In my quest to make a career out of writing, I have been working very hard lately to crack my own productivity secrets: How can I make time for my creative writing in addition to the hours of work it takes to find paid writing work and complete those projects as well? I spent a lot of the summer obsessively categorizing my priorities and making to-do lists, some of which actually got finished, but not doing much actual writing. There are a lot of reasons for this, including getting stuck in a routine of blindly shooting out five or ten job applications at a time for positions I skimmed over on indeed and Linkedin, which never panned out. (I’ve found that the quality time I put into narrowing down opportunities that look right for me and rewriting my cover letter accordingly has led to a lot more interviews.) I’m also very good at starting projects, even giving myself deadlines, and then getting distracted by other things and letting those deadlines slip by. This all compounded into some pretty ugly depression, which pretty much stopped me in my tracks. I felt like I was doing something wrong; I had to figure out what that was and change my approach.
After a very productive meeting with a career counselor at Columbia College Chicago, where I just finished my MFA, I was pumped enough to start taking myself seriously as a writer and treating my career like I would any other job where I’m on someone else’s clock. It helped immensely when she looked at my list of over 150 jobs I had applied for this summer alone and expressed a bit of shock that nothing had worked out. So I wasn’t completely wrong, but I wasn’t looking at the problem holistically either. No two writers work the same way, but I’ve found that it’s important to remember in all these endeavors that I am only one person–one writer. It’s (usually) essential to be aware of what genre (or blend of genres) we’re working in at the moment of writing, especially in business writing, but taking a step back to see how these disparate facets of my writing identity might coalesce has helped me re-think my time management, stop obsessing over it quite so much, and get some actual work done. Though your writing life is blessedly different from mine and everyone else’s, I hope some of these strategies will be helpful to you:
Make a whole-writing-life priority list.
Begin by thinking about where you want to be six months from now, a year from now, and five years from now. What steps do you need to complete to get there, and what kinds of writing will this entail? I want to subsidize my poetry and fiction writing by getting paid for copywriting, content development, social media, etc. Take a minute to look over all of these labels on the same page and remember that there is only so much time in the day, especially if you are a human who has to eat, run errands, occasionally socialize with other humans, etc. Decide which labels are most important to you and prioritize those during the rest of the steps I’ve outlined, and then erase them from your memory. Put “WRITER” at the top of the page and remember that all of this genre stuff is made up and the points don’t matter. Whatever kinds of writing you do, at the end of the day, all that matters is that you write something.
Have ONE consolidated agenda or to-do list. (And stick to it.)
I have always been a list-maker, and I’ve kept a day planner since high school. If it doesn’t get written down, I don’t get it done. I’ve long been a fan of the pen and paper method, but during the two years I spent at my soul-crushing customer service job, I grew fond of the Outlook checklist function for daily tasks. Since I don’t have Outlook at home (does anybody?) I went searching for to-do list apps. I tried Google Keep and Google Calendar since I already had a Google account, but the repeat settings didn’t quite work the way I wanted them to. I kept searching and found Todoist, which allows me to see my list on all my devices, categorize my reminders, and cycles through my repeated tasks in the way I’m used to from Outlook.
Going back to your priority list from step one, decide what you need to do and how often. One of the hardest things about this for me is to be realistic about how much I can get done in a day, so don’t be afraid to start small, see what kind of progress you make, and then add tasks from there. Let form follow function. What habits do you already have? How can they be improved? I put silly things like “check email and Linkedin” on my list so I’ll have some small victories to check off every day, and then bigger items like “1 hour of submissions” that recur once a week so I have the flexibility to do them when I want (as long as I do eventually complete them, but that’s another story). Last, create one-off deadlines for specific projects. These are the tricky ones, so don’t overwhelm yourself by planning out a big project every week for the next month, like I was tempted to do. Start with this week and see how you feel, then tackle the next week, until you get into a rhythm and see how much you can actually handle.
Nest: make your workspace reflect your priorities.
I really enjoyed this step. I’ve had my great grandmother’s desk for a long, long time but haven’t gotten into the habit of using it until this year. A big part of this is keeping the top cleared off: actually doing something with my mail, random folders and notebooks, and general clutter. Once I mastered that, I got a whiteboard.
