Techniques for Producing Words Despite Your Precious, Beautiful Screeching Howler Monkey, Part I

In the early days post-baby, I didn’t have any deadlines—only ambitions. This past summer, with the baby now not only walking but sprinting and babbling and having a mini nap strike, I had to write 120,000 words in two months. In between, I had a dozen less intense deadlines, and I had no choice but to put my butt in the chair and get the writing done. Sheer necessity got me through a lot of the time, but there are a handful of techniques I found helped me stay on task and plow through the work.

As with everything since having a baby, the key to getting words onto the page has been experimentation and flexibility. Try things out, see what works for you, and go for it. You may find that a technique that doesn’t work one month works the next, so don’t be afraid to circle back and try other methods if you start hitting a wall.

The Minimal Minimum Word Count

The problem: The work feels overwhelming. Failure to reach your goals repeatedly has left you frustrated and dispirited. You want to get back into a regular or daily writing habit, but you just can’t achieve consistency.

The technique: Set your daily word count goal (for whatever days you deem “writing days” ahead of time) absurdly low. 200 words, or 100, or even 50. No more than that. And knock it out. I don’t care if you have to describe your hero’s hat for two hundred words. You can do it.

If you can keep going, do it! And if you can’t, remember that you still made your goal. Even if that 201st word is more elusive than eight hours of sleep, you’re making progress. Two hundred words every day of the year is 73,000 words. That’s a novel! Unless you’re Erin, and then it’s a first act. But the real value here is that you’re getting into a habit and engaging yourself mentally with the work.

I admit that I have never been able to stick to this method for more than two days. I don’t have the right mindset for it; I’m too self-competitive, and the word count balloons to what could only be called “minimal” on a cosmological scale by the third day. But I always hope that my readers are nicer to themselves than I am.

Baby Pomodoro

The problem: You have trouble focusing; you get distracted by the latest publishing scandal or political dumpster fire; you have trouble carving out large chunks of your day to write.

The technique: The Pomodoro method has been written about extensively. Basically, you choose an interval of time (I use 25 minutes) and you set a timer. While the timer is running, you are on task. You do not check Twitter. You do not wander off to find a new chew toy for the dog. You do not Instagram your latte. You write. When the timer goes off, you set a new timer for your break interval (usually 5 minutes, with longer breaks every few Pomodoros).

Baby Pomodoro is much the same. Just with more interruptions. Here’s how it usually goes for me:

8:00:00 – Siri, set a timer for twenty-five minutes.

8:03:45 – Siri, pause timer. [Remove baby toy from dog’s mouth]

8:05:12 – Siri, resume timer.

8:08:17 – Siri, pause timer. [Remove dog toy from baby’s mouth]

8:09:32 – Siri, resume timer.

8:15:54 – Siri, pause timer…

 “Twenty-five minutes” becomes more like forty, but at the end of it I know I’ve completed twenty-five minutes of actual work. And as long as the timer is running, I’m working. I may need to stop to keep my creatures alive and out of each other’s fur, but the twenty-five minutes gets done.

Bonus: “I’m in the middle of a tomato” is a great “don’t bother me right now.” It assures your spouse/child/the fireman trying to get you to evacuate that you are, in fact, working (and not tweeting about how your office is on fire but you just need to get a few more words in) and that there’s a concrete end time when you can take a break and converse, do the dishes, or evacuate.

Read Part II of this post now: Changing the medium to shake loose some creativity and a trick to get past “butt in the chair” to “actual words on the page.”

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  • Reply Jeannette Kathleen Cheney October 11, 2017 at 8:16 pm

    Okay, I don’t have a baby, but I have large obnoxious dogs with boundary issues, and I’ve done the Pomodoro method a lot. (I use a kitchen time, though. Old School.)

    The minimal word count method cracks me up because I have a minimal night time bed routine which has minimums like: You must at least wipe face with an astringent towel and brush your teeth. There should be a lot more steps like washing and moisturizing, but there are days when I feel glad that I can jsut do the minimums and then fall in bed.

    • Reply Kate October 11, 2017 at 8:57 pm

      I used to use the kitchen timer, but the phone timer works much better with the number of interruptions. Also, ticking timers drive me to distraction…

  • Reply Wilma Murray October 12, 2017 at 9:24 pm

    Love this, Kate. Way beyond baby stage but it all has the ring of familiarity. Keep up the good work.

  • Reply Techniques for Producing Words Despite Your Precious, Beautiful Screeching Howler Monkey, Part III – Book vs Baby October 19, 2017 at 7:30 pm

    […] Read Part I and Part II of this series! […]

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