On Writing: Little Things that Yield Big Results


WARNING:  This post contains math.

We’re going to file the inspiration for this post under the heading,  David has too much time on his hands . . .

The other day I was brushing my teeth. This is not an unusual occurrence.  I brush my teeth everyday.  But while I was brushing my teeth, I was also thinking, and that is somewhat rare.  My wife and I have one of those Sonicare toothbrushes that work for a set amount of time — 2 minutes — and then shut off.  (Bear with me:  this really is going somewhere.)  So, it occurred to me that I brush my teeth for almost exactly four minutes every day, which doesn’t seem like a lot at first.  But if I brush my teeth for 4 minutes a day, that’s 28 minutes per week and 1,456 minutes per year.  Or just slightly over 24 hours.  So, in effect, out of each year, I spend an entire day — twenty-four hours — just brushing my teeth.  Wow.

Then I got to thinking that if something as mundane and insignificant as this can add up so impressively, maybe there are ways to put this phenomenon to work in establishing new writing habits.  And voila!  Today’s post was born.

Let’s start by applying the lesson in a way that really is no stretch at all.  The older I get, the more I realize that time is the most precious commodity we have.  There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the things I want to do.  Now for me, writing is my job.  I’m incredibly fortunate, in that I don’t have to set aside time for writing; it’s already built into my schedule.  But so many others struggle to find time for writing.  I struggle to find time to play music, and depending on the day that can be a source of frustration, or anger, or sadness.  I want to play my guitar more.  Many of you want to write more.

So what would happen if we were to promise, right here and right now, that we were going to carve an extra ten minutes out of our days to do the things we really love and want to do?  10 minutes.  Less time in front of the TV and more time writing (or playing guitar).  That would be 50 minutes per work week.  Spread that over 52 weeks and it comes to more than 43 hours!!  If you can make it 15 minutes instead of ten, it means an extra 65 hours of writing per year.  Think about how much you can get written in 65 hours.  Think of how much practice I could get in with my guitar.

Sometimes, though, it’s not the time that influences how much writing we get done, but rather our use of that time.  While working on City of Shades, the third Thieftaker book, I have been pushing myself to work more efficiently, to make more of the time I have.  I measure my efficiency in terms of word count, because ultimately that is the yardstick that editors and publishers use to decide if a book is the appropriate length.  And I find that I can improve my word counts by pushing myself to make certain goals each day, and then rewarding myself with a few minutes to surf the web or check email or (light bulb!) play my guitar.

So let’s say you’re working at a decent pace.  You’re getting 1,000 words per day or 5,000 per work week.  That’s good.  That gets you a 100,000 word novel in 20 weeks.  Now let’s say that you force yourself to write just a bit more — 100 more words per day.  At that new pace you’re getting 5,500 words per week, and you’ve completed your book nearly two weeks earlier.  That’s an extra two weeks for revising, an extra two weeks to let a manuscript sit BEFORE you revise.  If you can up your production by 250 words per day, or the equivalent of just a single manuscript page, double-spaced with standard margins, you can write that same book in 16 weeks.  You have an extra month to revise.

And the really good news is that the slower you write, the more these incremental changes help you.  Let’s do the same thing we just did, but let’s start with a slower pace.  You’re writing 500 words per day, or 2,500 per week.  That 100,000 word novel is going to take you forty weeks to write.  Add just 100 words per day — less than half a page — and you will finish your novel in just over thirty-three weeks.  100 extra words per day just saved you nearly seven weeks!!

The math is just as impressive when it comes to subtraction.  I have a friend who used to be an editor.  And when she encountered books that seemed too wordy or too long, she would make her writers cut two lines from every page of their manuscripts.  Now two lines can mean different things on different pages.  If you have a paragraph that ends on a line that contains only a single word, that’s going to be pretty easy to cut.  If you have a page on which the last line of each paragraph goes all the way to the right margin, losing two lines is going to require a lot more editing.  

Well, what happens if you write a manuscript that is supposed to be 100,000 words, but comes in at 125,000?  That is (approximately) a 500 page manuscript.  And let’s say for the sake of averages, that cutting two lines translates to a cut of 12 words from each page.  Simply by doing my friend’s exercise, you’ve cut 6,000 words from your book.  Four lines per page gets you 12,000 words, without having to make any painful cuts to your plot, your character work, or your worldbuilding.  And I guarantee that if you try to cut your manuscript in this way, you will end up with a book that is leaner, more concise, and better written, because you will be searching for more efficient ways to word your sentences.

