When “Just Get It Done” Isn’t Cutting It: Tricks to Make Your Writing Session More Productive

Coffee and a rosemary scone next to my computer
Coffee and a scone help me through a Structure Session.

Writing a book or creating a new manuscript can feel incredibly daunting, particularly in the early stages. You’ve done your research. You know you want to tackle this project. You feel intrinsically and extrinsically inspired to do so. You made your schedule. I’m not going to lie. Sometimes it’s still hard to get the ball rolling, especially in this world of distractions.

Numerous books have been written on improving productivity. Setting a timer, turning off your internet, aiming for a certain number of words, paragraphs or pages, and making an appointment with yourself to write are all good tips. I regularly use all of these tricks, depending on my current task.

However, they don’t say much about how to approach your writing to maximize your efforts. Adding structure helps navigate the blocks and smooths out the process. In other words, motivating yourself to write isn’t always about words met or “butt in chair.” It’s also about developing a writing session that feels and is productive.

Before you sit down to write, think about what type of writing you will do. I don’t mean genres, but conceptually, where are you in your process? Identifying which type of session will set you up for success. Broadly speaking, I have 4 types of writing sessions that move from a macro look at my project to the nitty-gritty details and then back to the macro level (or from the forest to the trees to the forest again).

Free-write (airplane view of the forest)
Purpose: To get the words flowing on a new topic or on a project that I am still trying to structure.
Process: I write as fast as I can, marking spots that need sources or additional facts with bold type, focusing on the macro level of the chapter.
Rule for this session: Write now, edit later! No worrying about word choice, sources, or details!
Works well for: New projects or sections of a project, especially ones that feel difficult. Free-writing gets me over the hill of beginning.
Ideal Space: Outside so I can’t really see my computer screen.

Structure Session (forest)
Purpose: To transform my outline (or freewrite) into a structured chapter or manuscript.
Process: Take the freewrite or start from scratch and work on building your chapter or manuscript, adding in topic sentences and outlining paragraphs, adding shape to your manuscript. Use bold type or another system for points that you will fill in later (i.e. ADD SOURCES or ELABORATE).
Rule for this session: Avoid external research or fretting too much about a word or sentence.
Works well for: Fully laying out a chapter to help you know what additional sources/research/books etc. you might need.
Ideal Space: Anywhere you can see the screen.

Fix the Bolds Session (among the trees)
Purpose: To turn your draft into something that you can really edit.
Process: Address every bold word in the chapter, filling in sources, adding information, clarifying points, and subbing in synonyms for repetitive words.
Rule for this session: No skipping a bold word to get to the easy fixes! Find that source. Clarify that point! Insert the transition. Solve the problem. Do not move on to the “Big Picture” until the bolds are fixed.
Works well for: Rounding out your draft and, practically speaking, interrupted or short writing sessions.
Ideal Space: I prefer my dining table or the library–somewhere in which I can lay out piles of books.

Big Picture (looking at the forest)
Purpose: To carefully edit your chapter or manuscript as a whole.
Process: Read through your work, examining word choice, wordiness, flow, organization, clarity, use of sources, and other components that contribute to the quality of a manuscript. Fix typos, check spelling, and address stylistic issues.
Rule for this session: View your manuscript as an outside reader might. Take your time.
Works well for: Your last read before submission and your first read after you get the reviews back.
Ideal Space: Office or coffee shop–a place that allows you to focus.

This approach works well for writing book chapters and other types of manuscripts. Using bold type allows you to keep moving early on in the process, instead of becoming stalled out on finding a source or too fixated on a particular word. It’s also easier to edit as you move through these stages, rather than trying to look at both sentence structure (micro level) and organization (macro level) at the same time. By adhering to a session type, you set up yourself for a smoother writing process, one that isn’t just measured in word count or time.