The whiteboard isn’t for long-term goals or brainstorming for specific projects; I need to keep my head clear when I sit down to write. The whiteboard is for motivation and whatever whimsical productivity ideas I’m trying out at the time. Right now mine says “Deadlines. Treat projects like homework assignments. Crank ’em out.” It also features musings on “coalescence” and content repurposing instead of recycling, as well as a cartoon drawing of J. Jonah Jameson shouting “I want pix of Spider-Man on my desk YESTERDAY!” This is my fluid space to keep the big picture in focus.
As with the cubicle I used to work in (thank the gods that’s no longer the case) I taped up some quick references I know I’ll use all the time and some fun stuff that won’t be distracting but will make me feel good about the work I’m doing and actually want to sit here to do it. (Items include a map of Chicago’s neighborhoods, a bullet point list a client sent me about what she looks for in web copy, a horoscope in which I’ve highlighted “You take your paranoid beatnik approach to life very seriously,” a Mary Oliver poem, and some inspirational quotes.) Don’t overdo it, but do make it your own.
Refresh your online presence and streamline your social media.
This idea comes from another helpful career counselor at CCC. He looked at my website and advise me to reorganize my pages to make things easier to find for different kinds of people looking for links to my work. I used to have “publications” all on one tab, but that word doesn’t preview exactly what kinds of writing are on that tab. Instead, I broke it down into Content & Communications (still thinking about whether that’s the right wording or not), Poetry, and Prose. Another piece of advice he gave me was to merge the two separate identities of Poet and Freelance Writer, which went against everything in the freelance writing books I’ve read, but helped spark this coalescence of identities I’ve been talking about. It turns out that these identities can work together, as long as it’s not confusing to a potential client or employer. They’re not writers, so if they see that you love writing so much you’ve branched out into all these different genres, you will only look that much more flexible to them. And trying to manage more than one website will just take up valuable writing time.
I still have two Twitter accounts, one personal/poetry-oriented and one freelance-oriented, but I’m still experimenting with these to see what works best. Right now I have a lot more followers on my personal account, so I tend to post things on there more often. I carefully went through my Linkedin profile to make sure it reflected my current situation and objectives. I know people who view my profile here are also likely to look at my website since there’s a link on my page, so I think reorganizing that is going to send a clearer message to potential employers who find me through that channel. I also have my blog linked to my Twitter account so that it tweets each new post. Basically the moral is to link your accounts in a way that makes sense for your contacts and then for you. What information is most appropriate for each platform, and what other platforms can you link that to it that will increase your views?
I am always inspired to write by socializing with other writers. Realistic translation: I feel peer-pressured into doing all the different kinds of writing I want to do when I have a ton of different writers asking about my current projects. It’s especially good to have a few accountability partners who will email you from time to time asking for new stuff, but when you know enough writers, sometimes the random messages and contacts from out of the blue are the most effective. For example, I got a Facebook message just the other week from a YA/horror writer I met at an open house years ago. She was letting me know about a convention she thought I might be interested in, but she also asked a lot of questions about what I’ve been working on lately. I had a bit to tell her, but not as much as I would have liked. I think about that conversation sometimes when I’m feeling lazy and it’s one of the things that has driven me to keep working on specific projects and getting them done.
So go out and find the writers who are doing what you’d like to be doing as well as the writers that are where you are. Find them on social media, but also find them in person at readings, open mics, conferences, meetups, and any other literary events that are happening in your area. They’re everywhere, and if you really can’t find any live events that appeal to you, take the plunge and plan one yourself. I know, I know, that requires breaking out of your introvert bubble and talking to strangers, but if you do it for the greediest of reasons (effectively peer-pressuring yourself into writing), you can plan almost every detail according to your will. It can be as big or small as you want, about as weird a topic as you please, and last half an hour to all afternoon. Invite some friends over to chat over coffee. Plan a writer’s group meetup at your local library. If it goes horribly, you probably never have to see any of them again. Don’t be a jerk, of course, but don’t do anything you hate either. The real takeaway here is to find or build a group of writers that helps you toward your goals.
