Jumpstarting Your Writing through Sprints

(originally published in the Nebraska Writer’s Guild Bulletin)

Have you ever prepared for writing—researched your ideas, developed characters, created a plot outline, set aside time to write—and yet when you sat down to write, you found yourself stuck with a variety of false starts if you could start at all? Maybe you were constantly stopping the writing to double-check a fact, refill your coffee, or check your email (just a quick look!). Writing sprints can help keep you in your seat and writing, ultimately producing thousands of words per day while being energized from the process.

What is Sprinting?

The sprint approach has become popular for all sorts of activities, from cleaning the house to exercising. During sprints, you spend a certain amount of time (e.g., 15 minutes) focused exclusively on one activity. The goal is not necessarily to finish an entire task, although that can be a possible goal, but rather to spend that time focused on that task. So instead of thinking how you have to clean the entire kitchen, you might focus on one counter for the next 15 minutes. Once the time is up, you are free to do what you want (usually limited to another defined time period), such as check Facebook for 10 minutes, read the next chapter in a book, or just sit and relax. Ultimately, by repeating the 15-minute + reward period cycle, you end up cleaning the entire kitchen without being intimidated by a large (and at times daunting) task.

Writing Sprints

To try this approach in writing, first determine a length of time that is appropriate for you. A good place to start is 20 minutes. Eliminate any distractions that you can (e.g., make sure the caffeine is full, the phone is unplugged, and your email and social media are closed). Set your timer, then put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and write. Don’t think about completing anything; in other words, don’t aim to complete a scene or a chapter. Rather, the only goal you should have is to keep writing during the set time. When time is up, give yourself 10 minutes to stand up and stretch, grab a refill or snack, or check email. Then repeat the cycle two, three, or even ten times.

Once you get into the swing of writing in sprints, adjust your timing to fit what works best for you. Some people do best writing for 30 or 40 minutes at a time. If you are easily distracted or find yourself daydreaming during the sprint time, shorten it up a bit. Find the “sweet spot” that works for you.

Sprinting with Others

Although sprinting can work fine for individuals, its real power emerges when you sprint with others. You can sprint with just a few people or large groups. All you need is a timer and communication medium (if sprinting remotely). For example, five of us spread across the United States currently do writing sprints via Gmail chat. We meet at an agreed upon time, sprint for 35 to 45 minutes, then spend 10 to 15 minutes chatting about our successes and goals for the day, sharing particularly interesting ideas or characters that emerged during the sprint, and even trading resources to help further our writing careers. (In one recent sprint break, we all shared which online classes we were taking in the first half of 2014, which led to a flurry of signing up for new classes.)

Sprinting in groups helps keep everyone accountable and motivated to continue with the sprints. We do anywhere from three to five rounds of sprinting each time we meet (five times a week), and all of the participants consistently produce at least 2,000 words for their current projects by the end of the day’s sprints. Our group ranges from writers with a long history of publication to one in the process of publishing her first novel; none of us is working in the same genre or format. All of us have seen both our quality and quantity of writing improve by being able to spend chunks of time focused exclusively on writing.

Tips for Sprinting

Whether you are sprinting alone, with a friend, with a group, in person, or virtually, there are a couple of key points to keep in mind:

  • Use an actual timer. Most cellphones or tablets have timers included in them. A kitchen timer works just as well. Using a timer frees you to focus on your writing (instead of watching the clock to see if time is up yet, which takes you away from writing).
  • Eliminate distractions. Turn off your phone, shut down Facebook, and close the office door. Walk the dogs before you start sprinting. If working with a group, give everyone a ten-minute warning before the first sprint so they can grab a cup of coffee or run to the bathroom. Once that time starts, you don’t want to have anything interrupt you.
  • Always do a minimum of two sprints. Sometimes it takes time to warm up. If you do one sprint and aren’t “feeling it,” do one more just in case. It might take a second sprint to convince your muse that you mean business.
  • Don’t lose control of breaks. If the breaks start getting longer or group members keep chatting instead of writing, use a second timer to time breaks. Give a three-minute warning before the next sprint starts. We humans are social creatures, so make sure the person responsible for timing can be a taskmaster, if necessary.

Sprinting can be an invigorating approach to writing that maximizes your productivity. It can increase accountability as well, so even if you might not feel like writing, you can still produce several pages of meaningful content. Sprinting in groups can help minimize the isolation we might feel as writers while motivating you to write consistently. The great thing about sprinting is that it doesn’t require any special tools and very minimal planning, meaning everyone can benefit.

Comments

  • That’s a great idea! I need something to help me tame my multitasking tendencies! LOL

    Mary PapasFebruary 9, 2015
    • I hear you! That’s when sprints really pay off — forcing you to focus on one thing only. 🙂

      C. JaiFebruary 9, 2015

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