The Importance of Structure
Of all the things you expect to grapple with when becoming a full-time writer, your own schedule isn’t one that occurs to a lot of people. We worry about making rent, keeping the booze bills at bay, and continuing to produce the level of content that allowed us to reach this point, yet the schedule isn’t something that leaps out as a major concern. But it probably should be, because for many people who strike out on their own the sudden lack of structure can be just as big of a productivity hindrance as writer’s block or unexpected bills.
What do I mean by structure? It’s the sort of daily schedule that you take for granted in a regular job. Wake up at a certain time because you need to be in the office by a specific hour, take lunch when your schedule permits, get home, deal with dinner, go to bed so you can wake up in time to do it all again tomorrow. When you go self-employed, most of that flies right out the window. No one tells me when to wake up. No meetings dictate when I can take lunch. I don’t have a compelling reason to sleep at a certain time because, again, no one is telling me when to wake up. If that sounds like paradise to you, in some ways it is. What it isn’t, however, is conductive to high amounts of productivity. No schedule means no dedicated time to working, and for many folks that kicks their writing plans right in the ass.
So, how do you avoid falling into that trap? Well, the exact answer will change from person to person, but I have seen a lot of authors (self-included) dodge it by using some manner of structure to schedule their time and self-imposed daily requirements. As we get into specifics, it’s important to establish upfront that when I talk about my own or other authors writing habits, I’m not implying that our schedules are the correct ones to use. What matters isn’t that you have our structure, only that you have a structure, one that fits your needs and output requirements.
Ideally, you’ll end up with some sort of productive routine. Maybe you wake up at a decent hour that fits your lifestyle, do some light exercise or hit the gym, shower, and then start on writing. Some authors like to plan out X number of hours in a day that they have to spend working on their books, no matter how much content they produce. Others, like me, prefer to work within a quota method, where I’m done when a certain amount of work is complete regardless of how long that takes. But that’s just one way to build the structure: other writers will work in any spare time they have while on a project, then put it all completely out of mind while resting. Some do 1,000 words every day rain or shine, others treat it like a day job and only work on weekdays. Whatever works for you is perfectly fine; the point is to have some level of accountability keeping you on task.
When I talk about this idea, on the need for structure, the main piece of rebuttal I get is from people who think that striking out on your own means you only work when you want to. And you can do that, if you want. Maybe you’ll be the one in a billion to make it work. But far more likely, you won’t be able to maintain the necessary level of output to keep your head fiscally above water. Virtually no one gets rich off one book, or even one dozen books. There is always a need for fresh content, both for the readers who already like your work and to catch the eye of those who haven’t yet discovered your books. I’ve talked before about how writing only when you’re in the perfect mood is a hard way to make a living, one that doesn’t work for most authors. The vast majority of us have to write constantly, and that includes on days when we feel less creative than others. Having a structure helps get you into that habit, establishes the idea that you do have deliverables every week, even if they are only deliverable to you. Eventually, all those deadlines will stack together and you’ll find yourself with a finished book in your hands months, maybe years, ahead of when it would have wrapped if you only worked when the mood struck.
I know for a lot of folks out there, the idea of putting yourself on a schedule right after gaining your independence seems counter-productive, but ultimately it’s a very different experience when you’re reporting to yourself rather than a boss representing a nameless corporation. Once you take this job full-time, everything that happens, or fails to happen, is on you. Putting in the effort of building a structure early on will pay-off huge as your efforts continue and grow, and for some might make the difference between a few years they spent living as a writer and the start of a full-blown career.