Timer Magic for Writers

by Kate Coffing, Ph.D.,
Book Coach for Women Writers
Closeup of manual typewriter keys, strengthen your writing muscle!

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” — William Faulkner

Do you dread sitting in The Chair?

You know, The Writing Chair. I think the phrase deserves capitalization to proclaim how we feel about it. We tell ourselves we want to write, but in reality do anything to avoid it and The Chair.

But guess what? You don’t need to write the whole book today. Hooray! So please quit beating yourself up. Instead, just start moving toward your goal one step at a time.

If you’re avoiding a writing session, remember this: the vast majority of the time, starting is the hardest part. Our emotional stress is highest just as we force ourselves to walk to The Chair, open our manuscript, and stare at the blank page.

Contrast this with how we feel once we’ve started writing, even if only a paragraph: writing that paragraph brings us back into the story we’re telling. It greases the wheels. Continuing is easier than starting.

So how do you begin when everything else on your to-do list looks much more appealing—including washing the cat?

One of my favorite writing tools is a timer. “Timer magic” can work for almost any task that’s looming over you. So grab a timer—an inexpensive kitchen timer like this will do fine—and set it for fifteen minutes. C’mon, just fifteen minutes—you can do anything for such a short time!

Now promise yourself these two things about those minutes:

(1) you’ll be in your chair, and

(2) you’ll be willing to write during that time.

I didn’t say you had to write. I just said you had to be willing to write. This technique isn’t about output, it’s about changing your relationship to your book. So even if you’re afraid you’ll be staring at a blank screen, it doesn’t matter. Sitting there and being willing is your agreement.

Now: put your butt in the chair and your hands on the keyboard, tap the timer, and go. And here’s where freedom comes in: your willingness to write can liberate you from trying to write perfectly. (Perfection is an impossible standard that freezes many a writer’s heart!)

For fifteen minutes, your only goal is to write down whatever comes to you. If it happens to be the next section of the manuscript, great—and if not, no worries, just jot down anything that could be relevant. Depending on the kind of book you’re writing, this may include ideas for a “grabber” opening, snippets of dialogue, a bullet point outline of the next chapter, or why your heroine hates red velvet and scratches her nose when she’s nervous. Anything. Don’t censor yourself—just let words, thoughts, and ideas roll out of you. You’ll deal with relevance later. Right now, relevance is not your job. Perfection is not your job. It’s to brainstorm and babble.

When the timer goes off, you’re free to stop. You’ve done exactly what you pledged: fifteen minutes of time in The Writing Chair, being willing. Congratulations!

Are you in the middle of a juicy paragraph or otherwise feeling “the flow”? Keep going! Set the timer for another fifteen minutes and it’ll zoom by.

When the time’s up, give yourself a reward. Rewards are important, people. Perfectionists—and you know who you are!—will be especially prone to think they don’t deserve a reward. Ignore that miserly voice! Better yet, tell it to shut the heck up, and that Kate’s given you permission to have some fun.

So will your fun be a bowl of Rocky Road ice cream? Half an hour of guilt-free reading of a favorite author’s new book? Choose what feels good, and what can motivate you next time, too. And if you found yourself writing for more than the initial fifteen minutes, do something extra nice for yourself. You earned it!

Now, decide when you’ll do this pleasurable progress-reward technique again. Make it soon, to reinforce your momentum.

After a few more times, you’ll find yourself adding more minutes to the timer so you can get even more done. Soon your book—the very one you’ve been dreading—will become a habit! You’ll find yourself finishing chapters, then major sections, and before you thought possible, you’ll be typing The End.

Remember, writers: it takes only one step to start a journey, and small steps can take you anywhere you want to go.

Kate Coffing, Ph.D. is a book coach for women writers. She helps women write, publish, and succeed! Discover more at Women-Ink.com.

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