While standing in the checkout line at the grocery store the other day, I spotted the magazine Real Simple. It wasn't just the cutesy name that caught my attention. (How can the editors live with themselves, basing a magazine name on a grammatical error? But I digress...) The eye-catching cover line that grabbed me by the eyeballs was: What can you do in 15 minutes?
This is an excellent question, to which the magazine replied: cook a healthy dinner, speed-clean your house, banish a bad mood, declutter your car, get some exercise, make easy home repairs, plan a party and dress 10 pounds thinner.
Well, all of that sounds overly ambitious to me -- especially the dress 10 pounds thinner part. But it did get me thinking. What can you write in 15 minutes? That, too, is an excellent question and, if you've read my past columns, you'll know my answer will be: quite a lot.
But the devil is always in the details, so today I thought I'd get specific. Let me suggest five writing tasks you can reasonably accomplish if you have 15 minutes:
- Review an article or a chapter of a book that you need to complete for research. The trick is to have the material at hand -- in your briefcase, purse or on your desk, so you don't spend 14 of the 15 minutes locating it. And to make your research extra fast, don't take notes -- just underline or jot a few words in the margins. (Note to bibliophiles: When I'm consulting library books I use sticky notes instead.) When you're finished, type up your notes on the computer as another 15-minute task.
- Edit a few paragraphs for style. There are two main types of editing -- substantive and copy. Substantive editing -- which means evaluating whether your writing "hangs together" in a logical, convincing and interesting way -- is best done with lots of time because you need to view your piece of writing as a seamless whole. But copy editing -- which consists of eliminating wordiness and cliche, adding transitions, and fixing grammar and spelling -- can easily be done a paragraph at a time, in 15-minute chunks. Just be sure to mark where you left off so next time you know where to dive back in.
- Create a mindmap for something you need to write. Mindmapping is an alternative to outlining. I like to call it brainstorming with yourself. To do it, you simply write down your topic in the centre of a blank piece of paper and draw a circle around it. Then you write down all the other words and expressions that pop into your head. You then link each new word/phrase to the word/phrase that inspired it by drawing a line between them. (The finished product will look quite a bit like a Visual Thesaurus word search.) Unless you're mindmapping a book, you won't even need the full 15 minutes -- you can do a mindmap in five. Sitting at your desk, expecting a phone call? Mindmap your next article. (Want to learn more about mindmapping? I give an e-book on the subject to anyone who signs up for my free newsletter.)
- Write 100 to 200 words. It's not unreasonable to expect yourself to write 100-200 words in 15 minutes. If this seems impossibly productive, pretend you're writing an email. Or you may need to repeat to yourself, like a mantra: "I am allowed to write garbage; the secret of good writing is good self-editing. I am allowed to write garbage...etc." The more you require yourself to write quickly, the easier it will become.
- Make a list. So you don't feel like writing? Do the next best thing; make a list. It's probably a character flaw, but I always find "to do" lists invigorating. You could list:
- the sources you need to consult for your article
- metaphors or analogies that tie in with your subject
- possible headlines for your article
- a brief analysis of your target reader
- places where your article might be published
Instead of procrastinating about writing, adopt the habit of doing something -- anything. Show a bias for action. Even in 15 brief minutes you can accomplish something. And that something will help give you momentum.
Humphrey Bogart once said: "Enjoy the moments, kid, because in the end they add up to a life." Your writing moments are like that too. Don't fritter them away.