Last one, and this involves no math at all.  I had a signing this weekend in Chattanooga.  It was a group signing — half a dozen local authors seated at tables, greeting shoppers, discussing their books, and hoping to make sales.  For most of the time I was there, it was very slow.  I think I sold five books in an hour and a half.  But I spoke to a lot of people, I gave away Thieftaker post cards, I asked people if they were interested in writing, and if they said yes, I told them about Magical Words.  In short, I didn’t get frustrated, I didn’t sulk.  I was friendly and upbeat.  And while I didn’t sell a ton of books that day, I am certain that the signing will yield a good number of sales down the road.  Being kind, being friendly, offering a smile and a heartfelt “Hello,” is a small thing writers can do that yields big results, not only at signings, but also at conventions and conferences. Whether one is a professional or aspires to be one, being nice helpf.  I can’t quantify it the way I have the other tips in this post.  But that doesn’t make it any less true.

So what little things do you do during your day that you think yield big results?  (And no, they don’t need to relate to writing.)

David B. Coe

17 comments to On Writing: Little Things that Yield Big Results

  • I need to get back to my 2,000/10,000/100,000 scheme. When I stopped to take a break from the trilogy, that kind of fell aside too. It was working pretty well though while I was using it and I was getting a novel finished in roughly 10 weeks, give or take. With that speed, I can take more time to edit and revise the work without feeling that it’s taking forever to get the thing done. Or I can set it aside and hit the next book, then come back to it later. Theoretically, I could finish and edit upwards of 2-3 books a year (2, conservatively) if I keep that pace. I just need to get back into my routine.

    Lately, my day has been a jumble as my energy levels have dropped and I’m tiring of cold weather. I gotta start forcing myself to do more. Our tree’s even still up, for Gondor’s sake! Bout to just throw spring decorations on there and pretend we meant to leave it up. 😉

    This one isn’t a daily routine, but one day my wife asked me how I was able to clean our daughter’s room and find places for everything (the little’n is notoriously bad at keeping it clean) because whenever my wife looked at it, it just drained her energy and she didn’t know where to start. My reply was, when it came down to it, I started with one thing. I’m just going to focus on the clothes. Now I’m just going to focus on the blocks. Now I’m just going to focus on the action figures. Now the stuffed animals. Etc. Once my vision was narrowed down to one thing at a time, the job didn’t look as daunting. I do that at times with the revisions too. 😉

  • TwilightHero

    Hehehe. I do that all the time – think about something while my hands are doing something else. On one hand, it means I tend to be one of those people who’ll wander off in the middle of one chore to start another. But there have been quite a few times when this sort of thing has led to insights like yours – a few even pertaining to my story. This morning I caught myself outlining a character arc while sweeping floors. It does save time, letting your brain go on autopilot 🙂

    And what you’ve said here is timely, as I’m in the process of outlining my second book – I agree on that, by the way: it works – and want to finish the thing within a reasonable timeframe. The first took me waaaay too long. I’ve given myself a year for this one. Great post, David.

  • Fireheart1974

    Math seems to be a running theme this weekend. I had a great conversation w/ Stuart Jaffe over the weekend at Mysticon about how 1 page or 250 words/day equals 365 pages or over 90,000 words which is pretty darn close to a novel in this day and age. And as he pointed out, as you write more, and become more efficient those numbers start to go up.

    And now seeing this post, I get the feeling of serendipity…maybe it’s okay that I can only write for hour 3 days a week but if I can get 7 or even 8 pages out of those 3 hours…then I’m getting closer to the finish line each time.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • sagablessed

    No wonder you brush your teeth so much. Using that nasty four-letter word where children can hear it….for shame!
    Just kidding!! 🙂
    While my brain goes all wonky when that ‘M’ word is used, I can use the info….a very good post.
    My day job involves a lot of cleaning. It is boring and mindless (though pays well), so I do much of my plotting (that sounds bad) and figuring out my storyline while working. Per your advice, I worked out the relationships between antagonists, developed chracter flaws, and hammered out the rules of magic.
    Now I just need to figure a way out to keep the puppy off my lap when I try to type.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Oiy. My usual pace has me happy if I can get 2000 words a week, and lately that’s been closer to 1000, so those kinds of little steps would definitely be a big improvement.

    My little bit that I’m trying to add into each day lately is 40 situps (= much stronger back = much happier me).

  • I have to admit, when you put the math spoiler at the top, I was tempted to run back down the hall and hide my head under my pillow. Math is scary! But I screwed my courage on and found myself encouraged by your calculations. So off I go to see if I can write just a few more words than usual today. 🙂

  • I can’t say that I’ve come up with any little things that bring big results, but I love the way you broke down the math. I did that as a training exercise in one of my previous jobs when looking at sales, but I never thought of it for my own writing. I can almost always add an extra 10-15 minutes on days when I’m writing. Hmmm. Now I’m off to do my own math.

  • Megan B.

    Great post! The little things really do add up, and you illustrate it quite well.

