For Writers: Building Your Sprinting Muscles To Up Your Daily Output

As writers, we’ve got many tools in our arsenal to get the words flowing, no matter what may be happening in our outside lives. And one of the most valuable- the one that’s saved my ass time and again- is the lowly sprint.

See, it’s easy for us to put conditions on our writing. We can only write when conditions are perfect- no glare on the monitor, no kids begging for snacks, no appointments, looming in the wings- or in the case of disabled people like me, no health issues flaring, demanding attention and coddling. But the problem is, while some degree of control over your environment is needed to facilitate a more fluid writing process, perfectionism easily bleeds into procrastination. Don’t have an hour before that appointment? Well, guess you just can’t write today.

Sprinting is a way of short-circuiting your brain’s procrastination habits and low-motivation periods, by creating habits in which you encourage yourself to focus- but only for short periods of time. It’s easier to commit to putting words on the page when you can break that daunting task from something huge(Finish the whole chapter. Write thousands of words.) into something manageable(write however many words you can in the 20 minutes you have before the kids get home from school.)

Sprints can be adapted easily for your particular process- if you’re social, you might find you focus best at a coffee shop, or in an online chat room with other writers all coordinating their sprint times to minutes past the hour, to accommodate for different time zones. If you prefer it in isolation, you can make it a competition against yourself, charting your progress in a spreadsheet and daring yourself to get more words than you did last time. For some writers, extremely short bursts such as 10-15 minutes may be ideal for short attention spans, but for others, longer sprints may help them build up their wind in bursts of 20-35 minutes. It’ll take you a bit of practice to figure out how long you can comfortably go before your attention begins to wander. You can tell when the sprint is becoming too long when you begin to get the urge to check the internet, or clean the house, or when distractions return.

Because the focus when you sprint is on words on the page- freeform writing or brainstorms- one thing to remember is to avoid self-editing. Don’t reread your past writing more than you need to to follow the thread of your story or piece. You can fix it in rewrites. If you have something tedious such as a research question or a character name to look up, just leave a note about it- *insert name of hero’s sister from book 2 here* . You’ll never win the race if you’re looking over your shoulder. That’s how you trip over your shoelace. I like to set it aside in asterisks like that, preferably bolded and/or italicized, and always use the word “insert” so that when I find-replace in the final document, it’s easier to find all instances of missing information with the word “insert”, and spot them by the big bold * symbols bracketing them. It makes it easier to make sure I don’t miss the chance to provide that information during future rewrites.

But all of that is for the future.

Right now, you’re sprinting.

Start small. Look at the clock. Say “I’m going to write until ten minutes from now.” Note how many words are in your document. Write, write, write, write, write your fine little ass off. When those ten minutes are up, compare how many words you got. It may only be a small amount, like 100-200 words. But when you return to it after a few minutes’ break and repeat the process over the course of the day, it adds up. A writer can easily bank up 5-10,000 words in 10-30 minute increments.

Ideally, to be able to put words on the page on command, you need to know what you’re writing. Whether you plot or pants, so long as you have a sense of what’s coming up next. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown outline, so long as it’s an idea of where you want the scene to go. If you’re stalling out, pretending that time in-scene is a skipping record and that it has jumped ahead a few seconds helps. Don’t worry about the transition, just think- if you weren’t bound to this narrative flow, what would have happened? Maybe they’re exchanging longing glances now, but in that short skip, something would have happened to shake them out of that stasis and send them into a screaming match. Hit the enter key to leave a gap where you’ll need to fill it in, and jump to the action to keep moving forward.

Transitions can always be added. Filler words can always be cut. But if you allow your desire for writing to be a perfect, discomfort-free experience to dictate your writing process, you’ll have difficulty producing at the speed you want, and keeping the story fresh in your head. Sprinting is one tool in your kit to complete a draft quickly, through short periods of activity that fit neatly into your normal routines. Give it a try- you’d be surprised how much more you’re able to make of the time you spend with your words.

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