How I Wrote 35,000 Words in My ‘Free’ Time

Last summer, I got an interesting writing offer.

It was to write eight chapters of a print business book. Each chapter was 3,000 words long.

Pay for books isn’t as high as it is for articles, even after I negotiated an extra $200 per chapter. But my goal the past few years has been to move up to writing nonfiction books.

I had done my own ebook…but this was an opportunity to write for a print publisher. That imparts some real cred to a writer these days.

It would probably take my writing career to a whole new level, I figured.

So I very much wanted to do this gig.

There was just one problem.

Because of the lower pay, I would need to keep doing most of my other writing gigs to pay my bills in the meantime.

And of course, keep helping other writers out in Freelance Writers Den. Those weekly live events and questions on the forums weren’t going anywhere.

In essence, I would have to write the chapters in my spare time — and would have to get more efficient with all my other writing, too.

In time, the assignment would expand to 11 chapters and win me a co-byline for the book.

But I got it done. How They Started is due out in May.

It was an incredible experience. I killed the assignment and we’re already talking about additional book projects.

For this book, I had to do in-depth research like never before in my 20-year career as a professional writer.

I got to tell some really fun stories. I also got to stretch myself and learn a whole bunch of new reporting tricks for sourcing stories through social media.

How did I find the time? How did I jam a huge, extra writing project in amidst all my regular writing gigs, Den responsibilities, and family life?

Here’s my guide to adding a big, complicated writing project to an already full plate:

  • Get your family on board. The first thing I did was explain the situation to my husband, and the sacrifices of my time it would mean — and what it could mean for my writing career. He immediately insisted I go for it. Because he’s the most awesome, supportive husband ever.
  • Keep some blocks of open time. Don’t imagine you will work around the clock. You won’t make it through a multi-month project that way. I kept sacrosanct from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays to spend time with my children, and never work Saturdays.
  • Keep exercising. At worst, I would grab a half-hour walk with my kids and dog at the end of the day. If you don’t take care of your health in situations like this, your body is just going to fall apart.
  • Realize that you will be giving up most of your free time. You won’t be hanging with friends, watching all your favorite TV shows, cleaning your closets, indulging your hobbies, sleeping late, or doing any other lower-priority tasks. Clear the decks. It’s all going to wait until you’re done with this project.
  • Find out how flexible the deadlines are. One reason I was able to get this done is my editors were very casual about how much time this took. I was given an initial October 31 deadline, but in fact as chapters were added, and as I got busy on other projects, this ended up stretching well into the following February. Big projects are a little scary to fit in with other work — make sure there’s wiggle room.
  • Put lots of feelers out early. On a big research project, the earlier you start trying to locate and contact sources, the less stress you’re going to have at deadline time.
  • Be creative on how to find sources. For this book, I discovered some types of sources no longer use email. You cannot reach them that way. Emailing their firm’s media contact does nothing as well. How did I get sources? I commented on one CEO’s blog. I used LinkedIn. I used Twitter. And I tapped my network, to see who I knew who might connect me to sources I needed. In one case, I called back an investor I hadn’t talked to in over five years — and he gave me a CEO’s cellphone number, without a blink.
  • Read a source and never look at it again. When I started this project, I was quickly drowning in links. Each book chapter tells the story of one business and how it got started. For each, in addition to trying to get interviews and reading everything the company gave me, I watched every speech the company founder had given, and read their entire personal blogs, sometimes years of entries. I read every major article written about the company. The first chapter was a nightmare — at writing time, I waded back through this mountain of materials all over again! Then I developed a system where as I read or viewed a source, I would extract the key information, including any quote I thought I wanted to use and placed it into the draft approximately where it fit on the timeline. Then, I never had to go back to the source again.
  • Don’t print stuff out. If you can manage your sourcing digitally, it saves a lot of flipping through a big stack of papers trying to find something.
  • Just tell the story. When you have a mountain of research, the fastest way to write off it is to put it all aside. Then, simply write that compelling story. You’ll naturally remember the best parts. You can fill in any exact quotes or specific facts and figures after you’ve got a first draft. With these long chapters, this technique — writing the first draft without notes, quotes, or attribution — probably halved my writing time.
  • Write to length. I wrote my subheads at the beginning, and then figured out how much room there was in each section. Then I could quickly eyeball whether I was running over and cut back. Nothing wastes time like having a 6,000-word draft that needs to become 3,000 words.
  • Write in batches. My other work needed to be handled efficiently, too. I have one blogging client I do multiple times a week — so I would strive to write at least a week’s worth of posts for them at a sitting. At best, I stuck to my one client, one day rule.
  • Press ‘send.’ When you’re dealing with this volume of work, you can’t obsess on each line. I had to write a draft, polish it up, and then send it on in. Let your editor give you some feedback.

