7 Tips For Producing More Words

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We all know this to be true: to make serious dough as a writer means a) writing a lot; and b) writing well. This latter consideration is why TKZ has been around as long as it has (and we’re proud to say we are once again a Writer’s Digest Best 101 Websites for writers). We care about our craft and love helping writers get better.

As for writing a lot, most of you know that my best advice is writing to a quota. I’ve done this for 25 years. I keep track on a spreadsheet my daily, weekly, and yearly output. I used to go for a daily quota, but would feel guilty when I had to miss a day for some reason. Now I use a weekly number, and divide that by six days (I take one day off to recharge). If I miss a day I can readjust and add more words to the other days. 

I’ve also made a study over the years of writing efficiency. I don’t like wasting time when I write. I want to get the words out and stories completed. Here are some of the things I do. Maybe a few of them will help you, too. 

  1. Writing Sprints

Sometimes you can sit down at the keyboard and pound out 1,000 words or more in a state of delightful flow. Other times writing seems like walking in snow shoes through the La Brea Tar Pits. On days like that it feels daunting to contemplate 1,000 words. So I break it down into writing sprints.

A sprint is 250 words. That’s all. A nifty 250. Your Ficus tree can write 250 words. Don’t be shown up by a Ficus tree. Just do it.

Then rest. Catch your breath. Walk around a bit. Then come back and do another 250. 

Repeat until your quota is done.

Remember this rule, too: when you write, don’t stop to edit. Keep going. Which leads us to #2: 

  1. Place Holding

Often in your writing you’ll come to a spot where you’ll need to spend time on things like research, coming up with a name for a new character, specific details of the setting, and so on. When I come to such a point I put in a placeholder (three asterisks ***). That way I can keep on writing and later come back during editing time and fill in the info. 

I might be writing along and put in: ***POLICE PROCEDURE. This tells me there’s a specific detail I need to research on that point.

Or a new character comes in. I might use a descriptive word and do the name thing later: ***SNARKY. My placeholder brings me to this spot, I created the name, then do find (SNARKY) and replace with the name.

This keeps me writing “in the zone.” 

  1. Scene Storming

If you take just 2 -3 minutes to “scene storm”—brainstorming with a scene goal in mind—you’ll write a scene with an organic connection to the overall story and, as a bonus, save time in the revision stage. Yes, you’ll need to edit your immortal prose, but it won’t necessarily be a macro edit. In other words, you usually won’t have to throw out entire scenes and write new ones.

To storm a scene, ask three basic questions. 

First, what is the viewpoint character’s OBJECTIVE in the scene? What does she want? If she doesn’t want anything, don’t even think about writing that scene. 

The objective can be external or internal. 

Examples of an external objective:

  • Question a witness
  • Confront a boss
  • Hide from a stalker
  • Get a weapon
  • Avoid being followed
  • Steal the money
  • Gain access to a location

Examples of an internal objective:

  • Figure out the next move
  • Get a handle on emotions
  • Analyze the situation
  • Relive a memory (e.g., flashback)

Next, come up with a list of potential OBSTACLES to gaining the objective. This is where conflict, external and/or internal, develops. Obstacles can come from another character who has an agenda directly opposed to your Lead. Or it can be something physical, like the bridge is out or the car won’t start.

Finally, what will be the OUTCOME of your scene? Success or setback? Usually the latter makes for greater suspense, but occasionally you’ll want a success…so long as it leads to more trouble! 

My favorite example of this is from the movie The Fugitive. Remember when Richard Kimble is posing as a hospital custodian? He’s on the trauma floor when a doctor asks him to help by taking a kid on a gurney down to an observation room. But he knows from what the kid is saying and a sneak look at the x-rays that the kid needs to be operated on, stat. In the elevator he changes the orders and delivers the kid to an operating chamber, saving his life. Success! But he was observed looking at the x-rays by the doctor, and she confronts him and starts calling for security. Now he has to make an escape. More trouble!

So just a few minutes considering Objective, Obstacles, and Outcome will have you writing faster because you know where you’re going. 

  1. Riff like jazz

Now and then I like to riff on an emotional moment within a scene. When I come to a place where a strong emotion is felt by the Lead, I write 100 or 200 words without stopping, finding various ways to describe the emotion. I might use metaphors, memories, smells, colors, whatever comes to mind. I write these really fast, letting the intensity of the moment drive the words. 

