Writing Tips for Busy People
by Marg McAlister
At times it can seem so hard to snatch time to write that you feel like just giving up. Any writer can identify
with that feeling!
You're tired after work; you're exhausted from looking after the family; you're surrounded by kids who are home
for the vacation... you've got a hundred things on your plate! Just when ARE you supposed to find time to write?
And what do you do if you're so tired that your brain's barely functioning?
The trick is to have a supply of activities ready that will (a) move your writing forward and/or build your
skills (you don't want to waste time with exercises that don't teach you anything new); (b) fit into the time
available and (c) suit your level of energy (you can't focus on plotting if you're so tired you're ready to fall
asleep in front of the TV set).
Here are some suggestions that will help you organise your material so you're ready to take advantage of
whatever snatches of time you have - and whatever energy levels are present!
- Start by preparing a folder full of activities so you're ready to 'seize the moment'. (I know you've
probably read so much about time management and getting organised that you're ready to scream, but bear with me
for a moment.) Being prepared will make you feel in charge, rather than at the mercy of everyone else's whims.
You are also far more likely to actually do some writing. Think about it. When you're tired, or pushed for
time, do you feel like sitting down to plan some writing? No, of course not. It's best to choose a day when you
can devote at least a couple of hours to organising these activities. Believe me, you'll be glad you
- Brainstorm a list of things you can do to fit various slots of time. The most important of these will be a
series of exercises or short scenes that you can write in 15-30 minutes. When my kids were young, I had to
snatch writing moments whenever I could. I usually coped by getting up at around 5 am (I've always been a
morning person!) but sometimes I used to sit on the lounge with headphones on playing classical music to block
out the TV program they were watching and jot down ideas or write/edit a short story. They were happy because I
was in the same room, and I was happy because I could get some work done.
Here are some things you can do in short 'bites' of time while the kids are watching a video or a TV program, or
if you don't have a lot of energy/time to spare after a long day at work:
- Do a character interview to find out what your character wants to do next. This is easy; it doesn't
matter if you get interrupted, and you can get some valuable insights into your characters. Just write
questions that you want to know, as the author, and see what comes up as your character answers you.
- Spend 15 minutes brainstorming possible obstacles you can throw in your character's path. What could
come up in relation to: home, parents, children, employment, friends, family members, crime, misunderstood
messages, missed messages, getting lost... and so on? There are all kinds of obstacles with all kinds of
solutions. How would your character solve this problem? What could make it even harder? How could it involve
- Tweak chapter endings/beginnings. Try to end each chapter in some way that makes the reader keen to
turn the page to find out what is going to happen next. While this doesn't have to be some nail-biting dilemma,
it should make the reader wonder about something. Now look at your chapter beginnings. If you have changed the
viewpoint character, is it clear to the reader right up front whose viewpoint we're in? Do you need a
transition to smooth the way for the reader? Does the chapter beginning follow smoothly and logically from the
previous chapter ending?
- Here's a good one for teachers, child care workers or parents with a lot of kids around: Ask kids for
feedback! Record or jot down their responses. Ask them their thoughts about family problems, about
bullying, about what they like to read and why, about their favourite authors, about their pet hates when
reading. (One kid told me that he hates it when something is built up to be a big thing and it turns out to be
nothing... I think the example was a book in which there was a scary 'something' in the pond and the tension
was built to nail-biting intensity - and it turned out to be only a turtle. Big let down!) You can learn a lot
about their lives and especially what they like to read. Why not take advantage of having this 'focus group' at
- Once a month, sit down with a pen and paper and create a new or revised list for yourself of ten
different things that you can do to advance your writing in only 15-30 minute snatches of time. This can
include plotting, characters, editing and proofreading, working on a specific skill or style problem or
anything else that you know would be a valuable activity.
This short list will get you started. You can also include things like reading a chapter of a book on writing
technique (and trying out some of the exercises) or making notes from an article in a writing magazine. You'll find
that you never run out of things to do, if you spend a little time every so often replenishing your folder (or
adding to your list). Set up whatever you need for these 'quick grabs' the next time you write.
- Have your list at hand.
- Have pens, paper and highlighter pens.
- Have sticky notes to scribble comments and stick on your drafts.
- Be ready to seize the moment when you can. (Waiting for kids to finish sports training; sitting on public
transport, waiting for dinner to finish cooking, etc)
If you do this, you'll find that (a) when you do find time to write again you'll have a wealth of material at
your fingertips and (b) you may even become inspired to sit down for a while at night and write because your mind
© Marg McAlister