Chop! Chop! Writing in 20-Minute Slices

Thirty years ago I read an article that said writing was like eating a salami. You’d choke if you tried to swallow the whole thing at once. Slice by slice, though, it was easy.

Life has been hectic lately, with few large chunks of time to work. So I went back to creating 20-minute tasks for my “slices of salami.”

The Challenge of Chopping

Chop, chop! How do you break writing tasks into those 20 minute slices? At the beginning of the summer, I made a three-page single-spaced list of such tasks, covering several project areas (a novel revision, a possible nonfiction e-book, some work-for-hire educational writing, and marketing).

The beauty of the list to me is that I don’t have trouble getting started. I pick a task–not necessarily in the order listed–set my timer, and get going! Since getting started has always been my biggest hurdle, the list goes a long way toward getting me over that hump.

Examples of Short Writing Tasks

If your main project is fiction, and you only have 20-30 minutes to write, pre-thinking is critical before you sit down at the keyboard. Otherwise you’ll waste your time getting started and focusing. I became skilled at pre-thinking when I was first taking the ICL course¬†because I had a preschooler, a toddler and a newborn. I wrote in 10-minute slices back then.

I made long lists of tasks for the short stories I wanted to write. The tasks covered such things as outlining steps, “creative steps” like thinking of character and setting names, mechanical steps (e.g. write opening paragraph), revision steps, and marketing steps.

The list of short fiction¬†”slices” would include things like:

  • Think of three titles
  • Revise titles to be more suspenseful
  • Decide on main character’s name
  • Decide on ending
  • Write physical character description of mother
  • Look up street names and weather in XXX town

Nonfiction “slices” might include:

  • Fact check xxxxx
  • Organize sources into alphabetical bibliography list
  • Revise (or tighten) opening

Examples for marketing might be:

  • Find three agent blogs to read
  • Find three publishers’ blogs to read
  • Read one blog post and leave a comment
  • Set up a Twitter account
  • Get domain name at GoDaddy.com

I was going to list some of my own 20-minute tasks for you, but I realized they wouldn’t mean anything to anyone but me. (e.g. search/replace name change, check epiphanies re: p. 194 MAC, make “sense” lists for each scene in last chapter) But I think the examples above give you a better idea of breaking things down into small slices.

Estimating Time Needed

Realize that it’s difficult to estimate times correctly. Sometimes I gave myself twenty minutes to do a certain task, and it only actually took me five minutes. Other times, the task took me three 20-minute periods to finish.

For example, in the past, one of my 20-minute tasks was to set up my author page on Amazon.com. (I had needed to do this for more than fifteen years!) My friend did hers in 20 minutes, but even though we were adding the same amount of info, I took three 20-minute times to finish mine. It took me the first twenty minutes just to read and understand the directions, another twenty to write the bio, and another twenty to add the book jackets and video trailer. (Actually there was another twenty minutes spent later because some of the dust jackets wouldn’t load, which I gave up on.)

Fight Overwhelming To-Do Lists with Slices

Life is too busy and overwhelming at times. Yet we need to keep writing so we don’t lose the flow and continuity.

I hope these examples have given you ideas for breaking down your own writing projects into do-able slices. You won’t choke if you take one tiny slice at a time. Now…go eat that salami!

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10 Responses to Chop! Chop! Writing in 20-Minute Slices

  1. Vijaya says:

    That’s been my summer strategy, Kristi. And sometimes those 20 min turn into an hour :)

    • kwpadmin says:

      It’s a great summer strategy, Vijaya! When the day is full of kids and activities, short spurts of writing work! I noticed this on a recent trip, Vijaya. It was a nine-hour car ride each way, so I’d make myself start writing for just a few minutes, and I ended up writing 4,800 words total yesterday in a bunch of short sprurts. Once I got up to 55 minutes before I noticed the time. Getting started is the hardest, and you can do a LOT in twenty minutes.

  2. SuZan says:

    Kristi:

    I think this has been the most helpful blog I’ve read to date! Thank you so much. One request: could you please share more of what you do in those twenty minutes slices? I found your examples more helpful than anything else. I’ll be utilizing two of them in the remaining days of this week.

    Blessings, sk

    • kwpadmin says:

      Well, the “slices” all depend on what I have to do that particular day. For example, today I am working on test passage writing, so some of the slices have to do with “research X topic online” and “check state core standards for reading level Jules Verne” and stuff like that. Most of my own 20-minute notes wouldn’t mean much to you. But you can take any writing goal and break it down. It just takes a little practice.

      • SuZan says:

        “Test passage writing” ? Could you please explain? Or have you written a blog about that I could read?
        Thanks, sk

        • kwpadmin says:

          You know all those standardized tests you took every year of school for every subject? Or the SAT/ACT tests for college? You read a passage and were tested on it. Those are test passages and test questions, and all states do their own tests. You have to write according to common core standards, which you can study here: http://www.corestandards.org/ It’s another outlet for writers, and it’s educational publishers who do this kind of thing. Educational publishers are listed separately in market guides, I think. At least, the ones in the SCBWI guide are separate.

  3. Liz says:

    Great idea about taking the tasks one slice at a time! I was doing that with exercising – 5-10 minutes at a time as breaks in whatever I was doing. Now I’m using that for 30 minute word sprints = to gain momentum and focus on what I’m working on. :)

    • kwpadmin says:

      Yes, exercise is another avenue that works for “spurting” with short times. So often we have the mind-set that if we don’t have a whole hour to write or to exercise, that it’s not worth starting. But actually, it adds up nicely in both categories! Good luck to you! 8-)

  4. I’ve come back to this post after a crazy week to remind myself that even 20 minutes of work means making progress. I’m going to take 20 minutes and start working on my list now. I’ve passed your link along here: http://wrightingwords.wordpress.com/2013/09/08/learning-my-lesson-again/
    Thanks.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Heather, you would laugh if you knew how often I have to do the same thing…go back and read my own advice to myself so that I practice what I preach! You’re in good company! And with school in session, it requires different tools! Good luck to you. :-)

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