I analyze later, and may end up using only one or two lines. This may, at first blush, seem like inefficient writing, since I toss out a lot of it. But in this case it’s worth it, because the lines I use will be some of the best writing I’m capable of.

  1. Write something on your next project

Wait, what? You don’t have your next project ready to go? You need to be more like a movie studio! You have one novel in production (your WIP). But you also have your next “green-lighted” project, the one that will be given your full attention when the current work is finished.

If I hit a snag in my WIP, I let it rest and go over to my next project. I have it set up in Scrivener and look at my scene cards on the corkboard. I’ll choose one that calls out to me and write 250 words or so for that scene. Then back to my WIP.

In addition to your WIP and your next, you should also have several projects “in development.” Everything from one-line ideas to elevator pitches. Give these some thought every week in a dedicated “creativity time.” See my post on “Chasing a New Idea.

  1. Write dialogue only

By writing just the dialogue—and by that I mean no descriptions or action beats—you can generate a lot of words that will help develop the scene. You go back later and insert the other stuff. I know what my scene is going to be about (via scene storming). By just writing dialogue I allow my characters to improvise. It’s fun to hear what they come up with.

  1. Drink stronger coffee

Hey, it worked for Balzac. Of course, his 50-cup-a-day habit led to his untimely death from caffeine poisoning. But he did produce the work!

My tongue is firmly planted in my cheek, of course. Well, a little. I really mean this tip to be: take care of your brain. Get enough sleep. Exercise. Eat salmon and blueberries, nuts and dark chocolate. 

And yes, “the science” says that moderate coffee intake is good for the gray cells, and for other things like reducing the risk of Type-2 diabetes and liver disease. So enjoy a cup or two of joe as you write. Your brain will thank you as your fingers fly across the keyboard. 

Now if you’ll excuse me I have some writing to do on my WIP. If you have any tips that have helped you with writing production, please share them with us!

+21

57 thoughts on “7 Tips For Producing More Words

  1. Thanks for these very concise and practical tips, Jim. I often quote you with respect to “The Nifty 250.”

    +4
  2. I’m impressed with myself that I’ve been doing most of these ‘organically’ over the years. Your #1 sounds like my Fitbit watch which buzzes me to get up and walk 250 steps every hour.
    I use brackets instead of asterisks, but placeholders are definitely a way to keep moving.
    I’ve never been able to work on more than one project at a time, though. I prefer to get my caffeine through chocolate, though. My body doesn’t do well with regular coffee, but I’ve found decaf has been vastly improved since the Sanka days.
    My productivity tip is “don’t be afraid of the unduki. Get it down, fix it later.” And remember, if you weren’t writing, someone might make you do housework. Like cleaning toilets. If that doesn’t get the productivity flowing, nothing will.

    +6
  3. Great tips. Related to your place holding is something I do to keep moving forward: When I think of a scene/event/symbol that needs to occur elsewhere in the book, I don’t add it at the moment. I write a quick note. (“Mama has to encounter soldiers in third chapter” or “Make the boy barefoot at the end to show the boy’s transformation.”) Then I carry on where I’m at.

    +4
    • That’s why I like the Scrivener corkboard, Priscilla. To add a scene I just add a “card” with a few notes and place it where I think it’ll go.

      +3
  4. Wow! What great advice! Especially for those times when I stare at the page, and the page stares back. When I’m in the zone, I write about 1,600 words a day, and these tips will help me get there. Thanks so much!

    +1
  5. Thanks, Jim, for those great tips. One thing that helps me with production is to do #3 – Scene Storming the evening before. When I sit down to do my evening reading, I’ll grab scrap paper and a pen and do my planning for the next day’s writing – before I start reading. The pen and paper allow me to look for all kinds of creative twists and turns, and the next morning I’m ready to go.

    +5
    • That’s a great point, Steve. Thinking about your writing before you nod off lets the Boys in the Basement work while you sleep.

      I find it’s also helpful to leave off the day’s writing mid-sentence (I think Hemingway did this). The next day, I finish the sentence and I’m right back in flow.

      +3
  6. Thanks for the reminders. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been indulging in the art of slothfulness, instead of creating word count.

    Oh, but the coffee: I am banned from ingesting caffeine by my husband, friends, sons, and past bosses, makes me too hyperactive.

