Having traditionally published two books (and being in process with my third), I field a lot of questions from writers about how I manage my book projects, what kinds of software I use, and what my schedule looks like.
Here’s a brief summary of my process:
Mornings are my friend
I spend a block of time writing each morning. I find that getting my critical writing out of the way early in the day allows me to focus on other, more time-sensitive projects throughout the day. (Also, to be honest, I don’t really enjoy the process of writing. However, I greatly enjoy the feeling of having written.) My typical schedule (barring travel/time zone issues) is to roll out of bed around 6:45am, make coffee in my French Press, and settle down on the chair in my home office for about an hour of reading and thought. Then, when my mind is fully awake, I move over to my desk and start moving my fingers on the keyboard.
I already know what I will write before I begin
I always end every writing session with a clear idea of where I will go next, so getting started is rarely an issue. I learned this lesson when I was writing my first book (The Accidental Creative), as I discovered that it took me ten minutes to ramp up into writing because of a lack of clear rails. Now, I at least know what theme my first 100-200 words will consist of before I even start moving my fingers.
I utilize a daily word count target
I don’t write for a certain amount of time each day. Instead, I have a word count target. This means that some days I spend two or more hours writing, and on some days I only write for a half hour. It depends entirely on how well the ideas are flowing. Also, if I hit my word count early I don’t keep pressing too far beyond it. Instead, I try to reserve my thoughts for the next session so that I have a place to begin. (This is entirely personal preference, by the way. Some writers advocate continuing to write until you’re exhausted of ideas. That doesn’t seem to work well for me.)
I’ve used Scrivener for all of my book projects (including the one I’m working on now), and have found it indispensable for (a) organizing my content, (b) keeping me on-target for hitting my deadlines, and (c) helping me understand the big picture and flow of my writing.
Scrivener has a feature called “Targets” that allows you to set your overall word count objective, your due date for the project, and which days of the week you plan to spend writing. Once you enter this information, Scrivener automatically tells you how many words you need to write each day in order to hit your word count by the specified deadline. If you miss a few days (or get a little ahead), Scrivener automatically adjusts these numbers when you close out each session.
My goal for my latest project is to finish my draft two months early, which means that I need to write 519 words each day (Monday-Friday) in order to succeed. Most days I exceed that goal by 75-100 words, but I usually try not to blow too far past it so that I have some fuel in the tank for the next day’s writing session. Today, I hit it square on the nose.
As I mentioned before, I always end my writing session with a clear understanding of where I’ll begin the next day. This means knowing the key points I will make and the key examples I will use to support them. This helps a ton in eliminating friction.
I write things that may not make the final draft
To get to a 60,000 word manuscript, which is a typical length for a narrative non-fiction book, I usually have to write around 80,000 words. This means that there are a lot of things that never make it into the final draft either because they aren’t totally relevant or because there are better examples I discovered later in the process. However, these text files still live inside my Scrivener file, because I never know if I may find a place for them later. Additionally, some of these ideas may wind up in a later book project. (One piece that I wrote for, but didn’t include in [amazon_link id=”1591845890″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Die Empty[/amazon_link] became a core element of the framework I’m using my new book project.)
It’s really important to be willing to write a s#*tty first draft (borrowing a phrase from Anne Lamott in [amazon_link id=”0385480016″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Bird By Bird[/amazon_link]), because your best ideas often emerge from free-flowing thought. There will be plenty of edits and re-edits along the way, most of which come later in the process, but if you get too wrapped up in editing as you write you may squelch potentially valuable ideas or turns of phrases.
A key (and often overlooked) part of writing is thinking
While you must move your fingers on the keyboard in order to make progress, you can’t expect your writing to be concise and precise unless you’ve taken the time to immerse yourself deeply in thought about your subject. I take frequent walks with note cards on-hand, and spend a lot of time just staring at the walls when I’m in the midst of a book project. Once I wrap a writing session and close out Scrivener, I immediately raise my antennae, scanning for anything that might be good fodder for tomorrow’s writing. Because I’ve pre-determined what I will write about, it’s easy for me to be hyper-tuned to anything that might help me better communicate my thesis.
OK – one final disclaimer. This system works really well for me, but only because I’ve used and refined it over time. It’s easy to fall into the trap of emulating the routine of others rather than figuring out what works best for you. The most important part of writing is doing the writing. No tool, advice, life hack, or other crutch will help you if you don’t actually put your rear in the seat and move your fingers.
Last modified: December 3, 2022
Todd, this is great to see a bit more about your process.
One tool that I have fallen in love with is the Squarespace ‘Note’ app for iPhone. It is a minimalistic app for your phone that allows you to open it up, type a message and then that message will be e-mailed to you within a single swipe.
When I am on the go and inspiration strikes, this is a great way to capture those thoughts or ideas.
That sounds like a fantastic app. The problem I’ve traditionally had with notetaking on my phone is the friction involved in firing it up, opening an app, typing, then sending. That removes at least a few of those steps. Thanks!
Very helpful, thanks!
Great article! I love love love hearing about other writers’ processes. I use Scrivener too, but didn’t know about the Targets feature. I’m headed there now to set some! Thank you!
Thanks for explaining your process here, Todd. You’re one of about 5 of people who’s indirectly nudging me to move past playing with Scrivener to actually using it. And just when I’ve finally developed some cloud-based writing practices that work for me – I hate being tied to a device and then having to convert a file to share it with my team.
For long form writing, though, that’s mostly an excuse. #Mostly
Charlie, it really has made a huge difference for me in long-form writing. The ability to write in fragments, then re-arrange by dragging and dropping before exporting as a draft (instead of a million cuts and pastes) makes editing a breeze. However, once I get to “sharing” mode, I typically have to export into Word format for track changes, etc. with my editor at the publisher.
After 15 years of amateur, non-published fiction writing, I’m still searching for my method. :/ I don’t know if it’s because fiction is a different animal than non-fiction, or if I just need to get a grip on scheduling things that don’t have to do with work or school (going back as an adult), but I just can’t seem to get a good, consistent flow going.
I did really well in 2011 for NaNoWriMo, but I think it was because I REALLY wanted Scrivener at a discounted price! And also I….may or may not…have wanted to prove to myself that I CAN write every day. But every attempt since then has just petered out into nothing. :/ So…yeah. I may “borrow” your method, and see if it helps! 😀 (Any help I can get at this point to stay organized is MASSIVELY…er…helpful. lol)
This is really great! Thank you for sharing. As a side note for those considering Scrivener, the project targets in the Windows version are currently much more limited.
Great invitation to go and do likewise Todd. Great process. I too like Scrivener. I wish it was a little more accessible though so it wouldn’t trip up as many folks who give it a try. Again, seeing what you do on the other side of the learning curve is really helpful.Thanks.
Great invitation to go and do likewise Todd. Great process. I too like Scrivener. I wish it was a little more accessible though so it wouldn’t trip up as many folks who give it a try. Again, seeing what you do on the other side of the learning curve is really helpful.