Sprints: My New Obsession with an Old Writing Habit

Woman hands typing on laptop keyboardHave you tried word sprints (or writing sprints)? For those unfamiliar, this is the practice of sitting down for a short, specific period of time to focus only on your writing and try to achieve a certain word count or other goal. I’ve done writing sprints for years, off and on.

My “Draft Queen” partner in crime Emily and I used writing sprints as a tool to help our writing groups get some words done in a group environment. Before that, I used to love going to Twitter for #1k1hr to find a buddy somewhere on the globe to write with for an hour, both hoping to achieve at least a thousand words in that time. Sprints are also so helpful on writing retreats with other authors, because they force us to stop talking (and eating) for a few minutes and border off some sacred time for writing.

Word sprints are a great momentum-starter, and for me it’s been about accountability and connection as much as the goal itself.

Lately, though, I’ve started using sprints on a daily basis to track and increase my writing productivity. Trying to recover from the car accident earlier this year means I am still in fairly chronic pain that varies in intensity and can sometimes limit how much time I have to sit at the keyboard each day. It also means I’m behind on deadlines, which means that limited time in front of the computer has become more critical than ever. I simply have to be productive. There’s no option.

With this in mind, I recently read both Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K and Chris Fox’s 5,000 Words Per Hour, both of which are great resources for increasing your daily writing productivity. Chris Fox also has a spreadsheet available on his website that I’ve downloaded and modified for my own tracking.

I’ve combined this spreadsheet with the Be Focused app to give myself easy intervals and breaks. (Generally I use the default Pomodoro Method of 25 minutes working, 5 minute break, 25 minutes working — but I did spring for the Pro version of the app to allow me to adjust those intervals and create more specific goals).

Now, let me tell you guys something. I HATE tracking my time. Hate it. It’s a habit that I know I should have but have resisted for DECADES because it feels like a waste of time to stop what I’m doing in order to write

My rebellion runs deep. As does my delusion.

down what I’m doing. It also pushes my “I hate being controlled” button — which, let’s be honest, is the biggest, most sensitive button I have — because my first impulse when I’m given rigid rules is to push against them. I have never done well in a job that required me to account for every minute of my time, never been successful in an environment where rigid rules were paramount. (I think we may be getting to the root of lots of issues for me here, but let’s move on…)

So you can imagine how desperate I must be right now, since I am currently forcing myself to use the timer AND the spreadsheet every time I sit down to write. As soon as I open my WIP in Scrivener, I also open the spreadsheet, record the date and my starting word count and time of day. I write for 25 minutes, listening for the chimes from the Be Focused app, and then stop and record my progress. I calculate my words per hour (a nifty function of the spreadsheet) and measure it against the basic benchmark of 1,000 words per hour. If it’s more than that, it was a good sprint. Less than that, and I need to buckle down or work out the plot a bit better or get another cup of coffee.

And y’all, it’s working. I hate it so hard, but it’s WORKING.

My productivity since I’ve started using this method has more than tripled, and not in any way that affects my writing. I’m less prone to get de-railed by leaving my WIP to check a fact or research something, since I know that will decrease my WPH. I even modified the spreadsheet to turn the WPH cell red, yellow or green based on how well I did, so I get that nice visual cue on top of the numbers. And believe me, even though I’m fully aware that I am being manipulated by my better self, this overachieving first child STILL wants every cell to be green, baby!

So, I begrudgingly share with you that I am now a Time Tracker. I’m a little concerned this may infiltrate other areas of my life, and I may soon have to expand the spreadsheet to track how much time I’m spending doing other things as well. That’s a little terrifying, frankly, so I think I’ll start with upping my WPH goal to make those green cells a little harder to attain.

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, writers, have you tried word sprints? Do you track your results? What do you find?

Keep writing!

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MJ Pullen

M.J. Pullen is a distracted writer and the mom of two boys in Roswell, Georgia, where she is absolutely late for something important right now. Her books include quirky romantic comedies and playful women's fiction. She blogs erratically with writing advice, random observations, and reflections on raising very loud kids and dogs. Join her Distracted Readers newsletter list for updates, free content, giveaways and more.

2 thoughts on “Sprints: My New Obsession with an Old Writing Habit”

  1. Simone HansonSimone Hanson

    OK, you speak a hard truth. I keep coming up with excuses for why I’m not sitting down and working. I’ve just downloaded the Focus app. Going to start out slow…tomorrow.

    I’d do a lot better at this if it was knitting, I can tell you that much.

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