I long for a time where I can be a full-time writer. Anyone else?
Instead, I’m what some might label a “Midnight Novelist.” (Well, really more of a “Lunch Break Novelist”—I don’t have the stamina to stay up late after a long day of work.) Or, as I like to call it, a Writer with a Day Job.
I know a lot of us writers are in the same boat. It’s rare to be a full-time writer with a sustainable income, unless you have a spouse who can also support you and provide things like health insurance (an important thing to have, I suppose). And some of us who are writers have different variations of jobs. Some of you are editors, freelance or full-time, or have another creative or bookish job. Others are like me: working in a role or field that is distinctly not writing or book-related. Or maybe you’re a college student! That is its own sort of beast, and I’ll admit I rarely worked on my own books during college, burned out by writing so many papers. Or perhaps you’re a parent, either as your full-time job or in addition to a career. Regardless, it’s difficult finding the balance between your own writing work and any other jobs or responsibilities you might have.
My trial and error and own reflection on this dilemma inspired a four-part blog series I’m titling: “Writing with a Day Job.” Through this series, I want to provide helpful tips on how to write well and productively even when it can’t be your full-time focus. My hope is to share my own heart, successes, and perils I’ve faced as a Writer with a Day Job, so that it might encourage and motivate you.
As a disclaimer: I am a single woman with no kids. I work a standard 8-5, Monday through Friday, 40 hours a week job, in a college admissions office, where I’m mostly on the computer all day. I’m also involved in my church and tied up in commitments there at least three times a week. In addition to that, I am the Director of Story for The Subcreators, a group of Christian creatives who discuss and nurture art in our local community, which I and two other friends started up last year. Life is busy for me, and moves at a fast pace, yet I recognize that, since I am not a wife or a parent, I also have more flexibility and freedom in my life than some. That greater flexibility and freedom may affect how I present my own thoughts and tips, and I recognize not everything I have to say may be equally helpful for you if you happen to be in a different stage of life.
With that out of the way, let’s dive into the first post on this topic: how should we define “productivity” as writers with limited time to actually work on our creative endeavors? I think a combination of goal-setting and grace is vital to this.
1) Let’s talk goals: I want to start here because the whole idea of productivity is tied to achieving some sort of ultimate goal. For us as writers, that ultimate goal may be finishing your book or even getting published (independently or traditionally). However—that alone can be extremely daunting. I’ve embraced the art of setting progressive goals: listing out smaller steps on the path to finishing a book or pursuing publication. Setting many progressive goals actually helps me feel like I’m making progress (small as it may be). After all, there’s something thrilling about crossing items off of a checklist. These goals also help me stay organized and even save me time when I sit down to write. I have a clear objective I need to work towards in my writing, laid out to me on my goal checklist.
Our goals as writers with day jobs should be flexible and realistic. Flexible, because things pop up with work or kids or just life, and we need to understand that our self-imposed deadlines, while important, are not ultimate. It does take discipline to work towards those goals, though, so don’t let flexibility become an excuse. We should be able to recognize the need to flex a goal to a later date for a good reason versus pushing the deadline back because of our own laziness.
Goals also need to be realistic. Saying “I’m going to write this whole book, start to finish, in one month” isn’t necessarily realistic, in my opinion. (Unless you’re really into NaNoWriMo, I guess.) Speaking personally, I think writing a novel in a month in my current stage of life would take a lot of sacrifice of my social and church life. It would also require a HUGE amount of discipline to come home and actually write late into the evenings, which would be very difficult for me. My blogging and social media would fall by the wayside too, more than likely. However, writing a quarter of or even half a book in a month seems more achievable for me.
I also include the business side of my writing in my goals too: writing blog posts, generating social media content, etc. I also try to assess my goals every month, both so that I can change deadlines on anything that needs to be flexed to a new date and to set new goals to focus on.
