Determined to Meet Your Writing Goals? Set Up a Production Schedule

Determined to Meet Your Writing Goals? Set Up a Production Schedule

The following is an excerpt from Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page, available February 18. Mridu is giving away three free copies of her new book! Comment on this post for your chance to win — after two weeks, we’ll randomly choose a winner to receive a copy. Update: Congratulations to Katherine K., Robyn C. and Jay L.! 

Here’s a truth that changed my life: Those 30 unfinished projects I have lying on the backburner? I’m not going to be able to finish them all this year.

Shocking, I know. But if you’re anything like me, you secretly hope you’re going to make tiny bits of progress on each of them and then, magically, they’ll get finished in one go. It doesn’t work like that. Ever.

Even if you’re prolific writer with no life (guilty— I wrote 240,000 words in the last six months in personal projects alone), you’re still only going to be able to tackle between two and 10 projects a year. There are people who write a book a year and others, like novelist Dean Wesley Smith, who can write a novel a month.

You decide where you fall on this productivity scale.

Even if you were superhuman like Smith and wrote a quality novel a month, that still means that you have to pick 10 ideas from your long list (I’m hoping you will take a few weeks off here and there to recharge your batteries).

Which brings us to the difficult task of picking projects that are the most important, the most beneficial to our careers, or the most potentially profitable. Then we must run with them.

At the beginning of this year, I undertook the maddening exercise of selecting ideas. It drove me nuts. Of all the dozens of ideas I wanted to be working on, how on earth was I going to pick six or fewer? This is where the whole “being realistic” thing comes into play. Sure, you could pretend you’re going to write two novels and three nonfiction books in a year while blogging three times a week and bringing in freelancing work to pay the bills. All on top of raising your three children.

But deep inside, you know the truth. It’s not going to happen. Aren’t you better off picking a project and sticking with it? Isn’t it better to finish it, send it out into the world and hopefully make money with it? Or perhaps you learn from your mistakes and move on to the next. Isn’t that a saner way to do things?

I have a gazillion ideas that beg for my attention every single day. When that happens, I throw them into an idea file. I have projects selected for the year and I will focus on them. Next year, I will make another list, pick again, and every idea will get its chance.

Once you’re done with the step involving picking your projects for the year, you should think about how long each will take. Do you need a whole year to finish your novel, or can you get it done sooner? Perhaps it will take even longer. How are you to know?

One of the best ways I know to estimate how long a project will take is this:

  1. Figure out how many new words you can write in an hour. We’re talking new words and not rewriting. For me and most writers I know, this number is around 1,000.
  1.  Think about how many hours a week you have available that you can devote to writing new words. Again, we’re talking first draft, new words only. If you need to revise work, set a different time in your week to do that. You don’t want to mix the writing part of your brain with the revising part, because that’s what leads to five-year novels. Trust me, I know. Let’s say that this number is five hours. That is, you can devote one hour a day to writing new words while taking weekends off. This means you can write a minimum of 5,000 new words a week.
  1. What’s going to be the total length of this work? Sometimes this is hard to predict. Almost always, however, you’ll have a rough idea. If you’re writing a nonfiction book such as this one, you know it’s more likely to be in the 30,000-word range rather than the 100,000-word range. Similarly, mainstream fiction will be 80,000 words and romance novels will run a lot lower. Based on the scope and market of your project, how many words do you think your project is likely to run? For the purpose of this discussion, let’s say that number is 60,000.
  1. Let’s do some math now, shall we? If your manuscript is 60,000 words and you’re writing at a pace of 5,000 words a week, you can easily deduce that if you work diligently, show up at the page each day, and write your 5,000 words for the week regularly, you will have a completed first draft in 12 weeks, or three months. If all your manuscripts are similar in length, you could easily finish four manuscripts by the end of the year, working only an hour a day. Not bad.
  1. Finally, pick a daily target and put aside everything else and focus on hitting that day after day, consistently. This target could be project-based, such as “one short story a week,” or process-based, such as “1,000 words a day.” It could even be time-oriented, such as “one hour a day.” Choose what works for you, but make sure it helps you feel positive and optimistic about coming to work every day. By focusing on the daily target and not the project as a whole, you make progress every day. Before you know it, you’re typing the words “The End.”