How do you get in more writing time? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

  1. Kelley Coyner says:

    I appreciate the pithy, practical tips.

    • Thanks for the tips. My trick is to schedule 2 – 3 appointments per week with writing partners for some critique. Not only is it a chance to have coffee with a friend, but I’m motivated to produce good work, and I come away inspired, ready to get right back to the writing.

  2. Amy Gutman says:

    As always, great advice, Carol.

    In particular, I was struck by your ability to keep windows clear–including never working on Saturdays and spending 5-8 with your kids. My plate is way less full than yours (or in fairness, maybe it’s differently full) and yet I’ve felt guilty about taking a day off. No more! I am going to make a real effort–also in line with my broader push to inject more playfulness into my days (the subject of my most recent post on Plan B Nation)

    Again, thanks so much!
    Amy Gutman recently posted..Playtime in Plan B Nation

    • Carol Tice says:

      OMG, you’ve just GOT to take at least one whole day off a week. Huge productivity booster. You have to get away from it to come back to it fresh or you just get more and more inefficient until you keel over.

  3. This is really great Carol. Lots of concrete advice, as usual. As a reporter, I am always on deadline, so that is really great practice for getting things done and just doing your best within a timeframe. It’s really a matter of developing habits that allow you to do your best within the timeframe because – even when it’s flexible – at some point it has to be DONE. Letting go, even when your project is less than perfect in your eyes is one of the most important skills a professional writer can develop. It’s a balancing act between putting out your best stuff and actually producing enough quality writing to ‘make a living’ doing it. Congrats on your gig! I’m sure they got more than their money’s worth!
    amy parmenter recently posted..Everything You Need To Know About Love In 6 Words

  4. Vidya Sury says:

    What an excellent post! A couple of years ago I had a similar project, about a subject I didn’t have much idea about, but the topics were so intriguing that i accepted it. The pay wasn’t great, but the experience was priceless. Getting my family on board was the first thing I did and the encouragement and motivation were wonderful!

    Great advice, Carol. Hmmm. I’d love to write for a print project!
    Vidya Sury recently posted..Sundays In My City – The Goddess Of Wealth

  5. Erika says:

    Thanks Carol – I especially appreciated the advice about sources. I’ve been working on these long e-courses (about 14-15k words) that require first an outline and then an actual draft, and I find myself going back to the sources again and again.

    I can see how I could be saving myself a lot more time.
    Erika recently posted..Make presentations a million times better with this simple formula

  6. John Soares says:

    Carol, I’ve been in your shoes before, particularly when I wrote a full-length book while also teaching five college courses a semester.

    Your advice is right on. The one thing I’d add: create a schedule for how much work must be completed every week or day to meet the deadline, and then stick to that schedule. I actually do this for all of my big writing projects.
    John Soares recently posted..Freelance Writer’s Guide to Library Research

    • Carol Tice says:

      I think that’s where I went wrong! My vision each week was mostly “cram in all the work I can on the book!” I probably needed to break it down more. Some weeks I’d have a specific goal like “finish the research on X chapter” or “write X chapter,” but probably not often enough.

