Friday Fun: How many hours do you write in a day?

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: People often assume that professional writers clock in at 9AM each day for a full eight hours of hammering diligently on the keyboard, but usually that’s not even close to the reality of the working writer’s typical day.  In your real-life experience, how many hours do you actually spend writing each day (on average), and what do you spend the rest of your working time doing?

JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: So, I’ve been freelancing full time for about the last nine years, and I’d say that – on average – I typically spend about three to four hours each day either working on a first draft or revising my work. Don’t get too excited. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have my share of days when I’m cranking at the keyboard for six, eight, or even ten hours (I do), but most days, my actual writing time doesn’t add up to more than half a day. This is, in my humble opinion, a reasonable target for any writer, whether it’s someone who is writing fiction or someone who – like me – is primarily working on copywriting and content marketing assignments. Writing is hard work, both physically and mentally.

I will clarify, however, that just because I’m only writing for three or four hours a day does not mean I’m done at noon. Not at all. I routinely work a longer day because there are lots of other, non-writing tasks that are a very real part of my writing business: interviewing subject matter experts, intake calls with clients, research, outlining, client correspondence, general project management, meeting documentation, schedule development, and (everyone’s favorite): administration (e.g., answering emails, tracking my time, preparing invoices, following up on payments, etc.). In addition, most freelancers will tell you that a sustainable business depends in great part on your ability and willingness to invest time and effort in prospecting for new clients and projects. I probably spend two to three hours each week following up with leads, networking, doing introductory calls, and preparing proposals.

Though some of my non-writing tasks can be tedious, I’m actually grateful for the variety in my day. I don’t honestly think I could hack more than my three to four hours of writing each day. Sitting in front of the screen is pretty taxing, and I’m usually relieved when my Big Writing Task for the day is finished and I can switch gears into something less intense.

Deborah Lee Luskin at the US-Canadian border marker 592.

The end of the Long Trail a the US-Canadian border.

Deborah Lee Luskin: Like Jamie, I do my hardest, best, writing work in the morning, between eight and noon, though I write my Morning Pages earlier than that. Since returning from the Long Trail, however, I’ve developed routines and often write in the afternoons as well: drafting posts, commentaries and editorials. These are often very rough drafts and extremely useful guides for later. Depending on what else is on the docket, I’ll spend some of the afternoon doing research, reading, staring out the window or walking the dog.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: As a part-time writer, I only spend a half day writing once or twice a week. The rest of the time I’m coaching clients, parenting, daughter-ing, and snatching writing time in short periods like waiting in the car pool line to pick up my son and in the hour before he wakes up in the morning. I also head to the library in the evenings to get some writing done if I don’t have a meeting or a client (and my husband is home.) I dream of spending all morning writing every day, but that’s not the reality of my life right now and that’s the way I want it. My family and my work are priorities and my writing comes in a very close third.

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson: My days are so varied with different client work and bouncing between writing and editing, I can’t really say how much is writing – although as a business owner that is one metric I should absolutely have a handle on! 3-4 hours is a minimum. As for my own personal writing, that’s not on the radar at the moment because of my focus on business. But I plan to do NaNoWriMo next month and get my fiction kicked back into gear!

 

What’s Your Most Productive Time of Day?

There are those of us who love mornings, those who love staying up late, and those who find the 10AM-2PM window their favorite time of day.

TimeWhen we hear “work hours,” the tendency is to think “8 to 5.” And that may be the case more often than not (especially when juggling your business with a family that has a set schedule), but when working for yourself, the hours can blur into each other, and it can be easy to work long hours every day.

As a writer, I think it’s crucial to find the times where you  are most creative — those sweet times where you and your muse are working in tandem. There is definitely something to the mantra of “show up at the keyboard every day” in order to build a habit. If you show up ready to work, you’re going to pull your muse in, too.

If you show up at the keyboard during your ‘peak’ creative times, just imagine what can happen!

For me, early morning used to be the best for creativity. Now it’s more 10-2. After 3PM and I’m not very creative. I plan my writing accordingly.

If you’re finding yourself struggling to meet deadlines or finish projects, test out new schedules. Start by trying various 2-hour window combinations to see if there is some chunk of time where your productivity soars. (Note where your productivity wanes, too.)

