you need to revise work, set aside a different time in your week to do that. You don’t want to mix the writing part of your brain with the revising part, because that’s what leads to five-year manuscripts. Trust me, I know. Let’s say, for the sake of example, that this number is five hours. That is, you can devote one hour a day to writing new words while taking weekends off. This means you can write a minimum of 5,000 new words per week.
- What’s going to be the total length of this work? Sometimes this is hard to predict. Almost always, however, you’ll have a rough idea. If you’re writing a nonfiction book for writers that you intend to self-publish, you know it’s more likely to be in the 30,000-word range rather than the 100,000-word range. Similarly, mainstream fiction will be 80,000 words, and romance novels will run a lot lower. Based on the scope and market of your project, how many words do you think your project is likely to run? For the purpose of this discussion, let’s say that number is 60,000 words.
- Let’s do some math now, shall we? If your manuscript is 60,000 words and you’re writing at a pace of 5,000 words per week, you easily can deduce that, if you work diligently, show up at the page each day, and write your 5,000 words for the week consistently, you will have a completed first draft in 12 weeks, or three months. If all your manuscripts are similar in length, you could easily finish four manuscripts by the end of the year, working only an hour a day. Not bad.
- Finally, pick a daily target, put aside everything else, and focus on hitting that day after day, consistently. This target could be project-based, such as “one short story a week,” or process-based, such as “1,000 words per day.” It could even be time-oriented, such as “one hour each day.” Choose what works for you, but make sure it helps you feel positive and optimistic about coming to work every day. By focusing on the daily target and not the project as a whole, you make progress every day. Before you know it, you’re typing the words “The End.”
Once you know what your deadlines look like for each project that you’ve picked out for the year, mark those big deadlines in your calendar. Break those big deadlines into smaller chunks if you can.
Where the Magic Happens
This is where production schedules prove to be so magical. They allow you to see, in black and white, how staying on track can get you to your goals. When you’re feeling unmotivated and discouraged, look at your production schedule and see the date on the calendar for when you’ll be finished if you stay on track.
For instance, with my book Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page, my goal was to write a chapter a day, regardless of the word count. Some days, I wrote much more than that, but one chapter was my bare minimum. That was my daily deadline.
If you’re working on a larger project, such as a full-length nonfiction book, you could have deadlines for the 10k-word mark, the halfway mark, and so on. Mark each of those milestones on your calendar so that you know how on- or off-track you are as you move through the work.
If data and spreadsheets inspire you, as they do me, create some of those as well. Personally, I have a notebook that I use in which I’ve written down dates and word counts like this:
November 1 (Sunday): 1,000 words
November 2 (Monday): 1,000 words
November 3 (Tuesday): 1,000 words
Then, I cross out the word counts as I move forward. Sometimes, I’ll work ahead. When that happens, I allow myself the flexibility of taking time off or giving myself leeway for when, undoubtedly, life gets in the way in the form of a sick child, a fried brain, or a car breakdown.
Moreover, if you’re a freelancer or work in an industry that already drowns you in deadlines, you need to juggle so you don’t end up with four work deadlines and a book deadline in the same week. The week you’re traveling abroad for work is not the week to schedule the start of a new book project. Having a production calendar helps you keep daily word counts in sync with the rest of your life.
Create Room in Your Schedule
No matter how you eventually publish your work, you’ll have to create room in your day for dealing with pesky publication issues as well: edits, back cover copy, design, blogging, promotion, events, and so on. While you may be able to continue your writing during those times—and you should!—sometimes it’s impossible to fit everything into a single day. Allowing for that helps keep self-loathing at bay.
My favorite reason for having a production schedule is that it keeps me from getting hung up on or too attached to one single book or project. The day after I finished my first novel—a feat that took five full years—I began work on a non-fiction book.
Now you, too, have a road map, a production schedule for a year, six months, or however long you’ve planned ahead. A road map that can tell you exactly what to work on and what lies ahead. A plan that shows you that if you commit to the work every single day, you will have a finished project in your hands—or three—by the end of the year.
And you’ll have developed a consistent writing habit that lasts.
All you have to do now is show up.
I hope you do.
Have you used a production schedule to help you develop a daily writing habit? Tell me in a comment below. And if you found this post useful, please share it!
About the Author
Mridu Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author and has written for TIME, The New York Times, CNN, ABC News, and more. She is the author of over a dozen books, including Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page. She runs the popular website for writers www.TheInternationalFreelancer.com.
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