Working Smarter, Not Harder: Making the most out of our writing time by Denise D. Young

Somewhere, a faucet is leaking—we need to call the plumber. A basket of laundry sits unfolded. A pile of dirty dishes taunt us from the sink, and someone has etched the words “Wash Me” in the dirt caking the back window of the car. A cat circles our feet, begging for attention. A kid calls out for a parent, in need of help with homework, a snack, or simply our attention.

In the middle of all of this, a cell phone beeps—another text from a friend or family member. Outside the window, the grass is about to go to seed, and it’s our job to mow it.

Sound familiar?

On top of these small daily distractions, then, is our writing career—for most of us, a calling, a vocation, a driving sense of purpose in our lives. We are writers. We write books, we blog, we tweet, we build and maintain our author platform. For many of us, writing isn’t a day job. That’s even more strain, more pressure.

Sometimes, being a writer feels a lot like being Wonder Woman or Superman, minus the superpowers. (I know, I’m disappointed, too, even as I hold out hope that my hitherto dormant super-speed or telekinesis will awaken one day soon.)

So, in a world full of responsibilities when we’re always on, always on the go, always connected, always in motion, how can we work more efficiently, use our time wisely?

If like me, your super-speed ability never activated, I’ve assembled a list of ways for us to work smarter, not harder.

First, we plan.

We set deadlines and plan ways to meet them. If we want to write an 80K novel in three months with weekends off, how many words per day must we write? Is that number reasonable?

In order for a plan to be effective, it must be as specific as possible. Planning leads to fewer wasted hours or even days. Planning gives us confidence that we can accomplish the task we’ve set our sights on. Even something as simple as a short, achievable to-do list can help us focus our time.

Second, we stop multitasking.

Studies have shown that the human brain simply isn’t very good at multitasking. It reduces our retention rate and costs us time, since the human brain needs time to switch between tasks. Ultimately, we’re not as good at multitasking as we think we are.

Third, we focus on quality, not quantity.

I used to be a full-out pantser—no planning, no outline, not one shred of backstory before I began writing. Sooner or later, I would get stuck and spend a great deal of time thrashing around in story quicksand, sinking deeper and deeper creatively until I calmed down enough to grab a branch and haul myself out of the muck.

I realized I needed a better way. I needed to work smarter, not harder. So I read book after book about writing craft. I set my sights on a new technique, one that would yield more cohesive first drafts. That was my goal in the first round of ROW80 this year.

And you know what? It worked. My latest first draft isn’t perfect. It still has flaws and missing pieces, but it’s so much better than my prior first drafts of stories. Why? Because I took the time to stop and assess my process and to learn a better way.

Sometimes slowing down is the answer.

Fourth, we stop comparing ourselves.

Everyone has their own process. What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. Just because one writer writes 100 pages of a story, only to put those pages in a drawer and never look at them again doesn’t mean you should. Sure, you can try it, but you might find that there’s some story gold in those pages—plenty of bad pages, but some darn good ones too. You could be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Each of us must discover our own process. To do so, we need to slow down, we need to be kind to ourselves, and we need to assess where we are. Only then can we determine the best way to get where we’re going.

Fifth, we treat ourselves kindly.

As a writer, I work from home, so I’m essentially always in my office. I have to stop myself from working after my husband goes to bed at night. I could write a blog post, revise a scene, do some writing exercises at night, but instead I use that time to recharge—to read for fun, watch an episode of Chuck or Warehouse 13, flip through a magazine, or nibble on some dark chocolate. With a cat in my lap and an episode of a beloved show queued up, I’m ready for relaxation.

Without time to unwind, we leave ourselves vulnerable to burnout, chronic fatigue, and depression—call overwork Kryptonite for writers. Kait Nolan talked about self-kindness in her post to kick off this round, so I’ll direct you there for more detail. And last round, ROW80 sponsor Dawn Montgomery dove into the subject of burnout and recovery.

It’s enough to say that we often cut others more slack than we give ourselves. We hold ourselves to impossible standards and move at super-speed for long stretches of time. We need to remember to give ourselves a break every once in a while. The kinder we are to ourselves, the more easily the words flow, the more easily we silence our inner critic when necessary.


For this and every round of ROW80, I encourage you to work from a place of self-assessment. What can you do to improve your process? How can you change your process or your mindset so you’re making the most out of your writing time? And, most importantly, in what small ways can you show kindness to yourself—a pedicure, a massage, a few minutes of stillness or meditation, a glass of wine or cup of tea and a moment of stolen time?

What ways have you discovered that allow you to work smarter, not harder?


Denise D. Young


8 thoughts on “Working Smarter, Not Harder: Making the most out of our writing time by Denise D. Young

  1. Absolutely love this post, Denise! So much wisdom here. And I honestly thought you were looking in my window with that description of life in the first two paragraphs. 😉 I’m always seeking out how to work smarter. Thanks for the encouragement and insight!

  2. “often cut others more slack than we give ourselves” Yup, totally. I am on the edge of a downswing because I can’t get everything done and feel like I keep making mistakes that keep piling on. And yet objectively, no one expects me to get everything done right this second. There is space that I don’t recognize and slack that I don’t see.

    Wonderful reminder post.

    1. I’m the same way. If someone else messes up something small, I’m quick to forgive, but I don’t cut myself the same slack. That creates stress, which ultimately decrease my productivity. I’m learning how to take it easier on myself.

      Thanks, Andrew!

  3. Great post, Denise, with many good points.
    I worked out I could write during lunch break at my day job. When I wrote longhand, I even worked out I needed a lunch I could hold in one hand (sandwiches!) while I held a pen in the other! Then I bought a netbook which meant I could type straight into a file, but the sandwich had to go…
    As a reward, I read a book. In paperback. Something new, something non-fiction, something familiar. Anything, as long as it’s well-written and I can learn from it as well as be entertained and it takes me away from a screen.
    Scheduled breaks away from writing – and reading – also help. Meeting friends, cooking at home, gardening, taking exercise, visiting museums, going down the pub. Just as I do when I take a break from my day job.
    I always say I’m not looking to give up work so I can be a writer – I just expect to change careers… 😉

  4. My lawn is a meadow. No one asks me for homework help (no one has any), but that means that I am an on-duty mom during what could be school hours, and I have 5-6 reports to write for each child, each year….

    I work in chunks. I wouldn’t call it multitasking…I call it flitting. I seed hometending in.

    I make my fan fiction every bit as valid and important as my other writing.

    I worry less about platform, and more about enjoying social media time.

    I play Cake Mania 3. I watch Enterprise. I play with my family.

    I engage in challenges that motivate me toward my goals,

    In short, I go with my personal flow. Yesterday, that meant that I spent thousands of words getting a Vulcan tipsy from concentrated sugars, to see what she’d do…and then writing a completely different story. But, oh, so much fun I had, figuring out that it wasn’t the way to go! And I still may use those bits, later… =D

    Lovely post! =D

  5. What an awesome post Denise! Very motivating. Thanks for keeping it real! And it’s great to see you too! 🙂

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