When you're establishing a writing routine, there are so many things to consider. Should you aim to write for a set amount of time each day, or reach a set amount of words? Should you try to smash out a first draft as quickly as possible, or take your time perfecting as you go?
Unfortunately, it's not always easy to answer these questions! No two writers are the same, and there's no such thing as a universal writing routine that works for everybody.
When you're first getting started, it can take a while to figure out what kind of writing session techniques are the most productive for you. So we've put together a round-up of some different techniques you might like to try out in the search for that perfect routine.
Let's dive in!
1. Pomodoro technique
Developed in the 1980s, the Pomodoro technique is a tried-and-tested productivity tool. It involves short sessions or 'bursts' of work interspersed by breaks, which can help refresh and refocus the brain.
The basic structure of a Pomodoro work cycle is:
- First 25-minute session working on a task (be sure to set a timer!)
- Short break (usually around five minutes)
- Second 25-minute session
- Short break
- Third 25-minute session
- Short break
- Fourth 25-minute session
- Longer break (usually 20–30 minutes)
It's easy to see how this technique can work well for writers. A 25-minute burst of writing has all the benefits of a word sprint and can really help you to hone your focus, cut down on distraction, and get those words on the page.
It also makes things easier in terms of breaking down an intimidating project. Sometimes the thought of writing an entire novel can be very overwhelming – but when you just focus on one 25-minute writing session at a time, things seem a lot less scary.
The Pomodoro technique is a flexible one, too – don't feel you have to stick to the traditional time limits for each session or break. You might work better with multiple 15-minute sessions instead of 25 minutes, or you might find that 45-minute sessions interspersed by slightly longer breaks are best for you.
By trying out a few variations and tracking your progress, you'll be able to refine this technique to suit you. So grab an old-fashioned tomato timer or download a Pomodoro app and give it a go!
If you find yourself feeling blocked or unable to start when you sit down to a writing session, you might want to try a technique called freewriting.
Freewriting involves letting go of all restraints and writing continuously for a short period of time in a 'stream-of-consciousness' fashion. Basically, the aim is to write whatever pops into your head, without worrying about grammar, spelling, or even that your words make any sense.
You can write literally anything: full sentences, sentence fragments, images, descriptions, metaphors, inane thoughts, random words... Don't be scared; just get down anything and everything that's in your head.
The most important thing about freewriting is that you don't stop to overthink things. If you find yourself running out of things to write, you simply keep writing something like 'I don't know what to write', or even random thoughts like 'Need to go grocery shopping later', until your train of thought shifts and something else begins to come through onto the page.
You might not produce much (or anything) that's actually usable, but that isn't the point of this technique. The point is to open up your mind, get past whatever is blocking you from writing and encourage the channels of creative thought to flow freely onto the page.
And remember: no one will ever see what you write in a freewriting session. You don't even have to read back over what you've written afterwards, if you don't want to!
Freewriting is often completed by hand (such as in Julia Cameron's popular morning pages exercise), but you can also use your computer. Try each method to see what gets your creativity flowing best.
You can even combine this technique with the Pomodoro method. You might use freewriting in your first few work bursts to warm yourself up (perhaps try 10-minute sessions rather than 25), and then move into a 'regular' writing session once you feel ready.
To shake things up in your next session, why not try speaking your writing instead? Yep – we're talking about using dictation!
Unsurprisingly for many writers, words flow better from their hands rather than their voices. But you might surprise yourself if you try speaking your stories rather than writing them for a change.
Speaking out loud is also a tried-and-tested way of improving dialogue, so perhaps first give it a shot for any dialogue-heavy scenes you're working on.
Bestselling author Joanna Penn found her writing was reinvigorated by switching to dictation:
I dictated the first draft of my last novel ... and it was a much faster creation process than my usual first drafts. I had it done in 27 writing days (about five weeks’ elapsed time) and some days, I got up to 5000 words an hour by dictation ... My writing voice has changed through the process of dictation, and perhaps made my story fresher and my 'voice' clearer."
There are a couple of ways you can go about using dictation as a writing session technique.
1. Record yourself speaking and transcribe the recording later
This is the more rudimentary method, but you might want to give it a try first when you're deciding whether or not this technique will work for you.
All you need to do is record yourself on your phone or computer, then listen back to the recording and type it out. You can insert proper punctuation etc. as you go, or type out the raw words and go back over to finesse it afterwards – whichever works best for you.
