Write It Sideways

4 Writing Routines You Can Live With

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?