If you’re running your own business and have flexibility in creating your own schedule, you owe it to yourself to find the timing that works best for you. There is nothing that says you have to run your business “like everyone else.”

By improving your productivity, you’ll be able to make more time for billable hours and achieve your writing goals with a little more ease.

Do you know when you’re most creative?

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Scheduling Time for Yourself While Freelancing

Today is Columbus Day in the U.S.; it’s one of those holidays that some people have off and some people don’t.

Many of my friends have it off. I told them I didn’t. Each of them said, “But you work for yourself, you can take it off if you want to.”

And each of them is correct. I could take it off if I wanted to, but I don’t. I actually find working holidays to be quite productive — since they generally tend to be very quiet (fewer phone calls and e-mails). But that’s me and the personal choice I make as the owner of my own business.

Here’s how I plan my time off. Maybe it will give you some ideas.

2016_calendarFirst, I find a 12-month calendar, such as the one here on the right, that I can print out, make a couple copies of, and mark up.

I start by drawing a line through the dates I will be on vacation. You may prefer to put a big “X” in each box, or highlight the dates in a certain color.

Next, I go through and mark off the holidays (and personal days) I intend to take — those where I will *not* be in the office and *not* doing any work.

Then I decide which conferences, workshops, seminars, and so on I’d like to attend (as far out as I can) and also mark those dates.

I quickly have a visual that shows me the days left that I will be working. Maybe I’ll have to rethink some plans – for instance, it’s crazy how fast my November fills up. I’m never able to do all I want in that month.

This is where a fresh copy of a 12-month calendar comes in; the reassessment phase. It’s where I determine which days off are most important and which activities may fall by the wayside. I mark up the fresh copy with the re-evaluated dates.

Now, you may not know all the dates you want to take off, but holidays, vacations, personal growth, and personal days are great dates to start with. Knowing what dates you don’t want to work helps you schedule your time on the days you do work.

This is a high-level look at the year ahead, but can be a great place to start before figuring out how you will meet your budgeted income and expenses for the year.

Do you schedule your time off in advance, or go week to week and decide based on your workload?

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with manufacturing, software, and technology businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Take the Lead in the Scheduling Dance

Have you ever had this type of conversation when trying to schedule a meeting or date?

“We need to get together soon to discuss the project.”

“I agree. When? My schedule is quite open.”

“How about next week?”

“Sounds good.”

“How about Tuesday for lunch?”

“Oh, oops, no, I already have plans then. How about Wednesday afternoon?

“Yes, I can do that. Two o’clock?”

“I was thinking more like 4:30.”

“Oh. No, that’s too late in the day. Let’s try for the following week.”

This type of conversation is common and seldom results in a date getting scheduled. It starts off with a vague notion and meanders down a path; always taking a while to narrow in on a date and time. It’s a time consuming way to set a meeting.

Lisa_lunch_meeting

Lunch meeting

To take the lead in the scheduling dance, it’s important to be specific. The conversation can go like this:

“Want to get together on Wednesday at 1 to start discussing the project?”

“I’m booked at 1, but could do 2:30.”

“2:30 works for me. Let’s meet in the middle at Brook’s Cafe.”

“See you then!”

Isn’t that a great way to save time with scheduling?

It’s a great start at valuing your own time and a way to be productive. This can work with business and personal meetings via personal conversation or email.

Agreeing on a location can take time (depending on the circumstances), but at least that part of the conversation happens much sooner once a date has been set.

The method can ease the pain when scheduling something with several people, too. Instead of the open-ended what dates and times work for you? stating one or two dates and times more often than not can do the trick.

How do you go about scheduling meetings in an efficient way? I’d love to know!

Lisa J. JacksonLisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She’s found that more often than not, when she proposes a time for a meeting, scheduling takes less than a minute. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook,  Google+, and LinkedIn.

How to be a freelance writer – 5 tools for smart planning and time management: Part 1

roaring lion

“How do you get so much done?” is a question I hear from friends, colleagues, and clients pretty frequently. I don’t say this to brag. Like every other successful freelance writer I know, I hustle. I make hay while the sun shines. I burn the midnight oil (and, sometimes the candle at both ends). I get stuff done because I have to. (A deadline is a great motivator.)

