We all know the frustrations of trying to carve out enough time every day to actually sit down and write. In light of that, most of us at some point will daydream about having someone else do our research, handle administrative tasks, deal with  bookkeeping headaches, and so forth. But then we are suddenly yanked out of our daydream when we think about the reality of our revenue streams vs. the cost for acquiring such help. But should we so easily give up on the possibility of having an extra pair of hands? Not necessarily.

Carefully consider what aspects of your writing job you need the most help with. Then think about how much writing time you lose every day in order to accomplish those tasks. Then ask yourself, Does the time I would save balance the cost of hiring someone? After all, time is money. If your goals include submitting X number of query letters a week to magazines, or X number or proposals a month to book publishers, and you’re not even coming close to that because of everything else you have to do, having some help just might be worth it.

Publishing, like any sales-related field, is a numbers game; and any successful writer needs to view it as such. So, you can’t just look at the money outflow of hiring someone. You need to balance it with the inflow of productivity you will gain.

Depending on the type of help you need, you may be able to find good sources at local colleges. You can advertise through the English, Journalism, or Communication departments for an intern or part-time employee. Many colleges have vehicles already in place for such employment, so they can help you locate the right person. And, it’s great experience for a college student to have on his or her resume.

If you are a more-experienced writer who needs a regular critiquer, proofreader, or perhaps some marketing help, your best bet is to try to gain referrals from other writers in your genre. You can also find listings of professionals through various writing networks–either locally or nationally. I’ve found it best to try to work with those who tend to be specific to what I write. If you’re a novelist, you’d be much better off with someone who specializes in fiction as opposed to a generalist who does everything from nonfiction articles to young adult books.

I’m not suggesting that you hire someone for 40 hours a week right off the bat. Writers who are making a comfortable living from their work have the luxury of perhaps having a few full-time staffers to help with everything from accounting to research to publicity. But for the other 95% of us, we need to start small.

Write down everything you realistically want help with in order to free up your time to write. Group your list into various skill sets to determine how many different types of help you need. For instance, one person could be assigned to all things marketing, while it may take another person to help you with admin tasks. Depending on the kind of writing you do, you may need someone very adept at research, but could this person also handle administrative work?

Next, get a picture of the kind of person you want and need to do these jobs. You may not be able to be excessively picky, but at the same time, if you can find a jack-of-all-trades who has a personality that meshes with yours, that one person may be able to do the job of three.

Start with just a few hours a week. This would be ideal for a college student or maybe someone from a temp agency. Once you get a feel for how much extra time you’re gaining each week, you’ll be better able to determine if your money is being well spent. If so, after a few months, try to increase your weekly number of hours of help. At some point, you’ll find the perfect balance of time vs. money.

Don’t be afraid to step out and hire the help you need, just be smart about it. Plan ahead to determine exactly what you do need, then start small. You might be surprised as to how much you’ll actually gain in the long run!

It’s great “to have written,” but not always so great “having to write.” It’s even worse when you do have to write–because of a school or work project or publishing deadlines–as opposed to just wanting to write for the fun of it. And, when everyone’s lives are busier than ever, how do you carve out that precious, uninterrupted, creative time when you can be alone with only your thoughts and your computer? That’s what I hope to help you with here.

Writing is like laundry: it won’t just do itself. It must be intentional, and intentionally planned. If you’re waiting for the perfect creative moment to occur in an untainted environment, you’ll never put pen to paper. Of course, those sudden surges of inspiration will come–often in unexpected and unplanned times and places. But you can’t always count on those. You just have to be ready when they do. But there are a few things you can do to help cultivate an environment for such creative moments.

1. Be intentional about when you write. The importance of time management when it comes to writing can’t be understated. In an earlier post I talked about how to eliminate time wasters and manage your time with ideas on how to schedule your time and block off portions of your day to dedicate to writing. Just as important as scheduling blocks of time is making sure those are quality time blocks. You may think that the only time you can squeeze into your day to write is first thing in the morning before heading off to your “real” job or the last thing at night after all your other duties are complete. But if this is not quality time for you and you’re unable to think because you’re too tired, you’d be better off using that time to sleep!

Make sure the time you choose for yourself is a time when you feel you are generally most alert and creative. If you’re unable to schedule writing time then, break up that time into shorter pieces to brainstorm and write notes for what you want to expound on later. It’s best to capture your thoughts while they’re flowing than to try to force them when they don’t want to come out of hiding!

If the middle of the day is good for you but you work a 9-5 job, perhaps use your lunchtime to write. If you can’t actually write during your quality time, maybe you can save your thoughts on a voice recorder to listen to and put on paper later. Once you find your quality time, work to make it as long of a block of time as possible so you’re not continually re-focusing your energy on other tasks.

