4 Writing Routines You Can Live With

by Sarah Baughman

Happy woman with laptop

Today’s article is written by regular contributor Sarah Baughman.

I like schedules.

I remember at one point in my life actually managing to, say, go running, teach six classes, make a meatloaf, and get some writing done all on the same day.

But lately, with a toddler and newborn in the house, “scheduling” mostly means just ensuring that everybody eats and sleeps at predictable times. It might sound clear-cut, but the stakes are high; after all, I’m always hovering one poorly timed peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich-with-carrot-sticks lunch away from a meltdown.

So when to write?

I have visions of rising each morning in the dark, brewing coffee, and hunching over my computer to pound out reams of prose before sunrise, but it never turns out that way. Instead, I often feel like I’m writing on borrowed– or stolen– time.

I love my life and recognize this somewhat crazy stage as just that—a stage. Eventually those inspired pre-sunrise sessions will probably happen again, as they did before I had kids.

But in the meantime, I’ve had to adjust my expectations for how much—and what kind of—writing I can accomplish in a day. The following routines are quick yet productive, and some can even be executed while spreading peanut butter and jelly on a slice of bread.

1. Ten-Minute Task

If you can make a soft-boiled egg, you can write for ten minutes.

This is a low-pressure commitment that also allows just enough time for a little inspiration to kick in. Set the kitchen timer if needed. You might find that when it rings, you’ll want to keep writing– but even if other duties call you away from the desk, you’ve already accomplished something that you can revisit later.

In ten minutes, you can work on an ongoing project or use writing prompts to inject creativity and diversity into your work. Check out Krissy Brady’s list of five writing prompt websites, put a little faith in fate with the random Short Story Ideas generator, or consider purchasing a book (Bryan Cohen’s 1,000 Creative Writing Prompts, for example) to leave in easy reach on your desk.

2. Pocket Notebook

Writers need to be ready when inspiration strikes!

A friend of mine told me she once pulled over to the side of the road to dash off a poem that came to her as her daughter slept in the carseat. I carry a tiny palm-sized notebook and pen in my diaper bag and use it to jot ideas and observations as they come. Sometimes I can barely read the crooked chicken-scratch I produced while balancing my stroller with one hand and writing with the other, but I’m almost always able to use it later.

British novelist and journalist Will Self noted the importance of the notebook: “Always carry a notebook. And I mean always,” he said. “The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.”

In this digital age, however, you might be able to ditch the pen and paper for your SmartPhone‘s voice memo feature; a few quick recordings take less time than a phone conversation and ensure you won’t forget those key observations later on.

3. Self-Paced Class

The structure of an online writing class provides creative stimulation and helpful incentive for completing projects.

This fall I signed up for an online travel writing class that is also self-paced; I have unlimited access to the course material, and can receive editorial feedback as I complete the work.  I like the combination of obligation and flexibility; I have concrete assignments that have challenged me and built my portfolio, but I’m not pressed for time.

If you find the cost of a class prohibitive, I can’t think of a better use of $10 than the Southeast Review’s 30-Day Writing Regimen, an online package containing writing exercises and advice, delivered each weekday for six weeks.

4. Weekly Reader

Once a week, dig up something you’ve written and read it.

It could be something you wrote last week or last year, and you can read it to yourself or share it with someone else. Reading some or all of it out loud adds great perspective. The point is that hearing your work, sharing it with someone else or forcing yourself to revisit it, can spark renewed interest in a particular piece. That slight pressure we feel to make our writing perform– even if just for a partner or friend– can be just the incentive we need to continue working.

Remember, the busier life gets, the more there is to write about. And sometimes all it takes is ten minutes. “Writers write,” said Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy. “On you go.”

What manageable writing routines help you stay productive and structured?

  • http://www.writinghack.com Mike

    I have had good luck on low inspiration nights by writing during the commercial breaks. Probably not the best plan long term but useful once in a while.

    • http://serbaughman.wordpress.com/ Sarah Baughman

      That’s a good idea, Mike– writing in short spurts can be surprisingly productive. And even if it’s not long-term…we do what we can!

  • http://guilie-castillo-oriard.blogspot.com/ Guilie

    Great suggestions–thanks for sharing!