What I do is not magic. I’m not an incredibly fast writer, nor have I figured out how to survive without sleep. (If you crack that mystery, please let me know.) What I do have is a system and some basic project management skills. Today, I want to share them with you because if I can help even one working writer reduce the chaos and tame the stress, it’ll make my day.

In my two-part series on the secrets of successful freelance writers I encouraged writers to become good project managers. One of the most important aspects of providing strong project management is creating and managing project schedules. You need to be able to provide an up-front plan, stay on top of it, and revise as things develop. You also need to be able to help keep your team (including your client) on track and on task with friendly reminders and nudges.

But how on earth can you expect to stay on top of all of that while you’re also trying to handle your own marketing, client meetings, and the actual writing?

It may seem impossible, but it’s not.

There are 5 tools I use to help me get a handle on (and manage!) my schedule – from the Big Picture to the minute details and everything in between. In this post, I’ll share the first two:

The Writer’s Big Picture: Good, Old Excel

You know that saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees? It’s definitely applicable to the freelance writer’s life. Often we are juggling so many projects and tasks that it’s easy for things to slip through the cracks – things like an interim deadline, client call, or – you know – feeding the kids.

Whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed by my workload, I take a breath, step back, and look at the Big Picture. I do this using a basic Excel spreadsheet that I designed to help me create a visual overview of my workload and pipeline (jobs that I think are coming soon). This 30,000-foot view always helps me to feel a little bit saner.

I call the spreadsheet my “Workflow Doc.” Here’s what it looks like:


Workflow spreadsheet sm

And if you click here, you can download a copy of the actual Excel document.

To use it:

  1. List your clients and projects down the left-hand side
  2. Define the current and upcoming months and weeks across the top (I like to look at four months at a time, but you can look at two or three if that seems more manageable.)
  3. Using the color key at the bottom (which you can’t see in the screen grab, but it’s there), color code the project cells to indicate what type of work needs to be done for each project during each week. I use the following phases: Initiation, First Draft, Edits, Development, and Launch. I know that each of these phases will require a different level of attention from me. For instance, the Initiation phase is typically just a meeting or two and will usually only require a few hours while the First Draft phase may require several solid days. The Edits phase might need about 30-50% of my time, while Development (typically the phase during which the project has moved from my hands to either a designer or a developer) may only require 10% of my time for small edits and adjustments.

After you have the chart filled out, you’ll easily be able to see any potential train wrecks, where you have time available, and opportunities to “massage” schedules in order to make your life less crazy. For me, being able to see everything on paper is a lot less scary than just having a vague sense that things are barreling out of control. Even if I fill out the spreadsheet and see that I am, in fact, in a load of trouble, just knowing exactly what kind of trouble I’m in makes me feel better and gives me the information I need to start working on a solution.

The Writer’s Project Plan: A Gantt Chart

The next level of detail is the individual project plan.

Confession: in my past life, I was a project manager, so I have better-than-average tolerance for all things budget- and schedule-related. That said, learning the basics is not as difficult as you might think.

When I was a full-time project manager, I used Microsoft Project to create project schedules in a Gantt chart format. Now that I am on my own (and on a Mac), I don’t have MS Project anymore, so I needed to find a simple (preferably free) tool that would let me create Gantt schedules. After much searching, I settled on an online service called ViewPath, which has the baseline features I need and a free option. Perfect!

Here is what a basic Gantt format schedule looks like:

sample gantt

I could spend several posts talking about how to build a schedule, but here are the basic steps:

  1. Make a list of all the tasks that need to be completed. For a basic writing project, these might include initiation tasks (discovery meetings, research, outlining, etc.), writing tasks (first drafts, revisions, final edits), client management tasks (presentation and review meetings), and so on.
  2. Put the relevant tasks into your Gannt chart in the appropriate order. (I group each set under a sub-head to make the overall schedule easier to read.)
  3. Identify where there are “task dependencies” and “link” those tasks in the Gantt chart. For instance, you cannot start your research until you have had the kickoff meeting and received the reference materials from the client. You can’t start on your first draft until the client has approved the outline. You can’t make revisions until the client has provided feedback. Within the Gantt chart, you can connect the end of one task to the beginning of another to show these dependencies. The beauty of this is that, within the scheduling software, when you move one date (say the client is two days late with feedback), it automatically moves all the subsequent dates so that you know what impact the delay will have on the overall schedule.
  4. If you are so inclined, you can assign resources to each task.

