How (Part Time) Writers Can Make Themselves More Productive…

…by writing in their ‘dead time.’

“How do you find the time and energy to write when you’re writing on a ‘part time’ basis when you’ve got a full time job? And other commitments like friends and family.”

This is a question some of you probably have on a regular basis. I received this question from a subscriber on one of my email lists.

This is a question I had to answer for myself because my online bass guitar website had grown from something that I did for three or four hours a day (which left plenty of time for writing and other stuff) to becoming the equivalent of a full time job.

And consuming seven or eight hours a day.

The First Attempt At Solving The Problem

The first attempt I made at solving the conundrum of making time for writing was to try this: I’ll write in the evenings after I’ve finished my main workday.

Only this didn’t work — I’ve been ‘transcribing’and analyzing a lot of classic bass lines recently and it’s brain intensive work. Often by the early evening I’m done for the day and have no energy or inclination to write.

So I tried to switch it round and write first thing in the morning and THEN start the work that needed doing for my bass guitar website.

That didn’t work so well either. I found that I was cutting my publication deadlines too close and there was no ‘chaos allowance’ in my schedule.

All it would take would be one unforeseen event that took up a few hours to totally screw up my publication deadlines.

I tried other things too. But none of them worked.

So I plugged myself into The Hero’s Journey to try and come up with a solution.

Using The Hero’s Journey As A Problem Solving Tool

The Hero’s Journey is a paradigm that’s used by fiction writers and screenwriters the world over. But as well as being a “story structure” tool it also functions as a reasonably accurate psychological model of human behaviour.

And it works on a micro level as well as a macro level.

So I have a gazillion Hero’s Journey templates and models from my fiction writing endeavours and I started a new ‘story.’ And in this ‘story’ a guy exactly like me became the hero, and the problem this guy had to overcome was how to make writing time for a slew of writing projects that he wanted to write. And I approached this as if I were outlining a screenplay.

A few hours of ‘story work’ resulted in the answer that I’m sharing with you in this post — and that answer was to write in my dead time.

Sidebar: science fiction writer and writing teacher (amongst a bunch of things) Steven Barnes opened my eyes to the possibilities you can unravel by using the Hero’s Journey as a problem solving tool. I’ll write more about this soon.

So What Is Dead Time?

Dead Time is that time in our lives that we all have where we’re not really doing anything constructive — but we’re travelling to do something constructive. Or waiting to do something constructive.

For example, every day I take a break to get away for the computer and either go for a swim. Or go for a walk. If I go for a swim I have to walk 20 minutes to get to my local gym. If I go for a walk, I walk for 50/60 minutes.

Now I need that time to get my eyes away from the screen and get some fresh air. But in most other ways it’s ‘dead time.’ I’m not doing anything constructive.

And I can use that time to create an article.

In fact I’m writing the first draft of this article away from my computer and I’m actually on my way to my local gym for a swim.

How Can You Write In Your Dead Time?

I used to use a combination of a cheap, digital recorder for dictation — which could create MP3 files to export — and Dragon Dictate software. But now I use the ‘Notes’ app on an iPod Touch that I brought specifically for this purpose.

The app also has voice to text — if you click the microphone button and start speaking text will appear on your screen. When you’re finished, you can click the ‘DONE’ command and the ‘note’ is saved.

There are multiple ways of sending the note from whatever device you’re using to take your dictation to your main writing computer. You can email it. Airdrop it. Send it via messanger. Or send it to your cloud storage. Or dropbox folder. Or similar.

Here’s How This ‘Dead Time’ Writing Works (For Me)

  • Prior to heading out I decide what topic I’m going to write via dictation
  • Then I outline that topic on an index card or a scrap piece of paper. For this article my outline consisted of the sub-headlines and a couple of bullet points for each sub-headline
  • Then I start walking. For the first five minutes I don’t do dictating— just think about the article. Then it’s time to turn on the Notes app and hit the microphone button to start the voice to text feature
  • I glance at my outline (on an index card) and start ‘writing.’ By talking. As if I was dictating for a PA
  • When I’ve finished I click the ‘Done’ button so that my note is saved
  • When I get to the gym I connect to the wi-fi and send the note to my dropbox folder
  • When I get back to my writing computer, I find the note in my dropbox folder and I copy and paste that to Scrivener. Now I have a first draft for editing.

