Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bite-Sized To-Dos for Writers

I'm obsessive about not wasting time. Whether on hold, in line or waiting for a bus, I always have something productive at hand to do. Before I became a writer, I was already creating two-column to-do lists. One column would have the traditional tasks and appointments of the day. The other would list what I call "interstitial" work -- things that can be done, or at least reach a stopping point, in 15 minutes or less.

Some people automatically fill those slivers of time with worthwhile activities. They sing or daydream or say a prayer or make observations or read a few pages of a book. I seem to need a longer list with activities that add up to help achieve my larger goals. Not surprisingly, most of what's on my list now is aimed at writing, and using such a list is one of the primary ways I boost my productivity. What's on my list?
  • Small business tasks - I can complete a simple invoice for freelance writing in less than 15 minutes, using older invoices as templates. I can research a new market or answer a client's question. (I keep questions that take a little thought in a queue rather than refer to email. For me, email and social media can be a time suck, and I prefer to schedule my interactions with them.)
  • Brainstorming - I like generating lists of ten (or twenty). Ten blog ideas. Ten ways my character can escape a prison cell. Ten things I love about my novel. Most of what's on such lists is useless, but pushing for more leads to pleasant surprises.
  • Outlining - For smaller work, like writing this blog, all I need is a blank index card. For building on the outline of a novel, I usually need to be carrying a card that lists the pivotal scenes so I can fill in ideas that fit in between.
  • Sorting - When ideas tumble out, they often are not it the most effective order. It only takes a few minutes to take a list of obstacles a character faces and organize them according to what is at risk. (This helps me ensure I am constantly raising the stakes so readers get hooked.) With essays, I organize the arguments so the second most compelling notion comes first and the most compelling concludes the piece.
  • Character interviews - The best way for me to get to know a character is to have a conversation. I carry lists of characters and questions with me to the garage or doctor's office and take advantage of those times to interrogate them.
  • Mechanical rewriting - This is the less creative work, such as getting rid of junk words and ferreting out all the spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Re-conceiving scenes or polishing prose is likely to need more dedicated time.
Most of these activities are self-limiting and can be broken off without much damage. When I have something critical coming up -- a call with a client at an agreed to time -- I set a timer so I don't get lost in the activity. Also, I take care to file interstitial work properly. There is nothing worse than believing you have solved a plot problem and not being able to track down the slip of paper holds all the answers.

Note that these tasks are "writerly" activities. They don't contribute directly to adding pages to your manuscript. I never count these activities toward my daily writing goals, even though I am aware that they make an impact.

Do you have small tasks you get done during fragments of time? What would you put on your own "interstitial" list?


  1. Great ideas, Peter! My interstitial list includes reading research books and catching up on articles/blog posts I've saved to Instapaper. Instapaper is how I keep from wasting too much time online. If something looks interesting, I save it for later and read it on my iPhone or iPad while I'm waiting for my son after practice or stuck at the dentist.

  2. Sounds like a great idea, Gwen. I'll make a point to investigate Instapaper. For readers, the web site is http://www.instapaper.com/