Time management for playwrights

Writing tips
Martín Zimmerman

Note: This article originally appeared on the Playwrights’ Center member website, where practical, educational articles like this are published regularly. If you’re interested in this type of playwriting advice—in addition to classes, dramaturgy, a database of play submission opportunities and many other benefits—check out our membership program.

Time is liquid. We’ve all experienced minutes that felt like an hour and hours that felt like mere minutes. This is both good and bad news for us as writers. It means we’re capable of producing an astonishing amount of material in just an hour while equally capable of squandering eight uninterrupted hours of writing time. Thankfully for us, the solution to both problems—a scarcity and an over-abundance of time—is remarkably similar. Which is why I hope this post will be helpful to writers with many different relationships to time—from writers with full-time jobs and children, to writers who just quit the day job because they received a fellowship and are determined not to let that precious fellowship year slip away.

The answer to both problems lies in breaking your time down into bite-sized half-hour chunks. In order to do so, I use something called the Pomodoro Technique. You can read much more about this wonderful technique (and I heartily recommend you do so) all over the internet, but in short, the Pomodoro Technique follows one simple rule: you will complete twenty-five minutes of continuous, uninterrupted work followed by five minutes of rest. After four of these half-hour cycles (called Pomodoros) you take a longer break (between fifteen and thirty minutes). You can break a typical eight-hour workday into fourteen or fifteen Pomodoros (taking into account a lunch break). But if you only have two hours, you can complete four Pomodoros. Or if you only have one hour, you can complete two. Or if you only have thirty minutes… And you’d be astonished how much content you can produce in just one or two Pomodoros if your work is truly uninterrupted and continuous. For us writers, that means doing nothing but putting words on the page. In order to ensure that my writing is both uninterrupted and continuous, I have aggressively segregated my writing from my revising, blindfolding myself while I type that so that I can only push ahead and be in the present moment with my characters. Revision comes later in the day. Or tomorrow.

And for a little extra motivation, I keep a journal of exactly how long and how much I write each day. Nothing provides that motivational kick-in-the-pants like staring at how much (or little) I accomplished in the past week.

For those of you who are still skeptical, when I started working like this (using the Pomodoro Technique while writing with a blindfold and keeping a daily journal of my output) I spent two Pomodoros a day just generating words, followed by two Pomodoros later in the day revising those words. The outcome was astounding. In five days, I’d completed fifty pages. Ten pages a day. In just two hours of writing time a day. If you only write three hundred days a year, that’s three thousand pages. Now you may not write as quickly as that, but writing at even half or one third of that speed is still tremendous output (1500 or 1000 pages in a year). And that’s all in 10 hours a week of writing.

So, for me, the secret to generating ample material is literally breaking my time down into manageable, half-hour chunks of uninterrupted output.

Now this next bit of advice mainly applies to those who have an over-abundance of time. Those for whom time is scarce usually have no problem with this part. But my next secret to structuring my time is that I put an upper limit on my writing time. My personal goal is that I will write no less than ten and no more than twenty hours each week. If you’re like I am, that upper limit might seem absurd to you at first. But it took me a long time to see just how essential the “no more than twenty” part of my goal is. Any creative endeavor requires time spent not actively working so that ideas, characters, language, etc. can gestate in your subconscious. I use the other time outside of my ten-to-twenty hours of writing in order to either forge ahead in my research or to absorb other material, other writing, other art. If you don’t supply your subconscious with novel images, words, and ideas, producing that much output will become daunting. And sooner or later you’ll start writing the same characters, ideas, and situations over and over and over.

So the other secret to structuring my time is that I also carefully attend to the non-writing part of my day. I understand this part of my day is just as crucial to my output as the time I spend writing.


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About the author

Martín Zimmerman

Martín Zimmerman is a Playwrights’ Center Affiliated Writer. http://www.martingzimmerman.com