How to Use Prompts, Timed Writing & Sprints to Complete ANY Writing Project
Once Upon A Time
I’ve been reading almost nonstop since I learned how in first grade. I started writing a bit later — maybe third or fourth grade. My first journals were diaries — the kind a 10-year-old girl uses, with a key to keep out nosy siblings or parents from spying on her private thoughts.
My diary served as a confidant but truly what I remember most was that I made stuff up. I guess I thought my life was pretty boring compared to Pippi Longstocking and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series.
I don’t have those diaries or any of the countless notebooks I kept as a teenager and young woman. I wish did. I do, however, have all the journals I’ve poured my heart into since June 2001. Without even reading them again, I know there’s a treasure trove of material in there just by reflecting back over the past 20 years.
I never seem to have difficulty beginning when writing in a journal; I rarely even pause. Yet, when on assignment, whether for a client or my own work, the blank page of a lined pad or the blank screen of a Word doc on my laptop can both paralyze and frustrate me. My home is never cleaner than when I’m on deadline.
You may have had similar experiences with the blank page. I think more has been written about writer’s block than any other single subject covered by us scribes.
By assigning age 10 to the beginning of my writing career, I’ve been at it for 60 years. (I can’t believe it either. I keep doing the math, and yup, that’s right.)
And it’s only in recent months that I learned a system that unlocks the secret of how to start and finish ANY project. Even if I get off to a good beginning, when I hit the mid-project mark my energy and creativity dip and a dry spell of doubt and block sets in. Where was I going with this anyway?
Once I get past that peak at midpoint I usually coast to the finish line, although conclusions can stump me too. I have a personal affinity for a good closing — something I believe is overlooked by many contemporary writers. But that’s the subject of a different article.
So, here’s what I’ve learned that changed everything for me. It was one of those forehead-smacking moments when I realized I had the power all along, but like Dorothy, I was so distracted by Oz and the lure of the Yellow Brick Road that I tripped over the way home time and time again…until a Good Fairy came along and bopped me on the head with her magic wand.
For me, Wanda the Good Witch arrived in the form of Natalie Goldberg’s (affiliate link) online writing class that I took earlier this year (along with approximately two thousand other writers around the world). The really embarrassing part for me is that Natalie’s books were always on the resource list of recommended reading I gave out at the writing classes and workshops I led over the years.
Natalie is a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn who is a practicing Buddhist. When she began writing and found that days went by with more crossed-out words and empty lines on a page than copy written, she started to apply the principles of Buddhist sitting practice to writing. She gave herself a topic, set a timer, and wrote without edits or rethinking. And she did it hour after hour, day after day. (That’s why it’s called a practice.) At the end of a period of time, she had a book.
Now, in my defense, I did read Natalie’s books long ago and understood the value, which was why I included them in my recommended reading lists. But I never applied the practice to my own work. Probably a bit of hubris, “I have my own methods,” and a bit of resistance to using someone else’s words (prompts) or system. Perhaps I didn’t want to admit a shortcoming or place myself in the category of “other” writers who struggled. Come on, I was a working writer — I got this.
Yeah, I got notebooks and computer files full of unfinished works of fiction and nonfiction. And I have pages full of great story ideas never expanded past a paragraph or two.
So I decided to take the Good Fairy’s advice and do the work as assigned. I reread two of her books. I think in the beginning I secretly hoped I’d fail and I could avoid a bruised ego, but nope, this simple system worked! I will say that because I am who I am (an independent Aquarian with an editorial background), I adapted the system with my own twists, tricks, and techniques that work for me.
And so, dear readers and writers, here is a fail-proof system to complete any writing project from blog post to article to essay to novel to thesis. I believe this system will work for all forms of writing. Even poetry and those PIA 25-word bios and summaries that are harder to write than War and Peace.
A prompt in writing is a given topic, title, or idea that helps to push that pen along the page. You know, a gentle nudge to get you going. The rest is up to you and your muse.
For the system to be fail-safe, writers need more than a prompt to produce a work. If all we needed was a good idea, even Amazon wouldn’t be able to hold the volume of books that would be produced and most of us would never leave the shower — the “great idea” incubator.
“Everyone who has ever taken a shower has had an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off, and does something about it that makes a difference.” — Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari
Think of a prompt as the tip of a match. You need to strike it along a surface to ignite it. Timed writing is that igniter. Add a timer with a bell to your writing session and it’s like seasoning the soup. Ah, that’s better. Now it tastes like something.
Start with 10-minute sessions and increase to 15 minutes or even 20. The rule is to write without stopping to edit, correct, cross out, or revise. No need to stop writing when the bell goes off. If you’re on a roll, keep going. But it’s your “out” if you did the work. Cross it off the to-do list. What a sense of satisfaction! You wrote today.
You can use timed writing to complete a project (see section on sprints below), or as a warm-up for writing a larger project, such as a book or report. A daily timed writing from a prompt sets the stage for greater creativity and flow in whatever is next in your day.
Daily word counts or pages written are a writer’s benchmarks. Without them, we’re not doing our jobs or completing the project.
Sprints are the secret ingredient to getting the job done. Think of sprints as timed writing sessions with Kathy Bates (Misery) behind your chair. Unless you want to suffer the fate of James Caan, you don’t get up from that seat until you’ve reached your word-count goal.
Using several series of 10-, 15-, or 20-minute timed writing sessions with 5-minute breaks in between is the hot sauce that makes sprints so effective. Again, writing time is for writing only: no edits, corrections, or changes.
Sprints can be done alone or in groups. Accountability is a helpful aid to maintaining a commitment or completing a project. When I was writing novels, I participated in several sprinting groups. All were done online — not because of a pandemic, but because we were located all over the country and sometimes internationally.
I had a preference for 20-minute sprints, but once I had a sprinting partner with ADHD who could barely sit for 15 minutes. He begged me to try 10-minute sprints, which I did reluctantly. Well, what do you know? I started having 5,000 words-per-day days for the first time in my life. Up until then, I considered 2,000 words a great day, with 1,000 daily words written satisfactory.
So, as my mother liked to say, “You learn something every day.” You just have to be open to it.
Icing on the Cake
You may recall I mentioned earlier that I liked a good conclusion. Here’s a final caveat, for which I give Natalie Goldberg full credit — again with a little of my own advice to top it off.
While you are doing a timed writing or sprinting, your mind will start to sabotage your efforts. You will hear, “This sucks,” or “This is shit.” KEEP GOING! (That’s Natalie.)
In addition to having Kathy Bates behind your chair, imagine your muse on one shoulder with your internal editor on the other. Guess who’s whispering “This is shit,” and who’s urging you to “Keep going.”
And this from me: As with everything in life, you are always at choice. As I learned after probably 40 years of struggling to get the work done, don’t listen to the naysayers (even the ones in your head). And for goodness sake, use a proven system that works.