Writing in Bursts: Quick Progress for Busy Writers

I’m starting to enjoy a new writing strategy: writing in three-minute bursts. Three minutes feels like almost nothing, so it’s completely non-threatening and makes no real disruption to your day. Once you’ve done a handful of them, though, the word count starts building up. If you don’t have large patches of free time to give to your writing, this is one way to keep making progress each day.

I use the Session Target tool in Scrivener to make this even more fun and productive. Session Target is a progress bar that fills as you approach a word count target you get to set. I set it for my three-minute word count record and see if I can beat it in the next burst.

[Edit: Bursts also pair well with this new motivational tool I made for myself: Writing Mission Generator]

Yesterday I peaked at 157 words on my second burst, which is pretty crazy. My usual rate for composing new prose is 10-25 words per minute, so I doubled the high end. I never quite reached that rate again over several more bursts, but it pushed me hard and several bursts hit 120 words or more. Best of all, the quality was comparable to what I usually create.

Short version: I wrote over 1,500 words yesterday without setting aside any major writing time.

Your numbers may be higher or lower than mine; that’s not really the point. A page a day is a book a year. A page is 250-350 words. Even if you only manage 30 or 40 words per burst, that’s 6 or 8 bursts. Three-minute bursts.

You can do one instead of checking Facebook one time. You can do one while you wait for your Pop-Tarts to pop or your tea to brew. Shave 3 minutes off each break you take. Squeeze in a burst between phone calls. Three minutes is nothing. There’s three-minutes-es all over the place. And if you’re pushing yourself to go faster with each one, you’ll be pushing your upper limit. It’s not hard to sustain ridiculous speed for a measly three minutes.

Two things to bear in mind:

1. For this method to work, it needs to be frictionless. Have your writing up with the cursor in the right place, ready to pick back up immediately. Have a three-minute timer easily accessible. I like e.ggtimer.com/3min. Have some idea what’s next in the story; using your first burst to quickly sketch out what you’ll write today may be a good plan if you’re having trouble with this. And being a fast typist is a big help.

2. This method is for busy writers who don’t have the time (or, as the case may be, discipline) to set aside large chunks of writing time. If there’s any way you can manage uninterrupted chunks of an hour or more, do that instead. You’ll build writing momentum and have less overhead to deal with in the form of remembering where you left off and getting your head in the right space.

If you really want to supercharge your writing, I highly recommend Rachel Aaron’s incredible post, How I Went from Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day. Part of her strategy is to set aside longer chunks of time for writing. If you want to dig deeper into her method, she’s expanded it into a book as well: 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron.

That said, if you’re not free to go write for hours in a coffee shop, three-minute bursts will keep you limber and, more importantly, keep your word count rising. Making writing bursts a regular habit will also help reduce friction in your writing overall. The more I scatter quick bursts of writing through my day, the more I find myself able to pick up and make useful progress on a moment’s notice, which is an incredibly useful skill for a writer with a busy life.

I also find that it seeds my thinking. The quick dips back into the world of my story leave me attuned to the next story decision, the next scene or moment or action. My brain works on it in the background because it knows that any moment it may need to dive back in and produce at breakneck speed for a few minutes.

Best of all, it’s really fun. It adds a bit of excitement and challenge to my day, and it feels awesome to recapture bits of time I would have just been spacing out or transitioning between activities and turning those useless moments into cold, hard word count.

If you try this out I’d love to hear how it worked for you. Any similar writing strategies you’ve used in the past? Drop me a comment below and let me know.

Cheers!

—Ben

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32 comments

  1. I had never done this before, but when I read your post last night, I made up my mind to try. This morning I gave myself a prompt, set the egg timer, and went to work. After the time ran out, I had a flash fiction story that only needed a few tweaks before it went up on my blog.

    What a great idea, and a great post, Ben!

    Like

    1. That’s fantastic! Thanks for sharing.

      I have to say, while I’m still committed to the value of long(ish), focused writing times, I’m getting increasingly intrigued by the possibility of developing the mental agility and logistical setups required to dip in and out of writing on a moment’s notice and snatch productive writing time out of the nooks and crannies of my day.

      Great stuff, Adan!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it’s worth exploring both long and quick writing times. Most of the time, I like to sit down with my coffee and write for hours on end. But, in a pinch, writing for three minutes is way better than not writing at all.

        Like

      2. Agreed. And it seems like it would have to be a useful skill to be able to switch back and forth as needed.

        Apparently I value flexibility in my writing process. I’ve also made a point of not getting too attached to any particular pen, setting, medium (paper/laptop/desktop), hat, or other ritual so my readiness to write depends on my choice to write, not my access to whatever.

        Only just made the connection between these two urges.

        Like

      3. There’s a lot to be said for not being tied down. With the ability to move, use different mediums, and even different processes, we can grow as writers (and as people.)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this post. I tend to write in quick bursts throughout the day, as when I’m at my day job ideas pop into my head that I have to get down on paper before they dissolve into the ether. Reblog imminent 🙂

    Like

    1. Thanks, Jane! I appreciate the reblog.

      I’m impressed with your consistency! I always love seeing people who actually make writing a regular practice in real life even despite busy-ness. Well done!

      Like

  3. Reblogged this on Graeme Sandford and commented:
    Good strategy for Tweeting in the 3 minute time span. Ihave 6 or so regular prompts to hand for inspiration – @baffled, @thetweetku, @heartsouppoems, @fieryverse, @boringhaiku, and more. Thank you for the info and suggestions, Ben
    G:)

    Like

  4. I found your idea extremely interesting, Ben, thanks very much. I’m retired so can write for any given length of time but I find that I’m more or less doing what you suggest though for longer periods. I do have other things which need doing during the day but I think following your method is a brilliant way of avoiding the doldrums, those periods when you just stare at the blank page.
    As you say, your brain keeps working on your story even when you’re not.

    Like

    1. Thanks! That’s great to hear. Lately I’ve been experimenting with writing bursts of different lengths – 15 minutes, 5 minutes, Pomodoros (25 min writing, 5 min break), etc.

      Preliminary results indicate that 3-minute cycles (whether singly or several in a rew) do a good job of keeping me in a state of flow when I only have a little time to write.

      But I think longer uninterrupted periods (hour or more) are better when I can fit them in. There’s a real trick to maintaining momentum when you’re writing in tiny bursts, and I can’t help but feel you’ll inevitably lose some productivity to the overhead of settling back in over and over. But those quick bursts can also do a great job of keeping your mind immersed in the story all day long, and there have been times I’ve packed more word count into 3 minutes than I achieved in a more leisurely 15 minutes.

      Best wishes with your writing! I don’t read all that much historical fiction, but I have to say I was getting drawn in just reading about the diverging paths your new generation of characters is setting out on.

      Cheers!
      Ben

      Like

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