That sounds simple right? It is. What’s more, it’s actually pretty quick. I wrote the first draft of this article in about 25 minutes.

The Main Advantage (For Me) Of This Process
Although I type fast — 95 to 100 WPM when I’m buzzing — dictating is quicker.

And though the dictation process gives a first draft that needs some cleaning up, it takes far less energy to edit 1700 words that are already in Scrivener than write them from scratch and then edit them.

Plus I don’t have to carve out a spot in my day to actually sit down and write the first draft.

So for me, this process is about getting first draft words on a piece of paper.

An additional benefit of dictating rather than writing is that it’s hard to ‘edit on the fly’ because it’s a pain to hit backspace and delete text whilst walking.

So I tend to keep moving forward with the piece of writing. A good side benefit of this process if you’re a writer who often rewrites specific sentences multiple times is that writing in this manner will instantly cure you of that! (Well, at least until the editing stage!)

There’s also none of those distractions you get when writing at your computer if you forget to turn your email off or want to check a fact. My iPod Touch doesn’t have 4G and doesn’t have email. It’s purely for dictating.

Some Punctuation Commands You’ll Need If You’re Going To Do This

You don’t need a massive shopping list of punctuation commands for your text to come out reasonably well formatted. Here are the main ones that I use:

  • full stop
  • comma
  • new line
  • New paragraph
  • colon
  • semi colon
  • open bracket
  • close bracket
  • hyphen

And that’s about it.

I add in sub-head formatting (bolding) at editing stage. Plus capital letters for each word in the sub-head at editing stage as well. But the remaining format of this article is pretty much as I dictated it.

Is Writing By Dictation For You?

Speaking personally I actually prefer to write at a keyboard. But my time constraints are such that I’m not getting keyboard time — so I’ve had to find another way.

If any of the following apply to you then this method might be a good fit:

  • Your typing speeds are poor (20 WPM or less) — talking slowly you’ll talk at 80 or 90 words a minute. Talking really slowly you can still hit 60 words a minute without too many problems.
  • You have regular times in your day to day activities where you’re not really doing anything but would be able to dictate — e.g. commuting to work via car every day, waiting for appointments for 10 or 15 minutes or more regularly, and so on
  • Suffer periodically from RSI or neck/back pains from long hours sat at your keyboard
  • Suffer ‘dry eye’ issues caused by too much staring at a keyboard

Final Thoughts Before We Close Out

This isn’t anything new or radical…before the Word Processor started to become widely and cheaply available most office workers wrote their letters and reports by dictating them and having them typed up by secretarial staff.

Being able to write by dictation was something a lot of business folk did on a daily basis.

But it’s not just business guys who’ve done this — there are fiction writers who write via dictation as well. Best selling Science Fiction and Fantasy author Kevin Anderson writes so much in this manner that he keeps not one, but TWO secretaries in full time employment transcribing his writing.

And Earle Stanley Gardner — creator and writer of fictional detective Perry Mason — wrote a prodigious amount of material during his lifetime. Most of it was done by dictation.

So it’s worth considering. Especially if you meet any of the criteria I outlined in the previous section.

Summary

If you’re struggling with writing content, books and reports for your ‘part time business’ because you have a ‘full time’ job, then writing by dictation might be a way to help solve some of your productivity issues.

It really helps too if you can fit that dictation into time slots where you are not actively doing anything else — e.g. a daily commute, waiting for appointments, etc. This kind of time is ‘dead time.’

Writing by dictation doesn’t require a lot of expensive gear to achieve. If you’ve got a smartphone — which most of you probably have — then you probably already possess the technology that’s needed to put this into action.

The first draft of this article was ‘written’ in this manner — it took around 25 minutes and weighs in at around 1700 words.

A Warning IF You’re Going To Dictate Whilst Driving

I tried this out — with a headset mic for safety — whilst on a 2 hour drive. My advice is not to do this unless you’re going for some kind of stream of consciousness approach, or you’re doing the verbal equivalent of freewriting, or you’ve memorized your outline OR you stop every 5 or 10 minutes to look at your outline notes. DO NOT: quickly glance away from driving to check your outline notes. One of the very few benefits of the pandemic has been that the amount of miles I’ve driven has literally fallen through the floor.

Writer. Deliberate Practice. Hero’s Journey. Flow. Open for gigs. paul@deliberate-practice.com

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