short writing tasksShort Writing Tasks

by Marg McAlister


The tasks you see below can be slotted into a short window of writing time. They don't require a great deal of concentration (that is, you can keep one ear open for what the kids are up to, or do them while you're visiting a shopping centre, commuting or sitting in a lunch room) and they can be completed in between ten and thirty minutes. Some can even be done surreptitiously - that is, so people don't even know that you're working on your writing!


The fact that they are short and don't require a lot of concentration doesn't mean that they're not important. However, there's a big difference between tasks that need you to go into a kind of writer's creative zone, where you need to immerse yourself fully in your writing world, and those that can be done on the fly.

Use the following suggestions as a basic list, and add more of your own.

1. Brainstorm a title.

Do this for a book or an article. For a book, consider bouncing off a song title or a line from a poem (be aware of copyright issues here). Experiment with one-word titles; two-word titles; three-word titles. Titles can also be inspired by the setting of your story, or emotions felt by the characters. If you're writing a self-help article, consider starting with 'How To...' or including a number: "Seven Ways to...."; "Ten Steps to..."; "The Three Most Important Things You Need to Know About..."

2. Research a Setting.

If your employer has no objection to your using the internet in your break times, eat at your desk and use the time to for research. Use Google Maps and Google Earth to zoom in on a town or city anywhere in the world and check out the terrain, layout of the city, and directions from anywhere. We're spoiled these days... once we had to locate paper maps, atlases and travel guides. Now it's almost like boarding your own private jet (or space ship) and zooming right to the location to get a bird's eye view.

Start with the location, then use the search engine to find out more about the place - the people, the buildings, the traditions, and so on. In half an hour you can bookmark useful sites and email them to yourself. If you have the version of Microsoft Office with One Note, you can grab whole web pages and paste them into a Notebook for later reference.

3. Edit and Polish Your First Page.

It's just one page. It's already written. So it's not only easy to try different ways of presenting the information on this first page - it's fun! In ten minutes you can write a different opening paragraph. In half an hour you can try three different approaches to hooking the reader.

4. Scan Magazines for Possible Characters (Surreptitious Activity).

To anyone watching you, you're simply spending your lunch hour, or timhunt for likely-looking characters for your story. Magazines like That's Life have page after page of people that you might meet in your local shopping centre. Other magazines feature celebrities: lifestyles of the rich and famous; celebrities caught out doing something stupid. Celebrities lookinge in the waiting room at the dentist, leafing through a few magazines. YOU know that you're on the  glamorous; celebrities looking tatty or hungover. Look for interesting faces, and for different ways of dressing. 

5. Take a Walk Through a Shopping Centre...

a) Look at "Things".

Check out anything that might fit into your novel. Look at appliances, high-end tech toys (phones, TVs, sound systems), furniture, and manchester. You can design a whole room or furnish a house for your book from what you see in a big furniture/homewares store. Don't forget the small details either: bits and pieces that go in a kitchen or bathroom. Look at garden furniture and equipment too. Pick up catalogues as you go.

b) Listen to Dialogue.

Ah, there's nothing like eavesdropping to pick up the cadences of everyday speech! Listen for phrases/sentences that show a particular age group, attitude, or ethnic group. Listen to how teens talk to each other and how older women talk. Listen to mothers talking to daughters, and adults talking to children. Listen to how customers talk to retail staff, and how staff at busy food outlets talk to each other. Jot down notes and use them next time you write a scene of dialogue.

c) Look for Characters

You should be on the hunt for good characters wherever you go. The conversations around you will 'fit' the various people you see, and their speech, their clothes, their way of moving, and their facial expressions will come together to provide inspiration for your cast of characters. 

6. Work on Your Grammar and Style

There's always something you can improve. Pick something that you know to be a weakness, and spend 10-30 minutes working on it. Here are a few examples:

  • 'telling' rather than 'showing'
  • overuse of speech tags
  • punctation - appropriate use of commas, or quotation marks, or dashes, ellipses, and so on.
  • end-of-chapter 'hooks' (there should always be a reason for the reader to want to turn the page and start the next chapter)
  • transitions (Do you have smooth transitions between one time or place and the next?)
  • wordiness (Do you take a paragraph to explain something that could take a sentence, or indulge in fanciful description of the setting? Set yourself a goal of saying the same thing in half as many words).
  • 'wooden' characters (mostly a problem with dialogue)

7. Plan Your Timetable

Sit down and work out a plan for your writing time and activities for the next month. Then break it down into weeks/days/hours, OR break it down into tasks with an estimate of how long each task will take you. Keep a record of how long you THINK it will take, and how long it ACTUALLY took.

8. Copy From Other Authors (and no, this is not advocating plagiarism!)

Copy a page or two (or even a whole scene) from a book by a writer you admire. This might sound like a waste of time, but it most emphatically is not. Many writers have found this to be one of the most valuable exercises they can do. You get a real sense for how the narrative flows and how the author puts sentences together. It's amazing how much you can learn from this exercise.

9. Brainstorm an Article or Series of Articles

Jot down some ideas for an article - or series of articles - on a topic you enjoy or know well. Put yourself in the shoes of the person reading the article. If you were that person, what would you want to know? Think about the different slant you can put on the same material, for different markets. How many different markets might be interested in this topic? What age groups? What socio-economic groups? If you have time, do a rough outline of the article - or schedule this for your next writing 'window'.

10. Write a Query Letter

Write a query letter to an editor, telling them about your book or your article. The first paragraph should tell the editor about the project AND make it sound interesting. If you need to, spend your whole mini-chunk of time writing different versions of just this opening paragraph. It really is important!

11. Work on Your Promotional Materials

You can put your bio/press release/CV together gradually, working on one aspect at a time in small bites of writing time. During one session you can work on your author photo - render it in different sizes and different resolutions. In another session you can outline (in bullet points) what you want to say about yourself as a writer, then follow it up in the next session by actually writing the first draft of the same bio.

12. Investigate Creating a Website

Do some research online and look for someone who can create it for you, or look for software that will enable you to do it yourself. You can break up this project into manageable chunks: one day browse around online checking out other writers' websites; another day plan what you'd like on your own home page; another time work out the images/photos etc that you'd like to see on the site; another day read information about building a website.

A great deal can be accomplished in successive small windows of time. Next time you realise that you're putting off starting something because it's all just too large and overwhelming, grab a piece of paper and divide the job into small, achievable tasks. Then tackle them one at a time.

And when another writer asks you: "How do you manage to get so much done?", you can tell them the "secret"... just tackle it one step at a time! :-)

© copyright Marg McAlister 


The Busy Writer's One-Hour Plot

The Busy Writer's One-Hour Character

Book of Checklists

The Busy Writer's Self-Editing Toolbox

The Busy Writer's KickStart Program

Write a Book Fast