    On a positive note, I’ve maintained a daily exercise practice for 21 years (90 minutes of fast walking, 7 days a week). And I do eat a cup of blueberries every day.

    +4
    • Truant, I’m in awe of your exercise routine! That’s fantastic. Now I’m the one who feels like a sloth.

      Hitting the treadmill today!

      +1
  7. Jim, your advice is always wise and timeless.

    Writing dialogue only is my favorite way to move the scene/story forward. A good argument works wonders for propelling a character toward a new direction or goal. Later, I go back to add action tags where needed.

    Lots of dialogue means lots of white space on the page, which is appealing to the eye. It also feels like the story is moving quicker than a solid block paragraph of narrative.

    BTW, yesterday I gave a zoom talk to Arizona Mystery Writers. Of course, your name came up and The Kill Zone blog drew raves from members of the audience. What a terrific, engaged group.

    +6
    • It’s always nice to hear about the good rep we have here at TKZ.

      And you’re right about the white space, Debbie. As long as the dialogue zips along with plenty of tension, it will create that “fast moving” feel.

      +2
  8. All great tips. I need to do more of #3–scene storming. The one that I find difficult is #5-writing something on your next project. The danger in that for me is that I have so many ideas. I’m afraid if I get off into another project I WILL veer off to that project and start that bouncing back & forth between projects that accomplishes none. Requires discipline, as with all aspects of writing (and I’m still learning to discipline myself after all this time).

    As to #7–I have heard many times that a moderate amount of coffee is good for you, but I can’t stand the stuff. I wish they’d say that about Barq’s. LOL!!!!!!

    +2
    • You’re right, BK, that it takes a certain amount of discipline to “bounce” between projects. I view going over to my next book for 250 words or so as a short stop, like a rest area on the highway. It’s important not to make it too long a stay and get back to your main trip.

      +3
    • I hear you on the coffee, but I still need a caffeine kick. I make the strongest tea that has ever graced a cup. Being from the south, I drink it iced, but only to room temperature. I don’t like it hot, and don’t like super cold drinks.

      +1
  9. Good morning, Jim. These tips are absolute gold. Place holding has saved my writerly bacon on more than one occasion. Writing sprints have also helped me–I love writing to a word count goal instead of just writing for X-minutes.

    #5 is something I’m working on–my currently personal schedule gives me a couple of hours first thing in the morning, while my wife is still asleep, to write, and then a longer stretch between lunch and dinner. I’ve thought about actually working on two projects simultaneously, just switching where I write, what I write on, which tailored fez I wear (seriously 🙂 between projects, doing one first thing and the other after lunch.

    During the heyday of the late great Shaw Brothers Studio, they were a factory, with actors and directors working on one film in the morning and a different one in the afternoon, and I’ve thought about emulating them.

    Of course, I’m a studio of one, so perhaps a softer approach is needed 🙂

    Have a great Sunday!

    +2
    • Or be like Harry Sherman, who produced the Hopalong Cassidy movies for Paramount back in the day. Six, seven, eight movies a year, all starring William Boyd (who had the foresight to buy the rights to all those films so he could license them to that new-fangled invention, TV).

      I can see the logo now for DIS Studios: A keyboard wearing a fez.

      +2
  10. Excellent considerations, Debbie, Jim. I just write forward, edit backward and forward, dream, repeat. Call it The Neanderthal approach. I have produced 1.2 books a year for six years. By incorporating even one of your ideas I’ll bet I can produce 2. Which technique do you suggest I use first? (Love the dialog idea! It seems so natural, and, as you say, White Space!)

    +2
    • Carole, that’s great, steady production! Nicely done.

      I’d recommend thinking like a studio. Please see the post I linked to on “Chasing a New Idea.”

      Thanks for stopping by!

      +1
  11. One of my ancestors must have engraved headstones for a living. I have the “I can’t make a mistake because granite is expensive so every stroke must be precise” mindset — it’s like every sentence I type has to be golden (or polished until it is), which is a real time-killer. However, I find my brain is much freer, and less demanding of exactness, if I close my eyes and consciously get lost in a scene. Unfortunately, at some point I have to open the eyes again, and more than likely I’m back in the cemetery. But I am getting better.

    +1
    • Ah, Laurie, I hear you. It’s hard to follow the wise admonition of James Thurber: “Don’t get it right, get it written.” He was referring to first drafts here. What might help is something I and many other writers do: turn off the inner editor as you write, get the words done, then lightly edit those pages the next day before moving on. Tell yourself you can edit to your headstone engraver’s heart’s content when you have the draft finished.

