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.