From a decade of making it happen on a strict time budget
I’m tired and annoyed by these “how to be a better writer” articles with advice about finding your flow state and writing entire drafts at a time. I’m a parent. With a job. I don’t have time for a pre-writing routine to do daily before losing myself in my writing for hours at a time. I can’t schedule multi-hour blocks on alternating days for writing and editing, and I can’t write and publish every day. Time is the scarcest of all resources.
I do love writing, though. It’s helped me immensely throughout my career as a software developer, manager, and parent. (Turns out there’s a lot of overlap between professional leadership and parenting. I recently experienced this through the irony of yelling at my kids while writing an article about the importance of being present and reducing multi-tasking, but I digress.)
Each year seems to bring a few more distractions and a little more responsibility, but I’ve managed to keep blogging for more than a decade now. Finding the time to write and meet my own increasingly high standards isn’t easy. It requires dedication and discipline. In this story, I’ll discuss the tactics that keep me going, publishing regularly, and improving along the way.
One goal to rule them all
There are two primary trains of thought in the when-to-publish debate. There are the folks who say not to be a perfectionist. They advise you to get your article to what you feel is 80 or 90 percent, then pull the trigger and move on. The other camp argues that you shouldn’t stop until it’s the best you’re capable of because there’s enough bad content out there, and a great article will outperform a poorly written one by orders of magnitude.
Have an overarching priority
Both philosophies are valid, and that’s why the single most important thing is to know what you’re trying to accomplish. Your specific goal has a significant impact on the relevancy of most of the other advice you’ll find. Consider your key metric for success. Is it the number of articles, views, likes, dollars, follows, or something else?
It’s kind of like asking a business to focus on product versus sales versus marketing. The truth is, you need all of them, but with limited resources, you must prioritize. So pick one — quality, quantity, or distribution — and make it your top priority.
Adjust the dials
Picking a top priority doesn’t make it your only priority. In the beginning, I was entirely focused on writing as many articles as I could. I think I was aiming for two articles per week at one point. The articles weren’t terribly deep, and the pace was unsustainable. I was publishing things as quickly as possible to keep up, and I’d stress or lose momentum entirely when I’d fall behind.
Quality and enjoyment were being sacrificed to maintain consistency. It wasn’t worth it. But, by dialing back my commitment to a single article per week, I’ve found a much better balance. My writing quality has improved because I’m not rushing to get things out the door as quickly as possible. Stress is down, enjoyment is up, and I stay focused and committed.
With your overarching goal in mind, set deadlines for yourself. My number one goal is to publish regularly, so I strive to write one article per week. This helps with the whole when-to-publish dilemma because I only have so much time. If I want to meet my deadline, I need to find good enough and stop.
However, if my goal was to provide deep, insightful content, I might target one article per month, so I have adequate time for research and analysis. In this case, it would be beneficial to invest the extra time to make my writing as perfect as possible because the stakes are higher when you publish less frequently. You’ve still got that finish line drawn in the sand to keep you honest about when to move on, though.
Sometimes I get ahead of my deadlines. An article comes together quickly, and it’s done several days before I intend to publish. I stick to my target schedule, though, and begin the next piece.
When articles come easy or when I have extra time, I keep pushing to build some buffer. This helps a lot in the long-term because I don’t stress about an unproductive week here and there. No time to write for two weeks? It’s okay because I’ve got four weeks of material scheduled and ready.
The buffer also lets me take a breather when I’m tired or low on inspiration. Instead, I can take a few weeks to read or focus on other things and come back reinvigorated.
Be ready to throw down
It’s Saturday. The kids just went outside, and you’ve got about 30 minutes to be productive. Go.
You need to be ready to take advantage of the time when it becomes available. Optimize your writing process for fragmentation so that you can use it effectively when you have a little bit of time.
There are two primary influencers of what activity I can do at any given moment. First is where I am and what’s available — like, physically in the world. Am I at home? Do I have a computer? The second is the state of in-progress work.
Being stuck somewhere with a little bit of time but no computer is a great opportunity for phone-friendly activities. You can brainstorm new ideas and create story stubs or develop outlines. It’s hard for me to do actual writing from my phone, but I can begin filling in notes for sections. Phones are good for proofreading and light editing, though. I read a lot of articles on the go; why not experience my own content that way?
