If you’ve ever read any writing advice, you’ve probably heard that you should “write at your best time of day.”
On the face of it, this makes sense: Obviously, you’ll want to write at a time when you can easily focus, and produce scores of words almost effortlessly.
Most of the advice then focuses on how to figure out your best time of day, perhaps through energy mapping or some other means.
This is helpful up to a point, but …
… it doesn’t address the huge question of what to do when you can’t use your best time of day to write.
After all, most of us don’t have fully flexible schedules. We have other commitments: a day job, studying, or caring responsibilities, for instance.
So what can you do if your best writing time is 10 a.m.–1 p.m., but you work a 9 a.m.–5 p.m. day job?
What if you focus best in the afternoons, but that’s when all your lectures happen?
What if you can always write easily first thing in the morning, but your preschooler is a super early riser?
What if your main writing time—or even your only writing time—comes just at the point in the day when you’re at your lowest ebb?
For me, that’s evenings. I’ve known ever since I was a student that I struggle to focus after dinner time.
Right now, though, pretty much all my fiction-writing needs to happen in the evenings. The hours I have in the daytime, when my kids are in school and preschool, are reserved for my freelancing and for projects that’ll generate income for months to come.
Perhaps it’s the same for you: Your only regular, plausible writing time is at a time of day when you feel like you can barely string a sentence together.
So how on earth can you make that work?
Here are five things to try:
If you’re writing at your worst time of day, there’s a fairly good chance that you’re also not in full control of your writing environment.
One of my best places to focus is in our local library … but it shuts at 5 p.m., so it’s not much good to me when I’m writing fiction at 8 p.m.
Wherever you write, see if you can find a few small things that help you get into the writing zone. Here’s my top two:
With these in place, I cut 99 percent of distractions instantly. If I can’t go online, I don’t have to constantly resist the urge to check what’s happening on Facebook or in the news. If I have my headphones on (and my heavy metal cranked up), I can’t hear the neighbors in their yard or my husband watching TV.
You might find that something else works for you—maybe a particular hot drink always gets you in the writing mood, for instance, or you focus best when you meditate for a few minutes before writing. Try a few different things … and pick the most effective to use whenever you’re writing at your worst time of day.
If you’re really not an evening person but you’ve got your evening free to write, don’t try to write from 7–10 p.m. It’s much too long at a time of day when you’ll struggle to focus.
I’d suggest that an hour is the maximum length session you want to go for. If you find yourself really enjoying writing after an hour, then by all means continue … but don’t plan for longer than that.
For many writers who are working at their most difficult time of day, even shorter writing sessions are best. A focused 30 minutes might be all you can easily manage—if you can do that every day, or most days, it’ll soon add up.
I think all writers know how easy it is to end up procrastinating rather than actually writing. If you’re trying to write at a time of day when you’re inevitably tired and unfocused, it’s especially easy to end up writing little or nothing.
One thing that can help here is to have a very clear idea of what you want to achieve, and write it down.
This might be a single thing like “write 500 words” or “finish editing chapter 5.” It might be multiple things like “outline two short newsletter articles, and come up with 10 ideas for blog posts.”
Whatever your goal, writing it down helps you to commit and to focus during your writing time. If you know you want to finish editing that chapter and you’ve only got an hour, you’d better get on with it!
If I sit down in the evening, tired, with a blank page in front of me, chances are high that I’m not going to get anything written.
If I instead sit down, still tired, with a plan that I wrote the previous day—I’m much more likely to actually start writing.
While batching together tasks in the writing process is almost always a helpful thing to do, I think it’s particularly crucial if you want to write at your worst time of day.
For instance, if you want to work on a blog post, you could break that process into several steps: coming up with an idea, writing a rough outline, writing a more detailed outline, drafting the post, editing the post, and so on.
You can come up with a rough outline in 30 minutes on Monday evening, flesh it out a bit on Tuesday evening, write the first 300 words of the draft itself on Wednesday evening, and so on.
This is much less intimidating than sitting down on a Monday, thinking “I need to write the next chapter, but I have no idea where to begin,” and gazing in despair at your laptop until you give up and turn the TV on instead.
When you’re writing at your worst time of day, you’ll probably find you need to overcome quite a bit of inertia in order to get going. For me, this is normally like my natural resistance to exercise: I’m reluctant to get started, but almost as soon as I begin, I find that I’m enjoying it.
Sometimes, though, you might find that you’re really struggling. Just the idea of sitting down to write might make you want to cry or scream in frustration. Maybe you’ve had a bad week, or some difficult news, or a really long day, and you simply have no energy left to write.
If that happens, go easy on yourself. Skipping one writing session isn’t going to hurt, and it might well help.
Last night, I’d planned to get some writing done once the kids were in bed. We’d eaten with them at 5:30 p.m., so I had 7–8:30 p.m. blocked out to work.
But after a very busy couple of weeks and not much down time, I felt exhausted. I didn’t want to write; I wanted a break.
And I took one! I played a few hands of Doctor Who Fluxx with my husband … after which I felt a lot more cheerful and focused. I sat down to do some brainstorming for a new blog project that I have underway and came up with a whole series of products that I want to create.
After that, I was in a good creative zone. I turned to the back of my notebook and jotted down some new ideas for my novel-in-progress … ideas that rekindled my enthusiasm for working on it. (Though at this point, it was bedtime!)
It can be really tough to write at your worst time of day. There are ways to make the most of it, though—instead of just daydreaming about when you’ll finally be able to write whenever you want.
1: Set the stage for writing to happen by putting little things in place that help you focus. Unplug your internet connection, put on your headphones, make your favorite drink, light a candle … whatever works for you.
2: Keep your writing sessions short. You’ll get more done in a focused 30 minutes than in a distracted, reluctant two hours.
3: Write down a clear goal at the start of your writing session. If you know exactly what you want to achieve, it’s easier to stay on task—even if you’re not feeling particularly motivated.
4: Break tasks into different chunks. Instead of trying to come up with an idea, an outline, and a finished piece all at once, tackle different stages of the writing process in turn.
5: Give yourself time off when you need it. If you’re struggling, skipping a writing session for some much-needed downtime might well be the most productive option.
Hopefully, you’ll someday be in a position to write at your best time of day … but until then, I hope these tips help you to get some writing done even in difficult circumstances. If you have any suggestions to add, do share them in the comments below.
Ali Luke has been freelancing and blogging since 2008. These days ,she juggles freelancing, blogging, novel-writing and two young children. As well as blogging for a number of large sites (ProBlogger, Daily Writing Tips and more), she writes about the art, craft and business of writing on her long-running blog Aliventures.com. If you'd like to spend more time writing, download her free ebook Time to Write: How to Fit More Writing Into Your Life, Right Now -- it's a short read, with ten practical tried-and-tested tips.