This is why production schedules help. They allow you to see, in black and white, how staying on track can get you to your goals. When you’re feeling unmotivated and discouraged, look at your production schedule and see the date on the calendar for when you’ll be finished, if you stay on track.

Once you know what your deadlines look like for each project that you’ve picked out for the year, mark those big deadlines in your calendar. Break those big deadlines into smaller chunks if you can.

For instance, with this book, my goal was to write a chapter a day, regardless of the word count. Some days I wrote much more than that, but one chapter was my bare minimum. That was my daily deadline. If you’re working on a larger project, such as a novel, you could have deadlines for the 10,000-word mark, the halfway mark, and so on. Mark each of those milestones on your calendar so that you know how on- or off-track you are as you move through the work.

If data and spreadsheets inspire you, as they do me, create some of those as well. Personally, I have a notebook that I use in which I’ve written down dates and word counts like this:

November 1 (Sunday): 1,000 words

November 2 (Monday): 1,000 words

November 3 (Tuesday): 1,000 words

Then, I cross out the word counts as I move forward. Sometimes, I’ll work ahead. When that happens, I allow myself the flexibility of taking time off or giving myself leeway for when, undoubtedly, life gets in the way in the form of a sick child, a fried brain or a car breakdown.

Moreover, if you’re a freelancer or work in an industry that already drowns you in deadlines, you need to juggle so you don’t end up with four work deadlines and a novel deadline in the same week. The week you’re traveling abroad for work is not the week to schedule the start of a new book project. Having a production calendar helps you keep daily word counts in sync with the rest of your life.

No matter how you eventually publish your work, you’ll have to create room in your day for dealing with pesky publication issues as well: Edits, back cover copy, design, blogging, promotion, events and so on. While you may be able to continue your writing during those times — and you should! — sometimes it’s impossible to fit everything into a single day. Allowing for that helps keep self-loathing at bay.  

My favorite reason for having a production schedule is that it keeps me from getting hung up on or too attached to one single book or project. The day after I finished my first novel — a feat that took five full years — I began work on this book.

It was bad enough that my first one had taken that long, but I didn’t want to spend the next three months obsessing about agents, publishers, and advances. While those things were important and got their time, I also wanted to move on to newer work so my self-esteem and career goals weren’t tied up in a single book.

This is fairly common among writers, as you might already have noticed. They’ll finish writing a book and then spend weeks, months, or years trying to get it published while writing nothing else in the meantime. A production schedule or calendar allows you to have more work in the pipeline so that there’s something else to focus on when you’re finished with the current project.

Let me add, right away, that to the creative writer, “production schedule” seems like a very business-like, no-nonsense term that grates like fingernails on a chalkboard. Calling a book a “product” is like someone calling an article “content.” I don’t like it.

Yet, I’m a firm believer in looking at your work as art when you’re in the process of creation and a business when you’re looking at it from a career standpoint. In that sense, think of yourself as a publisher who has books to ship. By doing so, you have the best of both worlds: The creativity that comes from the art, and the money, sales and motivation that comes from a business.

Just because it’s numbers doesn’t mean it has to be dry. Find beautiful and artistic calendars for your walls that you can color in when you meet your goal for the day. Or, if you’re like me and you enjoy crossing things out, buy a moleskine and cross out word targets as you go along. The more fun and entertaining you make it, the more likely you are to stick with it. Just remember to make it simple and not overly complicated.

Now you have a road map, a production schedule for a year, six months, or however long you’ve planned ahead. A road map can tell you exactly what to work on and what lies ahead. It shows you that if you commit to the work every single day, you will have a finished project in your hands — or three — by the end of the year.

All you have to do is show up.

Have you used a production schedule? How did it help you meet your writing goals?