2. Be intentional about where you write. I’ve heard of writing moms who have been known to lock themselves in the bathroom or laundry room just to get a few paragraphs written. While this may do in a pinch, it’s probably not a good long-term, consistent plan. Where you write is important. Many writers choose to stay at home in comfortable and familiar surroundings. But, as I discussed in my post on Overcoming Distractions While Working from Home, this option can have its challenges.

Whether you write from home, in a coffee shop, on the beach, or at a mountain retreat, it needs to be a place where you can stay focused and be creative. Also, to be intentional, it should be somewhere that you can plan on going consistently where you know you’ll be able to enjoy a good chunk of writing time. If you choose a place that’s quiet as a cave one day but bursting with energy and noise the next, and you’re not adaptable to those changes, you’ll just end up frustrated.

I usually suggest to writers who are just starting to become intentional about their writing habits to take some time to scout out various writing locations around their area. What they think may be a great place to write might be horrible once they actually go there just for the purpose of writing.

3. Be intentional about what you write. Creative surges aside, when you sit down in your pre-planned time and space to get busy writing, you should always have a goal of what you want to accomplish. Not knowing where you are going with your writing will get you nowhere. Your goal might be to write the introduction to your nonfiction book. Or, maybe it’s to compile your research into an outline for a magazine article. Or, maybe you have a goal of a certain number of pages or words you want to write.

Determine what your goal will be each time you prepare to write. This will help you stay on task, and it will give you a sense of accomplishment. It’s too easy to look at what you still have to do and think you’ll never finish, but seeing what you’ve already completed can be a huge motivator.

Three easy, but important steps to becoming intentional, and therefore, effective in your writing. How about you? What have you found that works best to making sure you get the quality writing time in you need?

When it comes to writing, I find I work best when I’m organized. I know most creative types thrive on chaos and clutter, but typically, even these personalities like some order to their lives occasionally. In addressing issues of organization, I’d like to zero in on time, space, and materials.

• I’ve talked about time management in earlier posts, so here I’ll simply reiterate that the best way to organize your time is to block off chunks of it on a daily and weekly basis. Within these chunks you should have family time, time allotted to specific writing projects (along with how much time you plan to devote to each), time for fitness, time for educating yourself on industry matters and your craft, and so forth.

As much as you probably want to just “go with  the flow,” having a schedule will really help keep you on track so you don’t end up wasting your time. And…remember to build in some margin for those days when nothing seems to go your way!

• Another key area for organization is your work space. It’s critical to have some sort of dedicated space for writing. This doesn’t mean you have to have an office with a door. But you do need a stationary location so you won’t have to continually move your work from place to place. Make sure this space is as conducive to writing as possible–good lighting, close to materials and tools you need, and quiet (if you need quiet).

• Within your work space, you’ll need to properly organize your materials. I recommend a file cabinet, plenty of manila folders, and accordion files or large, expandable envelopes. Everyone will organize their work differently, but I can tell you what’s been effective for me. I keep manila folders for each project I’m working on, or if there’s one project that is particularly large (this would apply to novels or large nonfiction works) I will use accordion-style folders to organize the work into smaller chunks, yet still keep it all together.

It helps me immensely to have everything at my fingertips when I need it so I don’t have to waste time trying to find things. With everything in different folders, I just pull the folder I need from the file cabinet, and all my work for that one project is all together. Along these lines, it’s helpful to keep whatever research materials or resources you need in one place. I have my writing books organized by frequency of use,  so the ones I most often refer to are always close at hand.

Aside from organizing your writing projects, you’ll also need a good system for keeping track of clients and publishers. I recommend using both an electronic spreadsheet as well as hard copy backups to track your submissions, contracts, queries, invoices sent, and payments. This is information you definitely do not want to lose.

Another tip for keeping materials organized is to set up some type of inbox or bin for papers you don’t want to deal with immediately. If you keep all these together in one place, none will get lost. Then it’s just a matter of occasionally going through your bin to file them or respond to them.

Speaking of going through papers…it’s so important to schedule regular times to organize and clear out your work space and files. Get in the habit of regularly re-prioritizing projects, sorting through your industry magazines and newsletters, and cleaning up your emails and electronic files. It’s very hard to get caught up on this once you fall behind. Then the task becomes so monumental, you never want to start. Ask me how I know!

Hopefully, this will help you get a jump start on organizing as we head into a new year. I’d love to hear about any tips or methods you have for staying organized!

Next time, I’ll look at how to juggle part-time writing with a full-time job.

Happy New Year and welcome to 2010!

In my last post I offered an overview of some various areas of our lives as writers that we often struggle with, and promised I would tackle them each in detail over the next few posts. Today, I’d like to take a look at one, which, in my opinion, is the most important one we face: balancing our writing lives with our family time. Juggling the two most important aspects of our lives is never easy, but it can be done. I certainly do not yet have this down to a science, but over the years, I’ve discovered a few “rules” that, when followed, can create peace of mind with this balancing act.

