Make writing an ordinary part of your life—in 4 steps
Amanda Lewis, Page Two’s editorial director, shares her insights and tips on how to incorporate your writing into your daily life.
A big part of my job as an editor is spent coaching writers. The most common refrain I hear is not, “I don’t know what to write,” but, “I don’t have time to write.”
The truth is, we all have only 24 hours in a day—and full-time authors who solely write for a living and survive on the income generated by their books are the exception, rather than the rule. The majority of authors are spending a big portion of their hours working a day job, taking care of dependents, or, you know, sleeping. So, for the rest of us, what’s left?
There are plenty of time-management tools you can use to enhance your focus and guard your time—like Boomerang for Gmail, Freedom, and ye olde Pomodoro. (Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky has plenty of suggestions, and Cal Newport also has wonderful ideas for blocking time.) But I’ve found the best way to actually get it done is to work writing into your daily life. Because, let’s face it, you’re already thinking of the book in every waking moment, and especially at 3 am. (Editors know.)
Full-time authors who solely write for a living are the exception, rather than the rule.
I was inspired to make writing an “ordinary” part of my life when I read this New York Times article by runner Katie Arnold, a busy mom in her mid-forties who won the 2018 Leadville 100 Ultramarathon. She didn’t win this 100-mile race by eating 50 eggs every day or tracking her steps with a fancy gadget; she simply made running part of her life. “The most important metric in training for a hundred-mile race isn’t pace or mileage,” she writes, “but time on your feet.” That time on her feet also included coaching her daughters’ lacrosse team and walking the dog.
As all writers know, life doesn’t stop because you have a deadline. Your superpower as a writer becomes your ability to work writing into your life. Katie Arnold’s “secret” for training for a 100-mile race was “staying in motion.” Yours will be to Keep Writing. Every. Day. (And not just when you finally make it to that tiny cabin in the woods where you don’t have wifi.)
Here are some ways to start bringing writing into your everyday life:
- Jot down ideas, sentences, and short paragraphs in your Notes app (or, if you’re old-school, a paper notebook) while you’re on the subway or waiting in line, then gather all the notes during your Friday lunch break. I like using Scrivener to organize ideas, themes, resources, and drafts. Folders are your friend.
- Dictate sentences into a voice memo app while you’re walking the dog (fellow dog-walkers will simply think you’re having a creative conversation with someone on the phone).
- Set a timer for 20 minutes when you wake up, and do nothing but write. Set the timer for another 20 minutes when you get home from work, before starting dinner or even taking off your coat. If you need to sit in a parked car to do this, so be it. Write for another 20 minutes before bed, and boom—you’ve written for an hour!
- Pick a regular time, say, Thursday at 10 am, to assign yourself writing tasks for the week. For example: paraphrase a study, interview a source, write 500 words on a subtopic, or nail your introductory paragraph. Those tasks will be due the following Wednesday at 5 pm. Enlist the help of an accountability buddy if you need it.
Parkinson’s Law dictates that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” and writing a book is no different. Case in point: I recently spent the better chunk of two days marking up text changes to a PDF. When I backed up the file, it became corrupted and I needed to recreate my work. But this time I had only two hours, and I was crammed in the front seat of a compact car while I waited for a ferry on Thanksgiving weekend. My markup was leaner and more direct as a result, and I wondered what I’d been doing for two days. I also wondered how anyone this tall can work in such a small car.
If you don’t walk the dog, you’ll soon have to deal with the consequences. Don’t want to write your book? Deal with the inevitable consequences.
If you want to keep a tidy house, domestic mavens advise “cleaning as you go,” allotting certain days of the week and certain times to tasks—washing the floors on Wednesday evening or scrubbing the tub on Friday night (party). Try to do all your chores on Saturday, and you’ll spend your whole day cleaning—not because you have eight hours of chores to do, but because you have eight hours.
If you want a clean house, wipe down the kitchen counter and sweep the floor every evening. If you want to actually write your book, do a little bit every day, and make it a necessary task like walking the dog. (If you don’t walk the dog, you’ll soon have to deal with the consequences. Don’t want to write your book? Deal with the inevitable consequences.) To paraphrase James Clear in Atomic Habits, become the type of person who writes a little every day—you know, a writer.
As Arnold says of training, “I’d absorbed the running and training into my life so that was part of my life, nothing special. It wasn’t the center of anything, it was just one thing, connected to all the others…. It was so ordinary, it was extraordinary.”
Don’t worry about quality as you go. Perfection can come later; “after Enlightenment, the laundry” and all that.
Before joining Page Two, Amanda worked for eight years as an acquisitions editor at Penguin Random House. Books she has edited have become #1 national and international bestsellers, and won or been nominated for top literary prizes. Her first book, Tracking Giants, about the Champion trees of BC, is due out in Fall 2021. Follow her adventures at www.amandalewis.org.