Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

15 Minutes to Writing Fame

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 23rd 2007, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Marilyn L.
Most enjoyable and inspiring-I'm writing aren't I? I am going to adopt the 15-minute rule to move my writing forward. Great article.
Monday April 23rd 2007, 6:29 PM
Comment by: Mary G.
This article inspired me. It was simple and practical in its
ideas about tasks(unpleasant or procrastinary)that can be done in increments,15 minutes at a time and with creativity, which is appealing to me, especially since I am doing two challenging projects at this time,one of which is writing !
Tuesday April 24th 2007, 2:11 AM
Comment by: Belinda T.
Thanks for the article. Where did the Bogart quote come from, though? A movie or the horse's mouth?
Friday May 4th 2007, 10:04 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I have an idiot-savant-like capacity to remember certain quotes -- but sadly, not their source. I read the Bogart quote about 25 years ago -- in a magazine as I recall. But that's all I can recall, I'm afraid.

...Just spent 20 minutes on Google to see if I could find the source of the quote. No luck, but I'm not sure I trust the web anyway. One of the sites I checked (http://en.thinkexist.com/quotes/humphrey_bogart/3.html) attributed the following quote: “...the gamut of emotions from A to B.” to Bogart, when I'm pretty sure Dorothy Parker said it first.
Monday May 7th 2007, 1:04 AM
Comment by: Belinda T.
It's a great quote anyway -- and thanks for trying! Pinpointing the source of a quotation can truly be tricky (and maybe sticky) on the web!
Thursday May 10th 2007, 4:59 PM
Comment by: Janet M.
and #6 Refresh yourself. Realize you're procrastinating / spinning your wheels and do something completely different for 15 minutes to change your perspective (e.g., have a cup of tea, get some fresh air / sun, etc.)
Thursday July 19th 2007, 6:11 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
Wonderful suggestions for a procrastinatot! I'm going to employ them immediately in working on my MA thesis!

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