Tips and Tools for Staying on Track with Your Writing

by C.K. MacLeod

The emperor has no clothes

Updated. Originally posted at Beyond Paper Editing.

Writers have a lot to think about: writing, revising, editing, formatting, marketing, platform building, and the list goes on. In all this flurry of activity, it's too easy to remember the task that is most important: writing!

It's becoming more difficult to focus on writing with everything an author has to juggle. Like the emperor with no clothes, writers are in danger of having no books! Here are some tips for staying on track with your writing.

1. Use old tech.

To keep him from being distracted by social media tasks, Bryan Cohen, author of Writer on the Side: How to Write Your Book Around Your 9 to 5 Job uses "old technology" with no Internet connectivity while writing.

He uses an Alphasmart Neo 2—an intelligent keyboard with a tiny e-ink-like screen that only allows for writing. It's less than two pounds, powered by triple-A batteries for hours of power, and can be easily toted into distraction-free dead zones. I use a similar intelligent keyboard: the QuickPad Pro.

Similarly, George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones, has been ribbed for using a "writing computer"— an ancient DOS machine from the 80s loaded with WordStar 4.0. Have you seen the page count for the Game of Thrones series? Who's laughing now?

2. Set limits for online time.

If using old tech is a bit too hardcore for you, consider social media timing tools to help you prevent social media time suck. Rescue Time will keep track of how you spend your time online and furnish you with a data report of your online activities, if you're brave enough to go there. The free browser plug-in Stay Focusd can set time limits for social media or block websites when it's time to get to work.

3. Do your two most important tasks first.

As a writer, one of your two most important daily tasks is writing, right? Tim Ferriss, the author of the Four-Hour Work Week, does his two most important tasks before 11:00 a.m. each day. These tasks do not include checking email.

In fact, Ferriss does his to best to avoid checking and responding to email more than twice a day. Instead, he has an autoresponse message for his email account, indicating when he'll be checking mail, so people know that his response won't be instantaneous. He then batch processes his emails offline using Boomerang for Gmail and in the past, The Email Game. These tools can help you organize email messages by priority and set time limits for processing email.

4. Pare things down.

To determine what will work for book promotion, J.F. Penn, author of the Arkane Thriller series, has tried a wide variety of social media platforms. She often works 11-hour days to fulfil her "authorpreneur" tasks. To carve out more time for writing, Penn has decided to let some of her social media platforms go, and has chosen, instead, to focus on the ones that bring her joy—her blog, The Creative Penn, her podcast, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. This is still a tall order for most of us, but the lesson here is that you can't do it all—even if you've committed to 11-hour days.

5. Be strategic.

If you're not sure how to pare down your social media engagement, Frances Caballo, author of Avoid Social Media Time Suck, suggests focusing on platforms where your readership hangs out. "You want to be where your readers are," she says in an interview with J. F. Penn of the Creative Penn podcast. To find out where readers hang out, see Frances' picks at the Creative Penn website.

You can be strategic about when you use social media sites, as well. For example, according to Pam Dyer, a top-50 social media power influencer at Forbes, Twitter users are more likely to see tweets on weekends between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m., so why not schedule important tweets during these times? Dyer lists popular social media sites with suggested times for using them at the Social Media Today blog.

6. Outsource.

If you've pared things down, become more more strategic, and find you still don't have the time you need to write, take a page from Joel Friedlander's book. Friedlander is the author of the popular self-publishing blog, The Book Designer, and he's everywhere. How does he do it?

Friedlander has hired a virtual assistant, or VA, to help him with time-consuming social media tasks, like organizing guest posts and formatting and posting blog posts. J.F. Penn and Pat Flynn have also hired VAs, and Jim Kukral and Bryan Cohen, hosts of the Sell More Books podcast, often make use of Fiverr for photo editing or ebook cover tweaking. Tim Ferris estimates that he saves 10 hours a week on minutia by using Task Rabbit to outsource tasks.

The Indie ethic is a DIY ethic. But DIY doesn't mean DIA—doing it all.

7. Be accountable.

How do you know if you have enough time to write? One of the best ways to find out is to keep track of your daily writing progress. Women's fiction author Jamie Raintree has designed a lovely Excel spreadsheet that can help you keep track of your daily word count. It's free when you subscribe to her email newsletter.

Scrivener users can use Project Targets to set daily word count goals:

Scrivener Project Targets

Well known traditionally published authors produce on average between 250 and 5,000 words a day, and high achieving self-publishing author J.F. Penn will clock in at 2,500 words in a two-hour window of writing. Set your own daily or weekly word-count goals, and if you don't achieve your goals, it might be time to try some of the steps described above.

There's a prevailing theme here, isn't there? Social media, email, and all things Internet, appear to be some of the main barriers to writing. I've managed to priortize my writing, at least for today. But it's after 11:00 and my email beckons...

Image by 세라 박.

4 thoughts on “Tips and Tools for Staying on Track with Your Writing”

  1. Great post pulled from the archives! I've actually been shopping for a typewriter after visiting with a fellow writer at a recent meeting. She uses her laptop only for internet research, social media, and her blog, while doing her writing in whatever form on an old Royal manual typewriter. Her assessment = much better use of her time and highly efficient.

    1. Sherrey,
      A typewriter! I have one of those kicking around, too. I've had trouble finding ribbons for it though, so it's mostly a curiosity. My QuickPad Pro is like a typewriter, except that it will export my writing into Word or Scrivener via USB cable when I'm done drafting. It doesn't, however, make the satisfying clackity-clack of an old-school typewriter.

      Will you scan your finished typewritten pages and convert them to editable text? It's amazing what's possible.

      Best of luck in your quest for the perfect old tech tool!

  2. Thanks so much for including my spreadsheet in your list! I'll be updating it for next year at the beginning of next month! Have to finish National Novel Writing Month first. 😉

    Been a while since we've had a chance to chat. I hope you're doing well! Wishing you happy holidays!

    1. Great to hear from you, Jamie! Your spreadsheet is a terrific tool for staying motivated. I like how it complements Scrivener's Project Targets. Good luck on NaNoWriMo, and warmest holiday wishes to you and yours!

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