Filed Under: Craft


  • Ladonna says:

    Good ideas. I’m having trouble focusing and starting, so I like the idea of making a schedule and crossing each goal out as I reach it. Or if I don’t reach it, I will have a record in black/white to see and get re-motivated.

  • Jackie says:

    Great information. Thanks foe sharing. My biggest issue is time management when it comes to my writing.

  • D.A. Navoti says:

    Great advice from the article and input in the comments section. Recently, I’ve had to wake up an hour and a half earlier to squeeze in some writing time. The bags under my eyes are like ravioli, but at least the work is moving forward.

  • Katherine says:

    I am new to writing and have had a project on the table way too long. Have been retired from corporate work for a while and realize I have abandoned that daily regimented work schedule. Your article gets me back into the mindset of schedules, changes when needed, progress reports, charts, etc. Thanks.

  • Mea culpa, I mean “exhaustive” post.

  • I think one of the key points you mention, Mridu, is to keep writing even after you finish one project and are seeking to market it. It’s too easy to feel a sense of accomplishment from one book or writing project and then “move on” to the next phase in its development but the reality is that writers ALWAYS need to be producing new words even when they’re seeking representation for a completed project. On another note, 1,000 words an hour seems about right though why limit yourself. We’re all busy creatures (I am a single father, so I know :)) but I think most people can do a little more than that. Thanks for the informative and exhausting post! Jay

  • Sandie naumann says:

    So much of this makes sense. It is the same process profeasionals use every day but i had never really though to be so regimented about it. Thank you.

  • I am in the midst of reading Essentialism (a book.) In it, the writer encourages people to pick one or maybe two things to specialize in rather than a dozen. For now I am sticking to fantasy novels (high fantasy and paranormal genres.) One at a time! Since I hope to make a living at it, I should probably shoot for at least 4 a year and add coaching in a year or two.
    Some social media is probably necessary–blogging weekly, tweeting daily, newsletter monthly. The first novel will be published on Wattpad then published on Kindle and other platforms on perma-free.
    It really is difficult to decide what is necessary and what is not or what works and what doesn’t. Especially since all the experts seem to disagree.
    I was tempted to add freelance blogging to the mix, but am waiting a while. If the novels don’t sell well after 3 years and 12 books, it may pay to look into changing over to blogging.

  • Williesha says:

    At the moment my “schedule” involves just writing down “Anxiety Book” and putting it on my calendar! I don’t have a target word count, because I’m still in this super early phase, but telling people is forcing me to be more diligent – accountability factor.

  • Diane J. says:

    I love the idea of a production schedule. I’ve been bouncing between project and project and as you and others have discovered it’s an unproductive time suck. I’ve already made plans to get back on track, they are slowly taking hold. One is trying to stay focused. Not easy, but I’ll get there.

    I use the Passion Planner as my datebook. The first year I used it (last year) I kind of understood it, but didn’t implement it. This year, it’s sinking in and I’m on a steady roll. I’ll weave in a production plan and raise the sails to catch some wind.

  • Thank you so much! I have a “Math disability” (and a degree in Finance) LOL, and over the last 16 years have intended to write that bestseller on how to optimize children’s intelligence, and avoid, diminish, or abolish developmental delay, even possibly Autism & Asperger’s. I was married to a narc, who alienated my teens against me; my father died, marriage died, lost house, was arrested, lost residential custody of kids, went bankrupt, lost 100 pounds, lost my mother, friend of 25 years, a classmate, now I have to sue my sister for stealing $$ from my mom’s estate! Bering on SSDI and alimony doesn’t exactly cover everything; this week I paid $1000 to Walgreens for one medication, and mail order wants $500 for another!

    But I know God took everyone out of my life so I could write. Maybe not eat, but I have hours to write LOL
    Maybe you can write an article on what to do with all the boxes of STUFF left over from 20 years of marriage, my grandparents’ death and house, my parents, so I’m not overwhelmed! Keep up the good work, everyone!
    Ps. I haven’t developed my website yet

  • Thank you for such a helpful article. I have not got to writing books yet my heart is on writing script for drama reflecting day to day life struggles. I also aspire to write articles for magazines. I will now adopt your advice and make sure all the ideas I have in my mind will come to fruition. Thank you for such a great post.