      Keep trying!

      +4
  12. I neglected to add my own tip to help write more words, though it’s one that’s right there in plain sight. Being obvious never stopped me before 🙂

    To wit, have a deadline. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, nothing creates more words like the prospect of a looming deadline.

    +5
    • Right on, Dale, though I’ve found that SIDs (self-imposed deadlines) are easier to, er, let slide than those from a publisher. I never missed a traditional deadline (usually I was early). While I do give myself a SID, I need to be more formal about it, as I was in the trad days. I’d print out a blank calendar and tape it to my office door, so I could look at it every day. I should do that again.

      Thanks for adding that tip, Dale!

      +2
  13. This blog post might be the most timely post ever for me. I started a new series. I’m a pantser, so the voices in my head aren’t as loud for a new series. I hit the publish button for July 15 earlier this week, which means it has to be ready for my editors by June 15. I’m at 24,244 words and I’ve been writing this story since late January. Prior to February, I was able to crank out 4 books in the previous 13 months. But it’s Spring and my backyard needs work. I refreshed my office with new paint and art, I need to do a fence repair. All worthy distractions from writing. For the last 2 books or so, the only thing that keeps up my productivity is putting my head in Amazon’s vice of a book publishing deadline. As if you fail to make the pub date, you go to Amazon hell for a year. I’ll be burning the midnight oil for the next several weeks. I also wonder if the grass is greener on the other side – if I spent a week or 2 outlining, would the work go faster? Am I capable of even learning that? Is it still an enjoyable way to write? I envy those indie writers that can publish a book a month.

    +1
    • Alec, 4 books a year is fantastic! Anything you add to that is frosting, IMO.

      By “Amazon’s vice” I assume you mean putting your book up for pre-pub as your “deadline.” You do that without having finished your book? Yeesh! I need to finishing editing before I make that move.

      +1
      • Not only has the book not been edited, but the first draft isn’t even complete. I name a pub date and put the book up for pre-order. I guess some of us need greater pressure than others. Of course underneath it all, I know if I sit at my computer and work, I will ‘get her done’. Even if I have to write at times of the day that are usually not favorable to my muse. Despite how awful it sounds, the last book I produced has only 5 stars reviews on Amazon. So apparently my midnight madness isn’t affecting the quality. Whew.

        +1
  14. Thanks for these tips, Jim. I often use the dialogue and placeholder trick. Both work great.

    Quick story to reinforce your point about having another WIP to work on…
    For my true crime project, I wrote a 40-page book proposal and an additional 18K-chapter summary for me to use as a guide to write the book. Things were moving along so well, but then it came to writing my sample chapters, and I realized I can’t do it without interviewing two key subjects. Writer, meet brick wall. 😉 I scheduled my interviews, but they’re days away. If I didn’t have a thriller WIP in the works, I’d waste precious writing time. Sure, I could work on other things like my next blog post, but that doesn’t nourish the soul in the same way.

    Happy Mother’s Day to Mrs. B!

    +3
  15. As I sit here practicing ti #7, I’m grateful to you and TKZ for convincing me to write every day (6 days a week for me). I tend to write short scenes (700 – 1200 words), so I set a goal to write a scene every day.

    Question: Do you ever throw an entire scene away? I find I get an idea for a scene and write it out, but it doesn’t work the way I thought, so I trash it. (One of many reasons I like Scrivener is that I can trash the scene so it doesn’t appear in the compiled document, but it’s still available in the project. I’ve been known to change my mind.)

    +1
    • Kay, I’ve rarely thrown out a whole scene. On those occasions I save the scene as something I may use in a future book. Sort of like Scottish haggis…let nothing go to waste.

      +1
  16. Great tip summary, JSB! You got me started on Scene Storming, and I’m religious about it. Couple of things I also do to help my writing process.

    1. It’s not exactly editing, but sometimes I realize in the middle of writing a scene that I’d already covered some of this ground and it would help know what I said before. So I’ll do a quick Search, find the fragment and copy it into the scene I’m writing. I make it look totally different (font size, color highlight) and add the word count for it (so I can subtract when I do the scene word count), and then finish that writing. When I re-read or edit later, I just skip over that bit or refer to it as needed.

