Real life often gives us no time to write.
In an ideal world, we’d all have that perfect writer’s schedule. We’d rise early and toss out five thousand words before breakfast. We’d lead off lunch with a few hundred more, and after the kids were in bed, conclude the day with another thousand just because.
My life certainly looks nothing like that. Does yours? From personal experience, I’m here to tell you how to write when you have no time.
How to Write When You Have No Time
(FYI: I got this idea from a truly useful book, 5,000 Words Per Hour: Write Faster, Write Smarter, by Chris Fox. It’s worth a read.)
If you want to write when your schedule is crunched, it’s going to require a little bit of prep.
It’s worth the effort.
Think of it as marinating the chicken breast before you leave for work so it’s ready to cook when you come home: it’s prep that leads to a faster (and more delicious) delivery.
Step One: Decide You’re Going to Do This.
This has to be serious. Death-and-taxes serious. If you make this decision with anything less than your full heart, it’ll go the way of New Year’s resolutions and quick-fix diet plans. You have to decide to do this—and mean it.
That means TV can’t get in the way. That means closing the door (if you have one) between you and spouse, children, pets, etc.—at least for a few minutes.
They will all survive a few minutes without you. You can survive without them, too.
Step Two: Plan a Scene.
No, not the kind where you throw shoes and break crystal vases. I’m talking about a scene in your story.
I promise I will go into how to pick and choose scenes later. For right now, here is your definition of a scene: a single moment with a beginning, middle, and end, without the need for transition. It’s the bit between fade-to-black or any kind of time-skip.
Your planned scene doesn’t have to be in-depth. I’m not a plotter (though I wish I were), but even my pantsing style can handle planning out one scene ahead of time. I’ll give you an example.
- Beginning: marching into the office to clock her required hours at her civil service job.
- Middle: idiot coworker tosses all the mail down the incinerator instead of the mail slot.
- End: “So now that the wedding certificate is ash, I am free. I can be anyone I want… but precisely who is that?”
Obviously, the details are needed between each of those items for them to make sense, but it’s a roadmap. It’s glow-in-the-dark stepping stones. Here’s a scene I’m planning out for my very next writing session:
- Beginning: bored with teaching, escapes through the window and explores at night
- Middle: meets HER, is taunted way above his head, has no idea what she’s promising/asking
- End: returns to his room with that huge secret; doesn’t know that by keeping it, he’s changed the course of his life
A scene could be your character making a sandwich. It could be a single conversation. It could be one glimpse of contemplation on the road as your character heads into work.
You can plan that scene while waiting for email from your boss, or watching your smallest child brush her teeth, or idling at a traffic light.
Plan a scene. Ahead of time.
Step Three (The Writing Part): Set Aside Five Minutes.
You saw that right. Five minutes.
This needs to be five minutes without interruption. Tell your spouse about it; politely ask your children for the space (and ignore them if they interrupt those five minutes—that’s just teaching them boundaries, not bad parenting). Shut off the phone. Close Twitter.
Make sure you have a timer. You can use the one at the end of this page. You can also (as I learned) type “timer” into Google search, and the Google search page itself will give you a timer. Nifty.
Are you distracted by noise? Put on noise-cancelling headphones or those little rubber earplugs.
Don’t look out the window.
Don’t judge yourself.
Don’t question whether you can do this. You can.
Sit down. Start the timer. And without stopping to correct typos or any other error, write the scene you planned out from start to finish.
Yeah, it’s that simple. Yeah. It really is.
6 Final Tips for Writing When You Have No Time
If you need some extra mental fortification, here are six final tips:
- Anyone can manage five minutes. Most bathroom breaks are longer. It takes just a little bit more time than that to brew coffee. Don’t see it as impossible; believe it’s possible, and you’ll find it is.
- Do. Not. Stop. Not while the timer is going. Even if your writing is filled with horrific typos, keep going. Even if you couldn’t remember that word and had to put, “and then she asked me about the [WHAT THE HECK IS THE NAME OF THAT SCIENCE STUDYING BIRDS], but all I could tell her was I thought the Potoo was the funniest looking bird I’ve ever seen.” (And it is, if you’ve never seen it. The Potoo looks like a Muppet.) Look up the missing word (ornithology) later. During those five minutes, you don’t stop writing for hell or high water.
- The world will try to steal those five minutes. Seriously. THAT will be when the toilet overflows, or the cat swallows the other cat’s tail, or some kid with a tricycle crashes into your front porch. Keep. Writing. Five minutes; anyone and any situation (except maybe the choking-on-a-tail one) can afford five minutes.
- Did I mention to avoid editing? Don’t reword. Don’t delete. It doesn’t matter if what you just wrote wasn’t the best phrasing; what matters is you got it down, and you can fix it later.
- Just write like someone cut open your brain and you’re bleeding words.
- Write the scene.
I know this sounds like it won’t help you, but believe me, it will.
Look at it this way: if you can grab six five-minute spots during a day (and you can do far more than that, believe me), then you’ve gotten in half an hour of writing—and if you planned out your scenes ahead of time, that’s potentially five whole scenes in one day.
Do you see where this is going?
Do you have trouble finding time to write? Let me know in the comments.
Plan out one scene (beginning, middle, end), take a deep breath, and write for fifteen minutes (or if you can’t afford fifteen, write for five). Stick to your scene. Do not stop. No editing while those five minutes (or fifteen) are still counting down.
Post your practice in the comments when you’re finished, and leave feedback for your fellow practicers.