    • http://serbaughman.wordpress.com/ Sarah Baughman

      You’re welcome, Guilie– hope they can be useful for you!

  • http://www.sherry-roberts.com Sherry Roberts

    Wonderful tips, Sarah. I have found the greatest prod for writing is joining a writers critique group. Mine meets every other Thursday. And you can bet that I am desperate to have 4-6 pages to share with the group each time. It is such a huge opportunity to get fresh eyes on your work, to be with other writers, to trust their comments and advice.

    • http://serbaughman.wordpress.com/ Sarah Baughman

      Thanks, Sherry! I completely agree– joining a writing group is a fantastic idea. I also find that having that regular accountability (needing something to share with the group) has helped me complete projects I might have let sit for too long. Plus, like you said, the atmosphere of a writing group is so inspirational.

  • http://bizziwriter.com Carrie Schmeck

    Oh how I remember those days. I wish I could say that I pushed through and found a way to both write and meet toddlers’ needs. I took a long break but wrote on and off for myself. Now that my youngest is in high school, I’ve got that time and I’m off and running again. While I regret not having the fortitude to stick it out, I don’t regret the attention I was *mostly* able to offer my kidlings. Juggling is definitely not for the feint. I admire those who can do it. It’s tough. CS

    • http://serbaughman.wordpress.com/ Sarah Baughman

      Carrie, you really hit on an important point– it is virtually impossible to both write and meet toddlers’ needs 100%. There are always tradeoffs. I also think that the all-consuming task of parenting probably fuels my writing even though I have to scramble for time to actually do it!

  • http://elorithryn.blogspot.com/ Cathryn Leigh

    Step 1 – kinda sort of maybe… well I do visit a friends Daily writing PRompt Blog and I’ve been pretty good about responding to that so yes I think I can check it.

    Step 2 – Definite check and if I don’t have a notebook I’ll type it into my phoen’s memo function (they look like sticky notes and I can e-mail them to myself!)

    Step 3 – Took one last year, plan on taking one this year, just got to figure out what month will be best to start it.

    Step 4 – a weekly read of my own stuff… does it count when I re-read a chapter in an effort to get back into the story to edit the next one?

    Yes it’s only a Stage, I keep telling myself that as well. I’m out of the infant years, but my second isn’t in school yet. I work full time too. I sneak my time.

    :} Cathryn

    • http://serbaughman.wordpress.com/ Sarah Baughman

      Sounds good to me, Cathryn! Those phone memos are definitely helpful. And re-reading a chapter in an effort to get back into the story definitely counts! I think what matters about the weekly read is a willingness to revisit work, keep moving, not let any one piece sit too long. Keep up the good work.

  • http://byronscurse.wordpress.com Ashley Prince

    Great suggestions! Thanks for sharing. :) I love the bit about carrying a pocket sized notebook. I have been doing that for a few months now and it definitely helps.

  • http://serbaughman.wordpress.com/ Sarah Baughman

    Thanks, Ashley! Glad to know the notebook works for you too– scary to think of how many ideas would just fly away without one, right? :)

    • http://carldagostino.wprdpress.com Carl D’Agostino

      Do accomplished writers play with writing prompts? Some bloggers do their whole thing on writing prompts. Think that’s kind of vapid. But let me tell you, writing prompts were the very best tools to get high school kids to pick up a pen and create something, then base composition and grammar skills teaching based on their own work. They could engage in the text they created rather than from authors. This worked with kids 2-5 years below grade level reading. I used to put a magazine picture of interest on the board and asked them to write 1. what’s going on? 2. how did it come about? 3. how will it end? Then co-edit word for word individually.

      • http://serbaughman.wordpress.com/ Sarah Baughman

        Good question, Carl. I think it probably depends on the writing prompt. I’ve been to writing conferences before where we received prompts of sorts in workshops, and they’ve been effective. But in any case, the prompt you describe for high school kids, as well as the accompanying editing activity, sounds terrific. The more they see writing as something they can do as opposed to just something they see in books, and the more they engage with their own language, the better.