      One thing I did do that helped is I would have searches saved and anytime I had a half-hour of dead time, I’d rip through more research and build more links and info into my draft. You have to learn how to pick it up and put it down, and then pick it up again right where you left off without a lot of re-ramping time, or it’s never gtting done.

  7. Jan Hill says:

    Great information Carol!

    I always write from an outline, and just drop information into the appropriate sections as I come upon it as I do my research and background reading. And LinkedIn has been a wonderful source of interview prospects for me. I’ve written two pieces for the legal trade mag Paralegal Today in the past 6 months, and I got all my interviews but one through my LinkedIn groups. That way you can interview authorities from all over the world instead of just your immediate area. Really opens things up!
    Jan Hill recently posted..Think Like a Paralegal

  8. Steph Auteri says:

    Man oh man. Kudos to you for managing so much at once, and with such finesse! I especially like your suggestion to read through sources and never look at them again. I often find myself wading through bookmarked pages… following footnotes that lead to more footnotes that lead to more footnotes… Ugh. Extracting the important info on the first pass would definitely be more efficient.

    And yes! Writing to length is definitely something I’ve been finding helpful as I work on my own book project.

    At the moment, I’m juggling a prescriptive memoir and an e-workbook (both personal projects) and am about to start on another nonfiction ebook for a regular client. It looks like I’ll need these tips close by…
    Steph Auteri recently posted..Spill It: Are You an Emotional Mess After a Major Success?

  9. Debbie Kane says:

    Great tips. Exercise is sacred to me. I work out daily, which gives me time to: a) think thru my project or a problem; or b) not think about work at all, if necessary. It’s a great stress-buster.

    I also have a daily/weekly to-do list and try to break down some of projects into reasonable chunks. I reserve mornings, because that’s when I’m most focused, for writing and afternoons for interviews/research. I sometimes fall off this system and when I do, I’m lost!

    I try to keep working-late nights to Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 8 on, which doesn’t always work but at least my family knows those are the nights I try to put aside to finish projects. If necessary, I bring work with me while I’m waiting at my daughters’ activities (but not to the field hockey and softball games because those require my attention).

    I also dropped most of my television watching. Except for “Downton Abbey” – some TV is still worth it!

  10. Amandah says:

    I use Windows Calendar and schedule my writing. The reminder I receive helps me stay on track. I also take breaks and make sure I stick to my work outs. Exercising is a great stress reliever and being in nature helps me to clear my head and unwind. FYI: Writing ideas usually ‘pop into’ my mind. :)
    Amandah recently posted..Social Media and SEO: Do Your Employees Struggle with Change?

  11. Congrats, congrats, congrats (or congrats-cubed) on the byline Carol!!!!!
    You so deserve this, and all your hard work has paid off. Well done and triple gold star :)
    Your finesse at juggling so much puts much to shame, but you are so right about getting the family onboard and taking time out. As working mum’s without those two, you may as well as just stop before you start.
    Di Mace | Word Swords recently posted..Who is the hero in your [writing] tale?

    • Carol Tice says:

      Yeah, there’s a reason they are the first two items on the list!

      Thanks for your good wishes, Di.

      It was all sort of unreal to me — I just had my head down trying to finish a chapter…and then trying to finish another chapter…and so on. Then I was proofreading.

      Then they told me they have a commitment from Hudson News for display space in 70 major airports’ bookstores…and I freaked! OMG, it’s really going to be a BOOK!

      Good thing I didn’t really get it any earlier. Would have given me too much of a complex to write anything!

  12. Josh Sarz says:

    I’m glad something this big happened for you, Carol. Here’s to more and more success with the written word.
    Josh Sarz recently posted..5 Blogging Mistakes That Make You Sound Like A Jerk

  13. Lynda says:

    Carol,

    These are great tips! Your husband sounds a lot like mine :) I just finished a HUGE project, or at least it felt that way. Exercising was something I put off in order to complete it, I think it’s great you included that as something you need. To organize myself I have an old-fashioned planner, it works for me.
    Lynda recently posted..Enjoy Free Publicity!