Look to your role models for genre double-dipping inspiration.
Last week I went to a Joyce Carol Oates reading at the Poetry Foundation for the second year in a row. I’ve loved her fiction for a long time, but she is a juggernaut who can write whatever she wants, and I’ve enjoyed her poems both times I saw her read. This time, among a few different novels, story collections, and memoirs at the book-selling table, was Soul at the White Heat, her book on writing. Of course, I bought it. The book contains sections on “The Writing Life,” “Classics,” “Contemporaries,” and “Real Life.” I don’t even know the genre of the writers/works she discusses, because the topic of the book is writing. Yes, JCO is a famous novelist, but she is so much more than that! Now, I’m really bad at staying in the loop with reading, but I know she must have essays and other kinds of pieces published all over the place. When she gets up in the morning and has to decide what to work on, JCO doesn’t put off finishing her new poem because she has to teach at Princeton, stay on top of the novel she has an advance on already, go for a run, and feed her cats. She doesn’t just do it all in one day, either. She has herself figured out, and she does it all one step at a time. That means she pushes through the “what-ifs” and writes something. Then the next day, she writes something else, and so on. Look up a writer that you love and see what else they’re up to. Odds are, it’s not just that one thing that you love them for. Then love them even more.
Repurpose your content.
I have a lot of obsessions, and during my two years at Columbia, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to write about them in poetry. Things like pop culture and music were hard for me to write about for a variety of reasons I won’t list here. I also constantly come up with things I’d like to do more research on and potentially write about, but my paralysis by analysis has kept me from moving beyond lines jotted down in a notebook. I picked up The Idea Writers: Copywriting in a New Media and Marketing Era this month to get a sense of what’s going on in the world of copywriting right now, but the most helpful thing I took away from it was the concept of “idea-first” writing. The gist is to not think in terms of the finished product during the idea stage, just in terms of the people you want to reach and what message you want to send (the content or subject matter & in what way you want to nerd out on it). Once you’ve figured that out, you can decide how best to do it. And it may turn into multiple projects.
I’ve heard the phrase “content recycling” thrown around in a lot of writerly places, but I don’t like it very much because it sounds lazy, or manipulative. I like “content repurposing” better. I can write about my obsessions in poetry, fiction, essays, my blog, whatever, but the important thing is to find an angle that’s appropriate for the medium or genre I’m choosing to write in. Any given topic isn’t necessarily better suited to one kind of writing or another, but the details I choose, my tone, the point of view I write from, etc. can be finessed to make, say, my family’s Scottish heritage, my experience researching my ancestry online, the anecdotes I’ve heard from living relatives, and other pieces of this main topic an interesting story, poem, article, what have you. The time I save researching and strategizing will add up to more time to…you guessed it…
I am not telling you to write every day. That really doesn’t work for everyone, and you’ll only feel bad (worse?) about yourself if you set goals that aren’t right for you. What I am telling you is to discover your writing time and keep it holy. This is entirely a mental process: it really is all in your head. Whether it’s 11:00 at night, Tuesdays and Thursdays after class, all weekend every weekend, three random hour-slots during the week when inspiration strikes, all that matters is that you draw the line at some point, stop procrastinating, and write something. And when you’re completely demoralized, remember that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You can get up from the desk eventually and watch that next episode of American Horror Story…after you write something.
I really like to set a timer for an hour and tell myself I can do something else when that hour is up. Usually it flies by and I’ve stopped agonizing by that point because of the time constraint, so I just dismiss the alarm and keep writing. Isn’t that wonderful? You can worry about all the things you’re not working on once you’ve written something. At least then you’ll actually have written something! See how ridiculous this all sounds? It’s all about mind games. Reverse-mindfuck yourself, whatever that takes, and do the writing. You’ll feel better, I promise. Pretty soon you’ll be checking off boxes, clicking “Submit,” sending drafts to your clients, bragging about publications in the hotel bar at AWP, whatever satisfying little Pavlovian treats make you salivate during those lonely hours spent procrastinating and daydreaming about being a writer instead of just being one. You will have written. And it will be part of your routine.