  • Jane Steen says:

    Great post, Mridu! I’ve been using daily word count goals to push me onward for a while now. This year I’m sidelined by an international move, but I can’t wait to get settled in my new home and get back into a schedule.

  • Flossie says:

    This is fabulous advice, Mridu! I especially like the way you break it down into tiny, concrete, manageable steps – it seems so much more doable this way. I haven’t used a writing schedule/calendar along these lines since I was writing my thesis back in school (before kids!), but you make it so manageable here that I’m inspired to start again! Thanks so much for the great article.

  • Robyn says:

    Thank you for a timely article! Last year I made a wall graph of all my projects, thinking I could work a bit on whichever one suited me each day. You can guess how that went! This year I decided to choose one at a time. I currently have one short fiction to work on each day and am choosing other work, such as anthology submissions, every couple of months. We’ll see how it goes this year 🙂 Your suggestions on the production schedule will surely help!

    • I hope it goes well for you, Robyn!

      I am a big believer in “one big project at a time,” as much as possible. Studies keep showing that no one really “multitasks” very well; efficiency is always lost when switching focus from one task to another. That doesn’t mean you can’t get some refreshment every so often by doing something different for a while, but trying to juggle multiple projects continuously slows down all of them.

      As much as possible, I try to edit just one book at a time. I definitely can do a thorough job more quickly than if I try to give the same degree of thoroughness to more than one book at once.

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      Freelance Editorial Services and Writers’ Resources

  • Nicole says:

    Thank you for this article. As an easily side-tracked writer myself, I often find that I’m indirectly trying to juggle too many things at once and not necessarily giving each the attention they deserve. I’ve never thought to actually sit down and think out-loud on paper just how many words I should dedicate per day and the total add-up date I will get by staying on schedule. What a great way to stay on track!

  • Michelle says:

    This is great common-sense advice for the side-tracked writer. Make a schedule and stick to it or else! You could end up with a haphazard routine that’s more draining than helpful if you choose to carry on without a plan. Note to self: get on that scheduling train ASAP

  • Vickie says:

    Thank you for these helpful tips! Creating a writing schedule is practical and do-able! I’m just starting out in my writing career and appreciate good advice.

  • Jean Wise says:

    Great suggestion and breakdown of a logical systematic approach to writing. Would work for me. I like planning ahead and around what else is happening in my life. Thanks for sharing this post. I tweeted it too

  • Deb Walters says:

    Thanks for this linear approach to an emotional process. Quite helpful.

  • darkocean says:

    Apolagies I forgot to check for typos, please delete that comment.

  • darkocean says:

    In Wattosd I see many writers who have five or even twenty books. But, whin I go into read them almost sll have just three or five chapters, and none are finished. So, I decided with this first book to focus on it souly. Like you, any ideas that pop into my head get put into a word pad.

    Or, I’ll re-read the whole book again and find a good place for the idea and see if it can be adapted to the stoan and woven in. Working on one book and getting it done imop is what matters. I want to finish it and make something rich and full. (^.^)

  • Great advice!

    If I may add a suggestion: Remember to build a few steps into your production schedule beyond writing, including setting the work aside for a few weeks, reading through it again, and, yes sending it off to a freelance editor and making judicious revisions after it comes back. If you treat those as part of the task of producing quality work, you will be less likely to begrudge the time or rush the project to submission before it’s really finished.

    I wish you all success in creating a production schedule that works for you!

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Freelance Editorial Services and Writers’ Resources

  • Thanks for this help with production. While I don’t write books and only focus on magazine and newsletter articles, I can apply the same word count math to determine if I can indeed say “yes” to assignments that cross my in box while also figuring in interview time, which I am usually good at figuring out. I’m trying to be more deliberate in saying yes so I don’t completely burn out.

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