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05 March
The Back Page Viewpoints

The Secrets of Highly Productive Writers

By Meg Donohue, Author of How to Eat a Cupcake

If I said motivating myself to write has always been easy, I would be lying. For a very long period of my life I was a consummate procrastinator, masterfully turning anything—and I mean anything—into a valid reason to put off writing just a few minutes longer. I once opened up my laptop, stared at the blank page, and then called my dentist and booked appointments two years out just to avoid writing. That’s the level of procrastination I’m talking about.

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Thankfully, I finally developed a writing strategy that works for me and I’ve been able to keep the procrastination (mostly) at bay ever since. I finished my debut novel, How to Eat a Cupcake, in about ten months, and I’m now one-third of the way through my second novel, All the Summer Girls (on-schedule) to complete it in about ten months as well. It turns out that what works for me is setting a weekly page quota. I need to write ten pages each week, or about one chapter, to stay on schedule and keep in touch with my work. I outline my novels ahead of time so that I no longer ever find myself in the daunting position of staring at a blank page; each week I look to the pre-written chapter synopsis as a guide to get myself started and to help maintain the pace and plot arc of the book.

Some weeks, eking out ten pages is a challenge; other weeks, the ten pages come easily and I sail on by my self-imposed page quota. I try to wrack up the pages when the juices are flowing, knowing that it’s only a matter of time before I hit a rough patch and the pages come slowly again.

I’m not the only writer who has developed specific strategies and voluntary deadlines to stay productive. Here’s how other authors keep themselves in the writing groove:

Stephen King, who has published more than 50 books, has a self-imposed page-count goal that puts mine to shame. “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span,” King writes in On Writing. Talk about prolific!

New York Times bestselling author Meg Waite Clayton’s self-imposed writing goals are similar to King’s: she writes 2,000 words per day or until 2 PM, whichever comes first. “If I’ve got 2,000 words by noon, I can do whatever I want,” she writes on her website. “If I had to pick a single word to describe what makes me a writer,” she continues, “it would be discipline.”

Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan told The Guardian that she aims to write five to seven pages every day. “And that can happen really quickly; I can be done with that in an hour or two,” Egan said. “But I sometimes spend a lot of time avoiding doing it, taking four hours to do what I could’ve done in one.” I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who easily sinks down the rabbit hole of procrastination every once in a while.

With two novels published in 2011 (The Violets of March and The Bungalow) and two more novels slated to be published in the next two years, Sarah Jio could write a master class on maintaining productivity—if she could find the time. For Jio, the key is to write every day, without fail. “Each night after I put the kids to bed, I head down to my office and always write a bit—even if it’s only a few paragraphs. My theory is that if I check in with my draft daily, I’ll keep the story fresh in my mind and make better progress.” Jio also shared that she motivates herself by writing the endings of her novels first. “There’s something so satisfying about writing the final chapter and typing “the end.” Sometimes I change the ending because of plot choices I make along the way, but my story always feels more substantial and less daunting when I know how it will end.”

I’m amazed and humbled by the work ethic of these highly productive authors; by comparison, my ten-pages-per-week goal seems a bit pathetic. How do these writers find time to book their dental appointments? Shop online for holiday dresses for their daughters? Drive around the city, eating cupcake after cupcake in the name of research?

My weekly writing goal might be unimpressive by comparison, but it’s a goal that I can, and therefore do, achieve. Writing a novel can be a daunting, unwieldy activity, but breaking it down into a series of small, weekly objectives keeps my spirits up. Ten pages a week? I can do that. I bet you can too.

Wait. Is this article done now? Does this mean I have to get back to my manuscript? Maybe just one cup of tea first.

About Meg Donohue

Meg Donohue has an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Dartmouth College. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she now lives in San Francisco with her husband, daughters, dog, and a weakness for salted caramel cupcakes. How to Eat a Cupcake is her first novel.

Visit Meg on Facebook, Twitter (@megdonohue), and her

One thought on “The Secrets of Highly Productive Writers

  1. Patrick Knight says:

    Hi Meg~ Glad I ran across SF Book Review and I appreciate your article. I am a pretty novice writer who is trying to take it to the next level… articles, interviews, product reviews and hopefully some fiction. I am sitting here right this minute procrastinating, instead of getting back to some journaling/writing I started yesterday.

    Anyhow, specific question… when you talk about 2,000 words a week or day… are you talking about just getting words down on paper?… or does that include some editing, etc.? I am just trying to get a sense of the commitment it takes to be a real writer. Just getting 2,000 words down is one thing, but making them make sense much less be something that makes me proud is different! Thanks~ Patrick

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