You can, of course, go into all kinds of additional detail, but those are the basic steps. Once you have created the schedule, you can include it in your scope of work so that everyone involved is on the same page in terms of timing. In this way, you are providing a better experience for the client and making your life easier because you’ll have an even better sense of exactly what has to happen next.

… but, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of managing individual tasks next time.

Here’s the thing – managing your time and your projects well is a critical part of freelance writing success. Without these skills, one of two things will happen: 1) You’ll miss deadlines and lose customers (and, eventually, your business will fail), or 2) You’ll push yourself to work ungodly hours and burn out (and, eventually, your business will fail).

I don’t want that for you. We writers need to stick together and help each other out.

I hope that my Big Picture and Project Plan tools help you find some additional sanity. Next time, I’ll share with you the three tools that I use to manage my time and projects on a day-to-day basis. Until then, keep writing, keep breathing, and if you have any questions – leave ’em in the comments! 

 

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: iam_photography

Writer’s Block Cause 2: Life

“I was going to write the next great, American novel; but life got in the way.”

Though it is the source of all our experience and inspiration, there are days when “life” can be one hell of a nuisance to a writer. Life doesn’t care that we just had a breakthrough on the blog post/essay/article/poem/novel we’re working on. There are still kids to be picked up, work deadlines to be met, laundry to be done, and bills to pay. (Oh, the bills!) There are family and social obligations, housework, homework, and busy work. There is no question that “life” can block our ability to write. Not only does it sop up precious keyboard time, it drains us of the energy we need to summon our inner muse and create.
 
Too tired? Too busy? Too bad. 

The reality of life is a particularly tricky piece of the writer’s block puzzle. Fear is easily labeled as something that emanates from within. It is a beast of our own creation and therefore one we should be able to un-create (or, at least tame). Life’s overwhelming demands, however, seem to come from without. They appear as an external force, bearing down upon us. We do not overwhelm ourselves, the world overwhelms us – the task at hand, the laundry, the work deadlines, our in-laws coming to visit. Without even realizing that we’ve done it, we subconsciously give up our power over the situation by living with the assumption that life “happens to us” and is outside of our control.

Not so.

Being overwhelmed by life is a mindset, one that many of us have been trained to adopt as our status quo. Americans are especially prone to constant proclamations of exhaustion, insane workloads, and unending obligations. With each new complaint and sigh, we invite these things into our lives and feel forced into letting go of the things most dear to us – like our writing, for instance.
 
But, I really AM busy! 

Of course you are. We all are. But, we’re never quite as busy as we believe we are. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” is a hackneyed expression, but one that nevertheless holds a lot of truth. The trouble starts when we use “being busy” as a crutch – an excuse that keeps us from doing our great work. I readily admit that I sometimes make up “musts” and “shoulds” in order to avoid sitting down to write. We all do.

Automatically saying, “I don’t have enough time” is one of my favorite crutches. Those words have become so familiar rolling off my tongue; they are almost a reflex. I’m a single mom running a marketing and copywriting business, often working past midnight, writing for multiple blogs, and too often getting involved with causes and pro bono projects. I could easily be the poster child for people who don’t have enough time.
 
But, I’m changing that. 

I’m training myself to recognize the time I used to leave lying around. Though I at first hated to admit their existence, I now delight in discovering little pockets of time that I can use however I like. One of the best ways to jumpstart this practice is to stop waiting for a big block of uninterrupted time. I’ve wasted years waiting for a full day to write, or even a block of three or four hours. I’ve turned my nose up at the smaller, less appetizing handfuls of minutes that came my way almost every day. No more. Now, if I see fifteen minutes that I could scoop up and use to work on a project, I snag them and scribble away with all my heart.

I’ve also started putting time in my schedule for the things I want to do as well as the things I need to do. In addition to writing more, I promised myself that 2012 would be a year of more time spent with friends. I want coffee and lunch dates. Lots of them. And I’m making it happen. I’m just putting them on my calendar. I’m setting that time aside and putting a big, alligator-filled moat around it. You need to protect your “sacred” time – whether it’s for friends or writing or just sitting and doing nothing. Sometimes, you have to protect it from yourself – you need to make conscious and careful decisions: “Will I use the next forty-five minutes to write, or to watch a re-run of ‘Bones’ on Netflix?” (A dilemma I face quite frequently. Sometimes, ‘Bones’ wins.)