  • Work out a schedule with your family that will help you most effectively work around your family. Talk to your family before you schedule your work hours. By getting a general consensus upfront regarding what the best schedule will be for everyone, balancing your time with family down the road will become easier.
  • Set definite hours for yourself, then leave your work in the office when your work day is done. For me, this has become the most difficult rule to actually follow. When you work from home as I do, it’s too easy to do “just one more thing.” Having tough, consistent boundaries here, however, is very important, especially if you have children at home who are expecting you to be available when you promised you would be.
  • Pre-warn your family of upcoming tight deadlines or other anomalies to your schedule. By now, they probably realize writing is not a “regular” job and can have its share of crunch times. Instead of just locking yourself in your office for weeks on end with no one knowing why, alert them to your deadlines ahead of time and let them know you need to temporarily adjust your schedule. If you have young children, you may also want to reward their patience during this time by promising some quality time with them once your schedule is back to normal.
  • If you work a regular full-time job in addition to writing, limit your writing hours to a certain amount each day, and try to schedule your time so it’s most convenient for your family. I’ll address this issue more in an upcoming post that looks specifically at juggling part-time writing with full-time work, but for now, let’s just say that your writing time may not be an optimum time of day for you. I know writers who get up at the crack of dawn just to get an extra hour of writing time in before they head off for work and then squeeze another hour or so in after their kids have gone to bed. This way, they’re still in touch with their families, and they’re still writing. They’re just not sleeping! But…sometimes you just have to do whatever you have to do to make something work.

These are just a few starters, and I’m sure you have your own that have worked well for you and your family. The most important aspect of making any rule is to enforce it. Once you’ve established time boundaries and set a schedule for your writing, be sure to keep it. Your family will thank you!

What’s the first thing you do when you turn your computer on in the morning? Check email? Scan the news headlines? Log onto Facebook or another social network? Have you ever stopped to actually log the amount of time spent on the above activities or similar activities during the course of your day?

Time management is probably one of the most difficult aspects of a writer’s job, especially freelance writers who work from home. With never-ending deadlines and typically several projects being juggled at once,  having a time-management plan becomes critical.

Here are a few things I’ve discovered that help keep me on track:

1. Log your time. When you first attempt to get a plan together, spend the  first week logging how much time you’re spending on various activities. If you’re like me and you have small children at home, the time you spend with them would get included in your log. Track  actual writing time, family time, marketing time, time spent emailing and Facebooking–everything. Do this for a whole week to get an average of how much time you spend on each activity during a typical work day.

2. Eliminate time wasters. When I worked as a commissioned retail associate, I would sometimes get customers who asked question after question about a product, wanting to know every minute detail. They continued to act very interested, so I appeased them. Then, after  sabotaging my time with other customers, they’d decide they’d have to “think about it.” These people were affectionately called “time wasters.”

So what are time wasters for the writer? Continually checking email or a social networking account while you’re writing, answering your phone and/or texting, and, in general, getting caught up in any nonwriting distraction. This is the main reason for logging your activities. Find out exactly where your time is going and which activities you can eliminate or drastically decrease to free up your time.

3. Block your time. I find it more difficult to write when I only get 15 or 20 minutes here and there, although I’ve learned to capture every possible moment I can.  It’s much more effective to block off hours at a time to do nothing but write. Then have other hours devoted to marketing and promoting your work. Block more time for blog and website maintenance, and additional time for reading and returning emails. You’ll have to test your time blocks for a while to see what’s realistic, but it’s better than grabbing time whenever you get it,  because most likely, you won’t ever get it.

4. Make daily and weekly plans. At the beginning of your week,  plan everything you hope to/need to accomplish during that week. Next, break the plan down into daily chunks, leaving yourself some cushion for life’s inevitable emergencies and distractions. Each evening prioritize the  following day’s list. If you’ve come to the end of your day and your list is not as exhausted as you are, move the remaining items to the next day, making sure they are top priority.

5. Take advantage of downtime. Even though you may feel like you have zero downtime, you can capture more than you know. You just have to be creative! I have learned to use time spent in the carpool line at school, time in the library while my kids are book browsing, time at Chuck E. Cheese–any place where I don’t have to be actively involved in an activity–to get productive.

I’ll typically use this time to catch up on industry reading, jot down ideas for writing pieces I’m working on, organize outlines, etc. I usually need extreme quiet to actually write, so I have to save that  for my office, but there’s a lot of preliminary work I can do from anywhere.

Don’t you just feel more organized already?

For tips on building cushion and rest into your busy schedule, see this week’s Inspirations blog.