Image: Walter Thornbury, From Old and New London
I recently organized a writing retreat in Yosemite National Park. When the participants learned that we would only be writing for two and a half hours each day, many were surprised. “Isn’t this a writing retreat?” they asked. “I am a slow writer, can I skip the afternoon activities so that I can get in more writing?”
I understood their frustration and surprise. It is normal to expect that the more hours you spend on a task, the more productive you will be. However, writing is different. I liken it to hauling stones: When you haul stones, you deplete your physical energy. If you haul stones all day, the following day you will be tired and able to hauler fewer stones.
When you write, you deplete your intellectual energy, and each of us only has a limited amount of intellectual energy. Thus, it is not the case that the more hours you spend writing, the more productive you will be.
Your intellectual energy can be a bit delicate. If you run it to its bitter end each day, you will find that you have less and less. Have you ever spent an entire day working on a project only to find that the next day you are unable to move forward? Have you ever pushed yourself to the limit to meet a deadline and found yourself unable to be productive for the next week or longer? When that happens, it is because you have pushed your intellectual energy to the limit. You have hit a wall and need time to recover.
By limiting the amount of time you spend writing, you are protecting your intellectual energy and ensuring that it gets renewed daily. For that reason, I suggest that you can be most effective by spending one to four hours on your writing each day.
Of course, if you prefer, you can continue to overwork yourself and hit walls. However, wouldn’t it be better to figure out how much intellectual energy you can expend on a daily basis and stick to that? Wouldn’t it be better to wake up each day fresh and ready to move forward?
Then when you do sit down to write, you can completely focus on your work. And I mean completely. Turn off your phone, and step away from email, the Web, and social media. For most people, the best time to write is first thing in the morning--before checking email or Facebook. Try writing for at least an hour before looking at your email or social-media accounts.
Use a timer as you write to see how much time you are actually writing, as opposed to looking for distractions. Turn the timer off each time you are distracted by anything not directly related to your writing. (If you are not sure if you are actually writing or not, please see this list of 10 ways you can write every day.)
When you write first thing in the morning, and then stop writing for the rest of the day, your mind will continue to process thoughts related to your project. Take advantage of that. One of the best ways is to go for a walk alone and without any electronic devices. Use the time to process your thoughts. Think back on what you have written for the day and about what you will do the next day. You may be surprised about the revelations you have about your writing when you are not writing. You may even wish to take a notepad with you on these strolls.
I suggest writing between one and four hours a day because I can’t be sure just how much intellectual energy you have every day. However, many writing coaches recommend using a writing journal to figure this out. Here’s how.
Each time you begin a writing session, keep track of the exact number of minutes you spend writing. Tally those minutes up at the end of each day. Also write down what you accomplished that day and what you expect to do the following day. At the end of the week, look back over your journal, add up the minutes you spent writing, divide that by five, and aim to spent the same amount of time writing the following week. Repeat until you have a good idea of how much writing you can reasonably do every day on a regular basis.
Once you have tried this out for a few weeks, I would love to hear feedback on how many minutes you are able to write on an average writing day.
Weigh in below or join the On Scholarly Writing discussion group and start a thread.