  14. Craig says:

    Carol, Sounds like you are a believer in learning. Never stop learning. I believe in learning too and often say “Good Bloggers are Learners and Learners makes Good Bloggers”.

    It is interesting to follower along as you evolved and learned new way to solve problems.

    Time and organizing files and folders is my biggest problem. So that nothing get lost or misplaced. I just started using Mind Maps.

    I am curious. What’s your system to keep your files and folders organized?

    • Carol Tice says:

      I used to be a legal secretary, so I’m pretty organized, Craig. I have a folder on my desktop for each client and herd all their related files in there. I also often keep just one physical folder per client and as I do different articles, I just add the next one on top — keeps my number of files down.

      I do love to learn new stuff — and that’s definitely a great trait for freelance writers to have.

  15. Cheziannhe says:

    Hi Carol…Thank you for the tips you have provided here…But I think if I was given the opportunity too, I need to have a lot of trainings and experiences too…
    Cheziannhe recently posted..Relaxation Techniques For Anxiety

  16. Trish says:

    Wow, this post is a keeper for me. I’m an aspiring writer and I’ve been learning a lot from your blog. I love that you keep chunks of time open for your family and that you never work on Saturday. Question: What exactly does writing “to length” mean?

  17. You are a brave woman, Carol. :)

    Your honest confessions are so inspiring that I feel more energetic and positive by just reading one of your posts a day. Really!

    Now I just can’t wait to read your book! :D

    - Luana S.

    P.S. A good news: tomorrow I’m going to sign up for a personalized English course at a Cambridge center here in my town. I need to improve my spoken English and to exercise my ear (because as of now I wouldn’t be able to hold a phone conversation with a prospect or even a friend). I used to, at an elementary level, until I spent my vacations in Malta, but the last time was on 2008 and I haven’t practiced my spoken English skills since then. I’m rusty. :P
    Luana Spinetti recently posted..’7 Story-Making Games For Kids’ on Education.com

  18. This is fabulous encouragement for taking a risk and going up to the next level. I appreciate how you carved out time for yourself and your kids. It’s smart to make a stretch sustainable not over-the-head exhausting.
    Sandra / Always Well Within recently posted..Introverts: Quietly…Take Back Your Life!

  19. The family time is really important so not working until after 8 and not working on Sat. seems like it must have helped. I find sitting down at the computer after being at one all day tough so anything else I do has to be active. I also think a Macbook Pro and a program like Scrivener go a long way to helping stay on track. How did you stay focused? All of the content and research it must have been hard not to get side-tracked. My favorite of what you listed is looking at a source once. I think of it but it hasn’t been habit forming yet. Thanks!
    Wyatt Christman recently posted..How The Board Game Go and Internet Marketing are Alike

    • Carol Tice says:

      I just have a regular Mac and didn’t need Scrivener – the publisher was taking care of the technical end, thankfully.

      I had to break some habits to get into that ‘look-at-it-once’ mode, as I just love to sift through my research. But in this case there was like a book’s worth of research for each chapter! I had to cut through the pile or I’d still be trying to write it now. ;-)

  20. Michelle says:

    This is totally off subject, but how did you land the book gig? I just looked at the info on Amazon and it sounds like an awesome project!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, not that off-topic!

      But they reached out to me through one of the bigger blogs I write for regularly. They found me. These days, I’m finding most of my good opportunities are happening that way.

      You want to write for the biggest,most visible sites online that you can, sometimes even if it’s not a paying situation, because they can be a great source of lead generation. Clients find you on the big blogs, see what you’re doing there, and want you to write for them. The trick is to experiment and see which blogs get you the leads you want…and definitely don’t write for free for ones that don’t!

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