A quick disclaimer on the phone thing, though. Many of us suffer from some form of digital addiction. Don’t choose to edit articles instead of enjoying the company of your friends and family. Be present — it makes life better. It’s those times we find ourselves obsessively checking story stats, investments, and social media that are our opportunities. If you’ve got 15 minutes alone in the car while waiting for your partner to grab a few things from the grocery store, that’s the perfect time to put in a little work instead of re-checking your various feeds.
The actual writing process at a computer is a little different. For a new story, I try to focus on a single section at a time. Usually, I’ve got at least an outline with notes that I can expand upon. As the work draws closer to completion, effort shifts toward reading & revising, repeating until I’m either satisfied or up against my deadline.
The point is when you don’t have the luxury of being able to schedule consistent blocks of time, you need to make effective use of the time you do get when it’s available. Try to view content creation as an incremental process. Start with a skeleton. Expand it to an outline. Write sections one by one. Add images, headlines, & headers. Proofread and revise. All these tasks can be completed in short bursts.
Make it part of your job
I had no aspirations of being a writer when I started blogging. As a software developer, I was constantly learning about new technologies and figuring things out. I’d solve the problem du jour and move on. Inevitably, 6 months later, I’d find someone else who was bumping up against the same problem, but I’d long since forgotten the details.
So, I started writing to create a repository of things I’d learned that I could refer back to and share.
It became part of my job to document my findings into succinct little packages. These weren’t the kind of articles I write today. They were tiny, how-to articles about whatever I happened to be working on that week.
You know what, though? In my first 5 years, from 2009 to 2013, I published 215 posts this way. These weren’t deep, insightful pieces, but they were valuable practice. They were “putting in the time” and learning to write. I was curious how bad my first post was, so I dug it up — it’s less embarrassing than I was expecting.
However, the most important thing is that I didn’t have to find time outside of work to hone my writing skills. It happened as part of my job. Even if work isn’t your passion and the thing you really want to write about, all that practice is valuable and makes you better.
Find a robot editor
No matter how many times I proofread, I always notice small mistakes while reading the published article. It drives me crazy. As a result, I’ve embraced Grammarly as my editor.
Is it as good as a human editor? Probably not. Does it find a lot of small mistakes that I might’ve missed otherwise? Yup.
When I first learned about Grammarly, I was a little smug about it. I know how to use a comma, thanks. It’s pretty good, though. I like that it checks for things like passive voice and can optimize for conciseness. I also like the score it gives — it feels good to get the thumbs up from my robo-buddy.
All this can be a little distracting. It’s hard to ignore the squiggles while you write and easy to do too much ad-hoc editing as a result. (Even though I poo-pooed it earlier, there’s a reason people like to suggest separating writing & editing.) Good outweighs bad by a lot for me, though. When up against a deadline, it’s really helpful for quick cleanup. I definitely suggest employing Grammarly or a similar tool to sweat the small stuff.
You got this
Writing, parenting, working, and everything else in life are almost entirely about doing the best you can with what you have. Parenting and a full-time day job take up a lot of time. Like, a lot a lot. That doesn’t leave much for writing and all the other things you want to do.
With what precious little time you have left, it’s important to understand what you’re trying to accomplish and do the things that most effectively move you toward your goals. There are many important parts of the writing and publishing process, and you need to dip into all of them to be successful. So, investing time in any of them is valuable and makes you better — that’s how “practice” works.
Identify your overarching priority. Adjust the dials, so time spent is invested in the right ways. Set deadlines to motivate yourself and promote productivity. Approach writing projects iteratively and chip away at them in all those little free spaces. Finally, find ways to make writing part of your every day; use them as a reason to write instead of an impediment.
Do these things, and I promise you’ll write more, get better, and sustain it for a long time.
This article was originally published on The Writing Cooperative on January 29, 2021.
I’m not an author, but I play one on the internet. If you’re looking for real writing, try the wonderful Mulrox and the Malcognitos by my friend & colleague Kerelyn Smith. Note that I use affiliate links when linking to products on Amazon. Thank you for your support!