    2. I was concerned about repeating my opening scene lines. So now I keep a running (colored) section at the top of each scene with all the preceding scenes’ opening lines. And I’ll bold or highlight the key subject and verb. This way I’m not repeating myself with similar constructions.

    Both above may sound complicated but it only takes me seconds to do. And it keeps me grounded and feeling good.

    +3
  17. I realized a year or so ago that word quotas don’t work for me, so I came up with scene quota instead. I’ve got to get x number of chapters written each week (the x number always depends on how busy I am, but I’m hoping that once I get a steady job it will balance out). This way is a little uncertain because a chapter could be a lot shorter or longer than I’d planned, but it gets me writing more than any other way.

    +1
  18. Thanks, Jim, for affirming at least two of my writing habits. As to #5, I have no problem picking up another project–wife calls me the man of a thousand first chapters.

    The other day I caught myself typing dialog with my eyes closed. I needed to shut out everything and get it down, no attributions, almost screenplay script. The result was a typo mess but it was legible and pulled the scene where I wanted it to go. My crude way of riffing sometimes.

    +1
    • Love your wife’s nickname for you, Dan! I can relate. I have a big file of first chapters and opening lines. All part of my “studio development.” The really fun part.

      +1
  19. Excellent tips for fiction writers, as always, Jim. And so clearly presented! Already shared in two social media places, and will share more!

    My favorite writing client (4 books so far), Tom Combs, does your placeholder thing too, with * in some places and # in others. I’ve also seen ** and ##. He knows the difference, I’m sure! 🙂

    +1
  20. Writing sprints are magical! I only do them from time to time because I write fast anyway, but “don’t stop to think” is my very best technique to avoid strangling my creativity in the cradle. (This is also what caused my acrimonious breakup with outlining.)

    I can’t use placeholders, though. I find that my prose and ideas go all marshmallowy if they aren’t rooted with maximum firmness in the scenes that came before, so placeholders trip me up; they break my immersion in my own story. I have to stop in mid-paragraph and make whatever decisions are needed to finish it fair and square, whether it’s a minor character’s name or the phase of the moon on June 8, 1972 (waning crescent). My strategy of relentless linearity puts exercises that aren’t part of writing the current scene outside my grasp.

    But having a second work-in-progress is gold, like you said. I got stuck on one and switched to a second. I hadn’t heard of the “250-word” rule of thumb, so I finished the second story without a second thought, and the process illuminated what I needed to do with the first one.

    +1
  21. “Your Ficus tree can write 250 words. Don’t be shown up by a Ficus tree.” What a great motivator! I never liked that Ficus tree anyway—it’s constantly shedding leaves right after I sweep the floor. For sure and certain, I’ll be beating its word count from now on.

    I’m firmly in the placeholder camp. A few years ago, I would have stopped to resolve the issue, only to get lost in research or distracted by other things. Now I plow right on through the gap, leaving vivid red XXX skidmarks.

    The scene storming questions you shared create a much more specific goal than “make something happen that inconveniences (or worse) the hero.” They can’t help but make the story tighter.

    I love playing with all the different ways to describe emotions. Your tip is a tool I use in every manuscript, even if most of it doesn’t make the final draft.

    I’ve recently started using the second project approach when I struggled to find the new scene in my WIP. (Yes, I’m a pantser.) Not only does it give my subconscious time to work on the problem, but I’ve made significant progress on the second manuscript. But it did take some effort to break the mindset that I had to finish what I started before moving on to the next story trying to break down the door to my mental workshop.

    Writing all dialogue is so much fun that I’ve even entered contests calling for all-dialogue stories. If you can make your story work without all the tags and descriptions, you’re on the right road.

    And oh, yeah! Stronger coffee, a full can of deluxe mixed nuts, and bars of dark chocolate. And blueberries with a dash of cream after the work is done for the day. What more could I want?

    Thanks, James, for these reminders about how we can get it done and enjoy the process.

    +2
  22. Thanks for the detailed description of scene storming. I’ve done several versions of that but never methodically, and I think that’s what I need to practice. Combined with the writing dialogue only, I think you might help me get over the 30K word hump on my WIP.

    I’m a word sprint addict and the ticking timer is the only thing that quiets my brain from all the distractions around me.

    You always have such timely advice! Thank you!

    0
  23. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 05-13-2021 | The Author Chronicles

Comments are closed.