Lastly, I’ve stopped saying how over-booked and time-poor I am. I’ve stopped saying it out loud, and I’ve stopped saying it in my head. I’m trying on an abundance mindset when it comes to time. It’s working some miracles.  I’ve heard it said that we “create” time by how we perceive it. I’ve been amazed to find how much more open my schedule seems these days, now that I’m expecting to have time. It’s like magic, but suddenly I do have time. I’ve been reading more, writing more, and working on plans for some new projects. I’ve had more time with my daughter, more time to cook, more time to spend with friends. I wouldn’t have believed it, except that I’m living it.
 
You can change it too. Start by being aware and then get fierce. 

Start paying attention – really paying attention – to how you spend your time. Hear yourself saying “yes” to things that are going to take time away from your writing. Make a mental note when you choose time-wasters over writing. Don’t judge or berate yourself. Just notice.

After a while, you’ll start to see patterns. You’ll begin to dabble in reclaiming your writing time – a few minutes at a time. You’ll like the way it feels to bring that practice back into your day. You’ll want more. Start setting up those moats around your writing time and protecting them as if your life depended on it. It does – your writing life, anyway. No one else will make the time for you. No one else will push you past the blocks that life sets up for you. Only you can fight that battle and take back what’s yours.
 
So – what are you going to do? Are you going to let life become part of your writer’s block, or are you going to make your life feed your writing?
 
If you’re interested in more tips about finding/creating/managing time, you might want to check out Laura Vanderkam’s book 168 Hours. I haven’t read much past the introduction so far, but from what I’ve heard it’s a great resource for learning how to see the time you have in a whole new light.

This is the second post in a series about the causes of that fictitious condition known as writer’s block. In the previous entry, we talked about fear. I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone who feels they have suffered from this inability to put words down. I just believe that if we can uncover and face the root causes of this uniquely literary affliction, we can slay the writer’s block dragon and get back to the work at hand. Who’s with me?


Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Writing routines – One size doesn’t fit all

This is a nice follow-on to Lee’s post yesterday about having deadlines.

Of course it’s good to have a writing routine. How else can we get our writing done? But just like with anything, moderation (flexibility) may be the best course.

There are all sorts of routines that work. Some examples:

  • Sit at the desk  for x minutes or x hours per day x days per week and hope the writing comes, or write and hope it’s usable
  • Have daily word count goals to meet, regardless of how much time it takes
  • Write x hours (or minutes) per day, with no word count goal
  • A routine that is based on type of writing – write blog posts on Mon, articles on Tuesday, queries on Wed, etc.

You get the idea. It all, of course, comes down to what works best and is the least stressful for you.

The writing routine needs to include e-mails, responding to blogs, posting to social media sites, editing work written, and any other type of writing you do on a regular basis.

For me, I’d love to find a large magnetic calendar that has lines and times like an appointment book. I’d like magnets sized into pieces to represent 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and 1 hour. I want to be able to write on these pieces and configure them into any size time block (it 2 hours 15 mins). Then I want to be able to put these pieces onto the large calendar each day in the configuration that will work for that day, and lined up with the appropriate time slot.

weekly appointment page

Appointments and errands are best, for me, early in the morning, yet they aren’t a daily task, and aren’t even weekly or predictable (think sudden doctor appointment or ‘quick run’ to the store for toilet paper). So if my writing routine is 11-2 daily, there will be occasional interruptions and I’ll need to move that time, or a portion of it to earlier or later in the day.

If one routine worked for everyone, it sure would be a time saver. But we’re creative types whose writing requirements don’t fit nicely into little boxes.

Do you have a writing routine you can stick to? Does it depend on the type of writing you’re doing? How do you adjust for paying work versus ideas your are developing into a piece you can sell?

Lisa Jackson is an editor, author, book coach, and chocolate lover. She’s addicted to Sudoku, cafés, and words. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has a blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to chat with writing professionals on a weekly basis — and you can too! ©Lisa J. Jackson, 2010