    Here are some little ways I eke more time out of my days:
    -Wash a couple of dishes while I wait for the tea kettle to boil.
    -Do other little chore things during otherwise wasted moments (e.g. waiting on hold on the phone)
    -Write/revise during my half hour lunch breaks
    -Eat in front of the computer or TV (okay, that one sounds bad, but it’s nice being able to check my email while I have my cereal)

  • I had a light bulb moment this morning. I forgot I was supposed to be to work at 7am. I set my clock to go off at 6am but for some reason I was thinking 7:45 is the time I’ll leave, so of course I kept hitting snooze, esp since I had to work the night before. It wasn’t until 6:41 that I realized my mistake. Any-who, I made it to work, 12 minutes late but I made it nevertheless. I washed my face, brushed my teeth before I left and figured I could use the restroom when I got home that evening. (I hate the restroom at work; they are never clean enough. And this is the insightful part, promise.)
    I got to work and thirty minutes in, I couldn’t hold it any longer. I went inside and the restroom was clean. I mean really clean. I felt like I was walking into someone’s home unannounced. And that’s when it hit me.
    I was writing this sci-fi book inspired by the Book of Ruth, from The Bible. After the prologue (I literally dreamt that). I couldn’t get a good transition as to why the Poor (the poor people) would try and kidnap Rea, my protag, at the most important ration day of the year. Today i found out that one of the Poor women, sneaked her daughter inside one of the Uppers restrooms and Rea, of course walked in on them. the lady begs for Rea to have mercy. One of Rea’s friends comes by, sees Rea looking flabbergasted and comes to investigate. The little girl is killed, her mother escapes and of course they( the poor) blame Rea and we all know there is a bigger conspiracy behind it all.
    It was literally like i just walked into the scene. But I’m so excited, I got over that hump. I mean, David I outlined it to the t. I just couldn’t figure that part out.
    This has been a really good day. Its kinda too bad I’m not working on that MS.

  • Really? Nine comments? I guess that math thing really did scare people away.

    Thanks all for the great comments and the terrific suggestions. Those who mention exercising — yeah, that’s a big one. Just getting in a few extra reps of anything is a good idea. Keeps me sane.

  • I think this makes me # 11.
    David, I am trying — really trying — to make this math thing work for me. It’s dang hard. But you are right. It (koff koff) adds up.
    Yeah, I am gonna make it work.
    And 11 is a reasonable number when talking about math.

  • Vyton

    David, how about an even dozen. I like your analysis, and it is encouraging. I’m trying to implement something like that at work. Ten minutes here and there do add up as you have shown. So far weekends are my only writing time, except for minutes here and there after work and before supper. Maybe I can expand those bits to 10 or 15 minutes. The pages will just pile up. Thank you for this.

  • “It (koff koff) adds up.” Did you really go there? Oh, Faith . . . .

    Thanks, Vyton.

    And I meant to say before, to WaitForHim, very cool that you had your epiphany. Good for you. That is always an amazing feeling.

  • Eeesh. Add in flossing and tongue cleaning and that really does add up.

    I really like the point you’re making here. Little bit by little bit. It’s harder to mark progress during revisions so making a point to write something every day in addition would be useful for me.

    What do I do? I stay optimistic, and try to pay it forward. I’m involved in writing communities and I encourage others, both through #WIPmadness and #amwriting on Twiter, and with my local year-round NaNo-related write-ins. Putting that good energy forth matters to me. And sometimes good things happen because of it. I do get stuff done with all of these writing things I’m involved in. But it would probably help to have some productivity-related goals, too. 🙂

  • What an inspirational post! For me, the incremental gains/big potential for results hits home most with exercise. All too often, I tell myself, “If I don’t have an hour to give to working out, then it’s not worth doing at all.” In reality, fifteen minutes a day would make a substantial change… (Just not the 15 minutes that I’m reading and responding to MW posts!)

  • quillet

    Heh, you can’t scare me with a little math! I was just busy yesterday, that’s why I didn’t comment. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) Seriously, though, I love this. Some days, I feel like I haven’t accomplished enough, writing-wise, when I cram in just a few minutes at the end of a busy day — as I did last night — but from now on, I’ll just remember this post and remind myself that it all adds up over time. Thanks for that!

  • So I probably didn’t comment because, well, it’s old new, though still a useful reminder. But what lingered in my head afterwards was the first example, that just a little cutting from each page can trim the novel down to a manageable size. So while I was sitting in class, I did a little math. A 140,000 word manuscript (is a. TOO LONG), -50,000 words becomes a 90k manuscript, a totally valid length for YA fantasy. But how to get there? Well, 140,000 words is about 470 pages. and if we divide that huge 50,000 words up by pages, it becomes about 100 words per page. Now, 100 words is not minimal, but when I printed off the first 2 chapters and took a look at them, well, it didn’t seem vastly impossible. Trimming and strip and tighten, with the goal of 100 words per page, means I don’t have any room for, oh, well, it’s a nice sentence, so I’ll leave it. If it doesn’t work perfectly, cut it. If it needs something else, fix it. Never say in 3 words what you can say in one.
    But math makes even the impossible seem possible. Cutting 50k without losing major parts of the book? It may not be possible, but saying, ok 100 words per page, makes it into a process instead, something that you can progress toward. And no matter how long it ends up, it will be better than it was before.