Thirty minutes, mark the page

I once knew a journalist who taught me the one thing that has been the most value to me in my writing career. He didn't know he was instructing a future writer - at the time I was a barmaid and he drank every day in the pub I worked in. He would lean on the bar and survey his junior colleagues and apostrophise them with every bad name he could think of. He wasn't a popular or well-respected man, in fact he was a horrible example of cynical journalism, and nobody could understand how he kept his job.

He told me his secret and it was very simple. This was back when reporters typed copy on typewriters, and his only advantage over all the other journalists was that he'd trained himself to write his copy fast. This is what he did, and what I still do now. He marked the paper, set a timer for thirty minutes and banged away at the keys. At the end of thirty minutes he took ten minutes to check what he'd done, and then marked the paper again, set the timer and typed for another thirty minutes.

Why does this work?

Because most of us spend our 'writing' time doing almost anything other than writing - correcting previous work, organising our desk, making calls, daydreaming ... but when you look back at the page after thirty minutes and find you've only typed three lines, you know that you probably only worked for two of those thirty minutes. The rest of the time you wasted.

His work rate was phenomenal - he could turn out two or three times the stories his colleagues managed, and often ending up writing leaders that were last minute, just because he could be trusted to hit a deadline.

Over twenty years later, when I began to write, I remembered what he'd told me. I put an asterisk at the top of my page and typed for thirty minutes by the clock, ending with an asterisk. That first day, the results shocked me stupid. In one thirty minute session, I produced eighty-four words - that's all.

Nowadays I reckon to write five hundred words in half an hour, which means that when I've revised away the 40% that is rubbish in almost any first draft, I have around 300 words of reasonable text. In a day that's between 1,200 and 2,400 words. Not all of them good but all of them down as a first draft to be improved.

If somebody calls I ignore the phone, they can leave a message and I'll call back when my writing time is up, I can wait thirty minutes to go to the loo, and that chocolate biscuit I'm craving will still be in the kitchen when the timer goes. By giving my writing priority, I prevent myself daydreaming I'm a writer and spend my time actually proving I am one. And every thirty minutes I get a ten minute reward for my hard work.

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