  • http://granbee.wordpress.com Rose Byrd

    The very best writing routine I have is memorizing what I am saying outloud as I perform my morning walking meditation through the fields and forest. I then put it into the notes section of my mobile phone for entering in a text document and/or posting on my website. I just received a new 32 gb flash drive as part of my son’s family’s Christmas gifting to me, which means I will have duplicates of all this. I most emphatically endorse the once a week reading outloud sessions you recommend here.
    Another effective method I am using to keep up my prose writing skills (I normally write in narrative poetry form) is to write short essays in a notepad doc, then lift part of it out for entering as comments on some of my favorite writers’ blogs.

    • http://serbaughman.wordpress.com/ Sarah Baughman

      I like that, Rose! I also find that my mind really clears and starts working when I’m taking a walk or run outdoors– it is the perfect place to “write.” The short essay in a notepad doc idea is also good. It’s easy to feel like we need to craft something long or complete, when really these smaller bits are so effective at keeping the words going.

  • http://writeitsideways.com Suzannah Windsor Freeman

    Great article, Sarah! Your busy life sounds a whole lot like mine. I’m all for establishing writing routines that work for us, and I especially like the idea of self-paced classes. In fact, I’ve been thinking that, someday, I’d like to create such a course through Write It Sideways (although perhaps I’ll wait until the twins are a bit older!) Thanks :)

    • http://serbaughman.wordpress.com/ Sarah Baughman

      Thanks, Suzannah! It would be so great for Write It Sideways to offer a course, but yes, I agree that you should probably wait on that! I wish you all the best in this final stage of your pregnancy.

  • http://www.ileandrayoung.com Ileandra Young

    I must admit, I do worry that when my twins arrive I won’t have the energy/stamina/will/brain power left to do any writing at all. Small things like this should be able to keep me moving and I’m looking forward to giving it a try.

    Thanks for the article! :)

    • http://serbaughman.wordpress.com/ Sarah Baughman

      Ileandra, I can definitely relate. I think once we realize that it’s OK to just do something small, we become much more productive. I find I do the least writing when I worry that I have to write “big” every time. I wish you all the best with your twins!

  • https://www.poeticparfait.wordpress.com Christy

    Excellent tips, thank-you! Yes time can get away from us so quickly and we are left wondering where the day went. I am going to check out the writing prompt websites to which you have linked your article!

    • http://serbaughman.wordpress.com/ Sarah Baughman

      I’m glad the tips were helpful, Christy! Time is so sneaky…but I find that having a few quick activities helps me use the minutes I do have more effectively. Hope you enjoy the prompts!

  • http://handmadelibrary.com ElyssaJK

    I just have to say it:
    “O laptop, you so silly!”

    Anyway. I love the tip about reading something you’ve written! I’m always so surprised when I return to writing I can remember I utterly hated and wanted to throw into the molten depths of Mount Doom, only to read it and think, “Huh. Not bad.” I always find something I like that I can repurpose or save for later.

    • http://serbaughman.wordpress.com Sarah Baughman

      Elyssa, I love your laptop caption! And yes, it’s amazing that even pieces of writing we thought were completely pointless end up being full of hidden gems. I try not to delete any files no matter how bad I think they are…it’s always a pleasant surprise to come back to them later and find something I can use.

  • http://ericjkrause.com/ Eric J. Krause

    Good tips! Yes, it’s true that there is always time to write. And if you keep the habit of writing in the small increments that present themselves, the long sessions that you are sometimes afforded will seem a luxury and so much fun.

    • http://serbaughman.wordpress.com Sarah Baughman

      Great point, Eric. It definitely feels luxurious to have a lot of time to write…and the long sessions are no doubt even more productive when you’ve kept “in shape” by doing short writing spurts whenever you can.

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  • sandra gardner

    started a routine right after New Year’s to start work on the second book in my mystery series. five days a week, 2-5: meditation, piano practice and writing. This is to get me warmed up before tackling the writing. Easing my way into it.
    Saturdays and Sundays I don’t work. At least, not at my regular routine!
    so far, almost 25,000 words into my new book.

    • http://serbaughman.wordpress.com/ Sarah Baughman

      Wow, it sounds like that method is working really well for you! Congrats on the 25,000 words. I like your idea about getting “warmed up.” I find I also can’t just jump right in to writing. I need a little bit of physical activity, reading, or even just brainless down-time before it really works.

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