Getting words down can be a pain.
There’s never enough time, or energy or …words. The struggle is real and usually leads to frustration and quitting.
I’ve developed a few ways to help beat the issue but I’ve had the most success with writing sprints.
What is a writing Sprint?
A writing sprint is a timed and very focused burst of creation. You want words on the page ‘by any means necessary’ — good, bad, ugly or indifferent.
During the sprint you do nothing but shovel your brain onto paper. You don’t worry about punctuation or grammar or spelling. The goal is to get the words out quickly according to the rough outline or memory map that you make ahead of the sprint.
NOTE — Pre-work is KEY!! Without it the sprint will wander off into the Twilight Zone.
I draw my version of a sprint from the Six Sigma concept of a SCRUM. It’s used in business when teams have to complete a project with a dedicated timeline.
The team breaks the project down into pieces and works on each portion in short focused bursts. As each scrum is completed the project comes that much closer to being complete.
The net result is that the project’s focus is greater and it’s easier to stay on task. There’s no BS ‘ramping up’ or sitting around mulling things over for hours.
With a scrum sprint everyone is ‘all in’ on the project for a set amount of time. No distractions — no work that isn’t completely project related is allowed and the best benefit — no fatigue because it’s a short burst.
NOTE — I’m skipping over a lot here. Scrum is a very deep topic and I only use part of it for my process. Please look it up if you’re interested in learning more.
As a writer these repeated short bursts of focused effort are what you want. Follow along as I explain why.
How can a writing sprint help you?
- Build word count painlessly — The 25 or 30 minutes of the sprint is a psychological tool. If you KNOW it’s only a few minutes, your mind doesn’t immediately reject the idea. Let’s be honest, sometimes writing isn’t the most glamourous thing you can do with your time. It can be drudgery, boring, and mentally taxing. Do sprints long enough and your brain will eventually reach a point where sitting down to work will almost automatically put you into a flow state and you just bang out the words. There’s a lot to be said for developing ‘muscle’ memory.
- As your word count goes up daily you’ll get a major dopamine rush. You have direct evidence that you’re getting somewhere. Each sprint adds 500 words or 1000 words (you’ll be amazed what you can do in 25 minutes…). Before you know it you have a completed article, book, blog post, whatever it is you’re working on.
- Sprints eliminate writer’s block in 3 ways -
- You know when you sit down you’ll only be writing for a short burst. There’s less argument from your brain that you should probably be doing the dishes.
- Doing the pre-work gives you a map to follow. Any sense of anxiety over what to write next is lessened.
- Once you’ve completed a few sprints on a particular project your mind relaxes into the process because it can see the progress. The sensation of being ‘lost’ in the project isn’t a factor. Your pump is primed before you ever sit down.
- If, after all of that you still get ‘stuck’, simply cheat and use a writing prompt to get you started again. What if the writing prompt isn’t in conjunction with the project you’re working on? So what. It doesn’t matter. The point is to write anything at all, once you get some words down you’re off to the races again. Follow the prompt and once you’re writing begin to steer your words back to your project. Clean things up later during revision. The point is to keep going no matter what.
- If you have to limit your daily sprint to one 25 or 30 minute jaunt that’s fine. Doing that little bit adds three and a half hours to your writing week. 3 and a half hours will allow you to finish a 60,000 novel in about 6 months (quicker if you do longer/more sprints).
How to build your writing sprints
Set a timer — Stick to 25 or 30 minutes. I don’t recommend going over an hour in a single sprint. Your mind will become tired or overwhelmed and you’ll quit, trust me on this one.
Set a word count — Pick a word count and stick with it for several weeks if not months. Don’t worry if it seems low, the words will build quicker than you think. Also, the time aspect is much more important than the word count, I use this as a measure to reach for as you grow. If you only get 100 words during the sprint that’s completely okay.
Ease into the process slowly — It takes time to build writing muscles and you don’t want to set yourself up for failure. Writing takes practice and good writing takes a LOT of practice. What you’re trying to do is train yourself to repeat the pattern over and over. Everything else will work itself out.
Realize that the tools don’t matter — Of course you still have to use your creative side, but the mechanical act of writing doesn’t change. Yes there are a ton of technologies out there but honestly we’re not that far removed from the feather quill and inkwell.
Eliminate as many distractions as possible — I’ve flip-flopped my way through a hundred methods of doing this. I already know not to bring my phone into the writing area, but since i mostly write on computers I’ve learned that if I let myself check my email for 5 minutes or even mindlessly tool around on the web for a few minutes (with a built in hard cut off) it helps ease the mental ‘what the hell is going on in the world’ flex that I seem to have when I wake up. Satisfying that part of my brain seems to shut it up and after that I can focus.
NOTE — I’ve learned over the years that if I don’t indulge that quietly loud part of my mind it just sits in the corner and grouses the entire time I’m writing. Ignoring it just makes things worse. I sate the demon and then keep it moving.
I know that’s counter-intuitive advice but give it a try and see what you think.
