My 7 Ingredient Recipe for Productive Writing

I'm writing my second novel, and feeling pretty good about it.  Establishing a writing routine for the first novel, "Here Be Monsters", was interesting as I'd never done anything like it before.  Having successfully been through it, as well as having written an additional pair of novellas, "Mickey Slips" and "Bound for Home" in the intervening year, I feel confident and comfortable with my process.

I'm sharing my 7 ingredient recipe for productive writing not as the best or only way to write, but simply as one possible way that has worked for me.  Feel free to ignore or modify any or all of the recipe as suits your needs; my only hope is that it will be helpful to someone looking for a way to start (and hopefully finish) their writing project.

Productive Writing Recipe


  • Coffee
  • Food
  • Water
  • Plan
  • Quiet
  • Time
  • Permission


Coffee is an integral part of my writing process, I'm drinking my third cup of the morning right now.  That being said, I understand that not everyone likes to prime their pump with coffee...that's fine.  Coffee, besides being a tasty caffeine delivery system, is also, in this case, a metaphor; I use it to mean anything that helps you reach a state of wakefulness and synaptic function that writing is possible.  Other means that I use to "get in the zone" include playing with my dogs, reading, splashing my face or showering, and going for a swim.  Whatever it takes to get you going can stand in for, or bolster, the coffee that is the first part of my writing ritual.

It's important to note that too much coffee can disrupt your writing process...so be careful out there folks!

I try to maintain the correct balance of caffeine to other vital nutrients throughout my writing periods, and after months of arduous experimentation, generally manage to find that happy and productive and slightly wired knife's edge

A good rule of thumb is to drink at least as much water as coffee over the course of a writing session (yes, I fail at this sometimes also).

If coffee is what gets your engine started, food it the fuel that keeps your brain and hands going during the hours of writing you hope to get done each day.  Without adequate, and adequately nutritious, food, your writing sessions, and writing, will suffer.

I try to eat a good meal with a mix of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats before I begin writing for the day, and follow that up with snacks either as I go along or during the breaks that I try to remember to take.

Junk food is easy and yummy, but can be hard on the laptop keyboard and also lead to energy spikes and dips.  I work to keep my writing foods simple and plain and a little bland...I'm looking for fuel, not a gastronomic experience.
I always have a glass of water beside me while writing.  To painfully extend the engine metaphor I've been beating you over the head with so far (and thankfully plan to abandon from this point onwards), it is the lubricant that keeps all of your systems running smoothly, and allows you to take full advantage of the writing productivity boost granted your hands and brain by the aforementioned coffee and food.

I work to drink about a gallon of water every day, more when it's hot or I'm physically active.  If you start with a full glass, and refill it every time you take a break in your writing, you'll be doing yourself, and your writing, a big favor.

(Yes, it's a cheesy graphic, but it fit what I wanted to talk about perfectly...make of that what you will)

I spend the weeks, and sometimes months, before I start writing a novel planning and thinking about what I will be writing.  I get to know the setting and characters and story-arc pretty well before I begin writing.  This is not to say that I know everything about the story before I write it; I'm often surprised by developments that come up (out?) during the course of a writing session.

I think of my planning as a quite general roadmap, with my starting point, the planned end, and a few waypoints along the route.  A big part of the fun of writing for me is to see where the story takes me from day to day.  I like having a general idea of the shape of my novel before I begin, but don't want to be a slave to a rigid outline; the compromise works well for me.

Strangely, I find that when writing my shorter works, I'm perfectly happy and able to jump in with nothing more than an idea...a starting place.  From there, I just let the story tell itself to me, and see how it turns out.
I like to write in a quiet and peaceful place...no jackhammers pounding or people talking to me.  I have a few "writing" playlists that I will sometime listen to (they tend towards mellow instrumental classical compositions), but most often just write to the ambient noise of the Adirondacks, where I live: wind, birds, trees, insect, etc.

I hear that Stephen King writes to hard rock, and know some authors who unplug their phones and sever Internet connections, but I find that I'm happier somewhere in the middle.  I avoid music with words, because of a suspicion that it will interfere with my words.  I like being able to use the WWW for just-in-time fact checking and research (and also for email and facebook check-ins, to see how the world is getting along without me).

You will undoubtedly find the proper balance of peace and quiet for your writing, but my advice would be that when in doubt, choose the more quiet and less distraction-filled option.

I can't settle down to writing productively on a novel with a period of time of less than two to five hours.  With smaller chunks of time, I can happily do marketing stuff on FB or twitter or G+, or mess around with edits on a story or novel, but I'm just not wired to work on my novel in short periods of time.

That being the case, I work hard at finding and then jealously guarding those bigger chunks of time from the minutiae of everyday life that can erode a workable piece of writing time into a fragmented day of errands and chores and such.  

There are always perfectly good reasons to do things other than write your novel...don't give up your writing time, or your novel will become something you wish you had done!

The final ingredient in my recipe for productive writing is permission. You need to grant yourself permission to dream big and write badly and not get it right the first (or fifth) time.  Give yourself permission to indulge your imagination and your characters and your fantasies.  

I'm giving you permission to write foolishly and recklessly and heedless of conventions.  Write the book you want to write...not the book that will sell, or the book that will please your family and friends.

If you give yourself permission to scoop the story out of your brain, and write with your heart, then I guarantee that your hands will know what to do, and the writing will go well...except when it doesn't.

Sometimes the writing sucks.  It drags, it's stale, it hurts to read the crap you're spent hours (or days...or weeks) writing. It happens to every single writer, me, you, Stephen King, Leo Tolstoy, and Harper Lee.  

The magic, not-so-secret, fix to bad writing is to...keep on writing.

Give yourself permission to write badly, and then start again the next day.

Thanks for reading, thanks for writing, good luck!



Unknown said...

I like the sound of this recipe. now if I. can just get ny dog to cooperate. she always decidesit is play time when I am hot in the middle of a great scene.I

Jill said...

This is fantastic! All things I knew, but put together in a way that speaks to me. Thanks!