Welcome to “Ask the Coach.” As a writing coach, I answer questions from writers about making the work of writing happen, tackling craft, business, and personal questions along the way. (Have a question you’d like answered? Check out the details at the end of the article about how to submit one.)
Today I’m addressing a reader’s question about how much (or whether) to plan writing time:
“How much should I be planning my writing time vs. just showing up to write each day?”
Much like the answer to most writing-related questions, it depends.
Here are some things to think about:
1. Showing up to write consistently is one of the most consequential actions you can take as a writer.
Whether you plan or don’t plan, showing up to write consistently and regularly throughout the year is the best way to see your body of work building over time.
Writing regularly has other benefits as well: According to a study by researcher Robert Boice, writers who write daily are twice as likely to have frequent creative thoughts as writers who write when they “feel like it.”
Writing consistently is also the best way to “find” or develop your voice, something writers often ask about too.
I typically advise most writers to aim to write 5 to 7 days each week, leaning to daily for newer writers or writers getting back on track after time away. Longer gaps between writing sessions make it harder to restart.
On the other hand, “just writing” without any kind of plan won’t necessarily help you see a script (or other writing projects) through to Done. Yes, ideas and voice development, as well as personal growth and insight are valuable. But planned writing leads to completion. At the same time, you can design it in such a way as to allow for flexibility.
2. Specific daily planning is less critical when set within the context of a well-structured goal.
When you’re working on a single script or writing project and have a well-structured goal, planning each day’s writing in advance is less necessary, though still valuable. (More on that in a moment.)
A well-structured goal means working on a specific, single project within a defined period of time, with a measurable outcome. For example: Write the rough draft of your sci-fi action script by January 31. Or: Write the outline for your rom-com by January 15. Use the basic concept creating a SMART goal (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Resonant, and Time-Bound) to help you design one that fits this bill.
3. Reverse-engineer your writing plan once you have your overall goal.
Once you have a goal, you can reverse-engineer your writing plan. For example: For a 115 page script written in January over 31 days, you’ll want to average just over 4 pages per day in order to meet your target. That gives you a rough plan for each writing day. (There’s a free worksheet on my website to help you reverse-engineer your writing plan here.)
Let’s say you also know you tend to write 2 pages an hour on average; that means you can plan on two hours a day to meet your goal as well.
Now you have your daily writing plan.
4. Hold your current and next day’s writing in mind as you work.
While you’re writing, keep an eye on your current day’s writing and your next day’s work. In other words, hold in mind what you’re working on and what’s coming up next. Then, when you sit down to write tomorrow, it becomes less about figuring out a plan and what to do and where to start and more about picking up where you left off (this is another benefit of daily or near daily writing). If you like, leave notes in your draft to cue yourself about what you had in mind. Your tomorrow self won’t have the vivid insight and recollection your today self has, so help them out.
5. Add accountability for a boost of magic.
If you want an extra boost of writing vigor to help yourself take productive action, add some accountability into the mix. This could look like reporting on progress in a public forum, participating in a writing challenge, or joining a writing intensive with other writers. The big idea is having witnesses to share your efforts with (not your pages, necessarily, but the fact that you’re doing the work) and who will celebrate the highs and commiserate with the lows as they come along. (My upcoming Deep Dive Writing Intensive is one possible way to find this kind of support.)
6. If you’re not writing new pages, but developing or revising, go for time and to-do’s.
If you’re breaking story, developing characters and plot, or perhaps in rewrites and revisions, and not “just” writing pages, your goal and planning process will naturally shift.
In the development stage, you may want to have a list of items you want to complete before you start writing pages (here’s my “Must Have” list as an example). In revisions, you may have a to-do list you’re working through to tackle your major structural changes first, then moving down to smaller items.
In both cases, you’re still working on a specific project with a measurable outcome, ideally within a specific time frame, but it can be a little trickier because you can’t track your work as readily or set page count goals. For this kind of work I recommend measuring your progress in terms of your time and to-do list items rather than page counts. For example, you might set a time goal of 1 to 2 hours per day within which you’ll work on the next item on your list to move you toward completion.
7. Having said all this, if you want a detailed plan, you can certainly create one.
If you’re the type of writer who revels in certainty and structure, you can get as specific as you like with your planning. You might map an entire writing plan for yourself, much in the way you might outline your script, assigning a scene to be written each day.
Personally, I prefer a more flexible structure so I can adapt as needed if life goes sideways on me on a particular day, or when I have extra vim on another.
That’s a Wrap
While you certainly can be detailed in your day’s planning, I recommend working within the context of a well-structured goal and overall plan and setting up daily average targets in terms of time, page counts, and/or to-do’s. This allows you some flexibility to make choices each day that match both where you are in the script while also respecting where you are each day personally, so you have latitude to adapt when they are days with more or less flow.
Thank you for submitting your question.
Submit your question to be answered anonymously via my online form here or send an email directly to email@example.com. Look for answers to selected questions in my monthly “Ask the Coach” column on the third Thursday of the month. And reach out to me on Twitter to share your thoughts: @JennaAvery.