Use a device — There are several devices and applications on the market that you can use for sprints that limit your ability to do things like backspace, make corrections to the document or in one case a machine that doesn’t allow you to see what you’re writing. I won’t do any product descriptions here but if you’re interested google ‘Distraction Free Writing’ or ‘Focused Writing Machine’ and you’ll see what I mean.
Fair warning, some of those devices are ludicrously expensive.
Ways to implement your writing sprints
If you’re an average writer you’ll squeeze in time to do your sprints and get close to your daily word count. Sometimes the tricks you use work and sometimes they don’t. Professionals will value the time even if they only produce 100 words. The point is to write every day and get stronger.
Doing timed sprints every day builds those muscles while allowing you to crank out words. Your body, mind and muscles become used to sitting and doing the work and it becomes a little easier each time you do it. Second nature for daily writing is just around the corner.
Developing routines isn’t easy.
Starting the process of getting up earlier, completing the pre-work to make the sprints effective and then doing the sprint is a true labor of love. You don’t have to love every minute of capturing words, but you must love the process and yourself.
If this is what you REALLY want, it may come down to forcing yourself for a while. What I mean is, set your alarm a bit earlier each day until you’re getting up at the time you feel you need to. Even if all you do is get up, go into your writing space, write a few words and then go back to bed, that’s a start. Eventually your body (and conscious mind) will get used to it and you’ll do it without thinking.
Do this process for a few weeks or even months and pay attention to your progress. You’ll know if this is the right thing for you when you reach the point of it being ‘routine’.
As an example, say you get up at 5 and you need to leave the house by 7 to get to work on time.
In that time you have a ton of things to do. You have to shower, eat, get some coffee in you, feed the kids or the spouse, get clothes ready and then head out the door. If you can give yourself just a half hour headstart the rewards will be worth it.
When I first started doing the morning jaunts I got up at 5, hit my rebounder for a few minutes to make sure I was awake and get my brain fired up for writing. I then did a solid 30 minutes of nothing but raw text. After that I got some breakfast in me, got cleaned up and ready for work, by then it was 7 and I was ready to roll. The payoff was that I never beat myself up about writing, I’d already done what I wanted to do for myself so it didn’t matter if the rest of the day was about other people.
However, if you’re not the 4:30 AM, sitting in a dark room alone type, there are other ways to take advantage of sprints.
Do you belong to a writing group? If so make the suggestion to do timed sprints during the meeting . The entire group has their head down and is working diligently. Never discount the energy in a room full of writers and what it can do for you. Feeding off that positive energy can be magical. This is my favorite way to write in a group.
One thing — avoid the trap of turning the sprints into a competition. The point is to get words on the page, not try to outdo everyone else. Work at your pace. You’re just trying to ride the energy of the room, not turn things into the Olympics.
Another method that seems to be popular (but I’m less inclined to try) is using Twitter or Instagram or Facebook groups for sprints. The idea is while you’re in the group room with others you use the platform as a way to start and stop the sprint while others ‘join’ you remotely. This way is supposed to have the same effect as working in a meetup but I have my doubts about how effective it is. There are a lot of trolls who masquerade as humans and it might not be worth your sanity to end up in a virtual room full of sharks.
Adding a social aspect to writing can be useful if you’re the right person.
Random people on the web can be brutal. Do you really want to bare your soul in front of people you really don’t know? The writing group is different, you probably have developed relationships with those folks and even if you haven’t, since you’re face to face if someone pops off you can always knock their teeth out…
Writing can be a lonely venture.
It can also be frustrating when you struggle to get words on the page and day after day it seems like you’re coming up short.
Don’t try to eat the elephant in one bite. Break the project down into components and then build a process to do each of those components. No book or article worth reading was ever written in a day. And honestly, we all have so many things going on in our lives that unless you’re one of the lucky ones who gets to write full time, two 25 minute sprints might be the best you can do. That’s perfectly fine.
No lie, its difficult at first. But as you build that strength you’ll find yourself energized and excited all over again. Sprints, or a solid process remove the drudgery and negative anticipation.
You want to do this for yourself for several reasons but mainly because -
- 25 or 30 minutes of focused writing will help you write two novels per year.
- 25 or 30 minutes of focused writing will help you do a minimum of two to three blog posts or articles per week.
- You will build the muscles and mindset to keep you writing every day and that’s the only way to succeed at this game, you must write EVERY. DAY.
- As the word count builds you gain confidence that yes, you can write and you have proof of that.
- Practice is the only way to get better as a writer. Thinking about it won’t work. Talking about it won’t work.
- Focusing on writing and then doing it regularly for months or years builds a level of discipline in you that becomes impossible to ignore. You stop needing anyone’s permission to create the stories or articles that live in you.
- Self discipline, applied in this way is stronger than any outside push could ever be. Discipline you build by your own actions sticks better than having someone ‘make’ you do things.
Good luck with your sprinting!
Leave me a comment below if you give this a try and find it works for you. Or leave me a comment if you find that it doesn’t work for you. Just like you I’m always learning and I know my methods sometimes only work for me.