If transcribing yourself sounds too tiresome or you don't have time, you can also make use of a transcription service like SpeechPad.
Before you start recording, though, we recommend jotting down some notes about the scene or section you're going to dictate so that there's some structure to your session. Try to have a rough plan in place so you don't find yourself rambling or losing your train of thought.
That said, don't worry too much about speaking perfectly or being particularly eloquent, either. The important thing is just to get the words flowing so you have something to work with on the page later.
The best thing about using this method is that you can effectively have a 'writing session' anywhere – while you're walking the dog, cleaning the house, cooking dinner... Talk about multitasking!
2. Use dictation software
The slightly easier and faster method (but one that usually involves some monetary outlay) is to use dictation (or speech-to-text) software.
This involves dictating into a program that translates directly into text on-screen in real time. Your words are 'typed' for you as you speak them, with punctuation inserted by you saying 'full stop', 'new paragraph' etc.
There's no denying that purchasing dictation software, as well as any additional accessories like a microphone and headset, can be a significant cost outlay for an author. And as Bryan Collins points out, this method of writing involves quite a learning curve – it can take a while to get the hang of the dictation methods and the editing process that comes after.
But if you give it a try and find it helps you become more productive in your writing sessions, the cost will be totally worth it.
4. Writing out of order
For many writers, the idea of writing a novel means beginning at the beginning and writing directly through to the end. But if you find you're struggling to write your novel chronologically, why not try writing scenes out of order in your next writing session?
Instead of moving from scene to scene in the order you intend them to appear in your book, try simply writing whichever scene takes your fancy at the time, and piecing them all together in the proper order later.
Have a great idea for a dramatic climax point at the end of the book, but have only written the first few chapters so far? Ditch that part of the story for the meantime and write the climax point.
Keep thinking of little snippets of dialogue, character development or place descriptions that don't exactly fit in the scene you're currently writing? Take the time to write them down and develop them while you're 'in the zone'. You'll find the right place in the story for them later.
Author Susan Dennard finds that her stories don't seem to come together properly when she tries to write chronologically:
I always thought I was a chronological writer. I mean, I sit down and write what 1) I have listed on my outline, or 2) what I feel ought to come next ... Yet, when I follow this method, I always find that my drafts are woefully out of order. None of the scene beats seem to hit that gradual incline of tension and stakes."
This method is also particularly handy for staving off writer's block, or when you're having difficulty writing a particular scene. Moving onto something that flows more easily is a much more productive use of your time than slaving over a section that's just not working for you today.
Using a novel-writing program like Scrivener comes in super handy with this writing technique, as you can simply create a new document for each scene, and easily rearrange them all later.
5. Writing/revising simultaneously
When you're writing a first draft, some of the most common advice you'll hear is to write now and edit later. To get the words out on the page as quickly as possible, not worrying about quality; to keep pushing through without going back to read or edit what you wrote the day before.
However, as we mentioned before, not all writers are the same – and this method might simply not work for you as it does for others.
If this is the case, you might like to try writing and revising simultaneously, instead of writing an entire 'crappy' first draft and coming back to revise later.
This method involves working on a scene, chapter or section of your novel until you're happy with it, rather than writing that scene/chapter/section as quickly as possible and moving immediately onto the next.
It's definitely a slower drafting process. It might mean spending an entire week trying to get one scene just right, infusing it with all the nuance and refined language you expect from a finished product. But it also means the final editing and revising process will be much less in-depth when you eventually go back over the completed manuscript.
Yes, you heard us right – you will still need to go back over the novel once it's finished, even if you've been revising as you go. There will still be things that need polishing, but far fewer things than there would have been if you'd written in the 'traditional' first-drafting method.
Author Laini Taylor utilises a simultaneous writing/revising method for her bestselling books:
I need to love every chapter before I can move on. As soon as I sense that something’s gone wrong, I need to fix it. It can feel crazy slow, but the result for me is that my 'first drafts' are much closer to a finished draft, and the revision process is the great, fun work of taking something you love and making it stronger."
It all comes back to how you work best as an individual writer. There's no right or wrong way to write a book, so if this method works for you, throw all that 'get the crappy first draft down' advice to the wind and revise away as you go!
What are your favourite techniques to use during a writing session? We'd love to hear what works for you in the comments!