2) Be generous with how you count writing work: As writers, we need to actually sit down and write our stories to achieve that end goal of publishing, but there are other aspects of the writing life that we should consider in our goal-setting and writing habits. We always can benefit from taking the time to grow as artists and, for those of us who hope to be published, we need to think about the business side of the game as well.
Growing and learning as writers can take many forms. Listening to a podcast, attending workshops, reading blogs or social media, joining a critique group, etc. Even reading books purposefully, such as books in your genre/age range or books that give a great example of a trope or style you want to emulate, can help you write better. Maybe these are the sorts of activities you turn to when you need a break or experience a creative block, or maybe you need to intentionally schedule time to engage with educational resources.
On the business side of things, social media, newsletters, or blogs are all aspects of the marketing side of you as an author and your future books. I’ve also personally found social media and blogging to challenge the way I think about books and my writing habits. Sometimes it feels like a chore, other times it is a fun reprieve. I personally find it unfortunate that a social media presence feels required to be successful as a writer these days, but I try to overcome my personal feelings by adding it to my schedule. Planning my social media and blogging way in advance has been helpful for me and makes me feel freer to focus on my actual fiction writing the majority of the time. You can start small too! Maybe social media is the best option for you, or maybe you should take the plunge into blogging if you haven’t already. If you need a break from this part of your writing journey, too, then do that as well.
Beyond these two oft-overlooked parts of the writer’s rhythm, keep in mind that outlining, character sketches, world-building, etc. is also necessary to writing your stories well. I sometimes have a hard time wanting to spend my limited time on these parts of writing, yet they do count, and they are needed. (And, that reminds me, I’ve got to work on my character sketches for Whitman Court… It helps keep my characters’ descriptions straight and saves me time in the long run!)
The end point of this: if you’re engaging in writing-related activities and working towards your goal of writing the best book possible or preparing for publication, it is productive. Productivity doesn’t mean adding or editing words on your actual manuscript every day. There’s a lot of potential within the idea of “productivity” when it comes to writing.
3) Foster daily writing habits: This one may feel the hardest to achieve. However, it will be the most important in building momentum and reaching your end goal. Daily discipline is extremely helpful to progress. Without that daily practice, you may find yourself having to fight to get your fingers on the keyboard. You’ll waste time finding the energy, but if you’re in the habit of writing every day, it’ll be easier to start—and to keep going. Writing feels more like a chore the less I practice it.
Couple of caveats about this: grace is necessary. You will miss days. Even with daily discipline, some days may be more challenging to start. Sometimes, you need a day off. I do try to take a writing Sabbath once a week, so I don’t strictly write daily. I would caution against taking multiple days off if possible, but taking a day here or there is probably needed. Rest is a part of writing that we’ll get to in this series later.
If you take nothing else from this tip, the big takeaway is this: keep up momentum. Usually, this happens through a daily (or mostly-daily) writing practice.
4) Use your minutes wisely: We have limited time in our days, so it’s important to use that time well. Figure out when you will be the least distracted or most able to write in your day. Capitalize on the free moments you have when you’re most energized. Take even five minutes on a break at work and write out a short scene, dialogue snippet, or blog section. For me, I usually write on my lunch break, because I get an hour of uninterrupted time (most days) and I tend to feel more energized during the day than after work in the evenings. Sometimes when I don’t have a place to be, I’ll try to muster up the energy to write after dinner, but I find that is less successful for me. I try to write on Saturday or Sunday mornings/afternoons, too, for the same reason. This may also look like going to a coffee shop or the library to get some distraction-free writing done. Put the phone up and get the laptop out when you have the time. Stay off the internet unless you’re researching something for your writing or watching a webinar. If you struggle with getting distracted when you have the time to write, find an accountability partner who can help you stay on task. Our minutes are precious to us as writers with day jobs.
I hope you picked up at least one valuable new tool or piece of advice to help you in your own writing! Let’s be gracious with ourselves as we seek to be productive writers, and use the time we have faithfully. In two weeks, I’ll be talking about another essential ingredient of a vibrant writing practice: finding your people.