Writing sprints, word sprints or word wars, depends on where you are in the world, are a popular pastime for the more social of writers. It doesn’t mean that only outgoing people do them, but they gained popularity through in-person writing meetings and the easy access to someone always online to do them with. You probably did them in school and didn’t even know you were doing them and probably on a subject that you didn’t give two-cents about then.
Sprinting is based on the Pomodoro Technique. It was invented by Francesco Cirillo and functions on the premise that big jobs can be broken down into intervals, thus making the work more productive. If you have kids, you know it more as the “pick up all of this item and put it up. Now the next item.”
Truth of the matter is, sprints are effective for a few reasons.
No Time For Second Guessing
When you’re writing against the clock or trying to write more words than your sprinting buddies, your mind doesn’t have the chance to go “is this good enough.” The path to victory is in word count.
Don’t Break Out the Calendar
You and some of your friends are probably on, surfing Facebook, and you might do that for the next half an hour, but what if you turned it into an impromptu sprint? Set the timer and go to writing. You didn’t have to drive anywhere. You didn’t have to give much notice other than “hey, you got 10 minutes? Let’s sprint.”
Anywhere at Anytime
Maybe you’re waiting at the doctor’s office or waiting for your kids to get out of school. Maybe your Netflix partner had to do something else for a few minutes—fix popcorn, walk the dog, etc. Who says you have to be chained to the laptop to be productive? Break out a text message, a Google Doc, an email, and just let thumbs do the walking.
Mindfields and Deadlines
Maybe you’ve heard it before, or maybe you are motivated when a deadline for something approaches in minutes or days rather than in weeks and months. I don’t function like that; I’m too much of a perfectionist about time management, but I know plenty of people who wait until the last minute to work on school reports, go birthday or Christmas shopping, and a billion other things.
The thing is, most people work better under pressure because the deadline isn’t some far off date, and seeing the progress unfold until the final minutes is invigorating, like a shot of adrenaline.
When this situation appears, it gives some people the focus they need to finish. And that’s great for first drafts, but don’t do that with concrete dates like release dates—your manuscript needs time to be revised, edited, and treated responsibly.
Maybe you have obligations to a family or maybe to your own household to-do list. Sprints give you an exact time frame of when you can be bothered or when you’ll tackle something.
This might sound stupid to some, but look at it this way, how many times have you asked someone when something will be done, and they give you a vague answer? It irritates you. But what if they say, “give me 10 minutes?” Does having that time reference make it manageable?
For children who have some concept of time, isn’t it easier to say, “Let me write for 15 minutes, and then I’ll fix you a snack.” or “Why don’t you watch one episode of My Hero Academia and let me write, and then after that we can make cookies.” Sure, you’re not giving an exact time frame, but to be honest, our free time is built around TV shows for most of America. Half-hour … hour … they have no concept. We measure time in episodes for those who binge watch on Netflix or Hulu and DVR regular tv to avoid commercials.
Whether you’re competing against yourself or against a group, few people can claim they don’t have a competitive bone in their body. Tapping into it can challenge us to get better, to try our best, and to keep trying even when it’s hard. And let’s be honest, writing the first book might be hard, but making writing a career is consistently hard. There will be days and weeks where you don’t feel enjoy writing, and you need to stay motivated. Competition might be the key on those challenging days.
When you first start doing word sprints, you might only do 200 words in 15 minutes, but within a few sessions, you’ll see remarkable progress from 200 to 400 or 500, and eventually up to a 1000—few writers I know can do 1000 in 15 minutes, but those who can have been writing for years.
Those who outline may have an easier time with marathon sprinting sessions due to having some idea of where their story is headed, but if you’re a pantser like me, don’t let that discourage you. I knock out around 500 words or more in a sprint and I don’t have a clear outline. When I know what I have to accomplish, the word count hits 800 or 900 words, but it wasn’t always like that.
It’s said that the difference between a novice and a master is the master has failed more times than the novice has tried. And that’s not an exaggeration. The more words you write, the more you practice, the better your mind and fingers function in getting the story to unspindle from your imagination.
Now that we’ve covered what they are and why they are effective, let’s cover the how to in a little more detail.
You can do these with buddies or do these by yourself. I, personally, enjoy competing against myself.
Your best writing will be when you are the most comfortable … well, maybe not that comfortable. Go to the coffee shop, the library, sit poolside, sit in the dark in your PJs on the couch. Tap into whatever you need to make the most of your writing time or wing it. Plenty of sprints were done in waiting rooms with no visual timer of how long before the chance closes.
Time Your Sprint
Some people do one session and stop, and other people do multiple sessions with breaks in between. The most common one I’ve seen is 15 or 20-minutes writing with a 5 minute break in between. After 3 rounds, the break becomes a 15-minute break so you can get up from the computer and stretch to avoid burnout.
If you haven’t figured it out, I do things a little differently. When my kids are home, I sprint, and then I go do something with them. I Sprint later on in the day, do something with them. When the house is empty, I sprint, do some housework, sprint again, do another article of housework, rinse and repeat as long as time allows.
Making Your Life Easier
Below, I’ll drop a few websites that have built in timers, interactive sites, etc. and you can browse those for what fits your style. Personally, I use Microsoft Word and a desktop timer called Cool Timer.
NaNoWriMo encourages sprinting in their “achieve your 50k” goal spill. It comes with a timer, and if you’re a little adventurous, you can even add a challenge.
My Write Club
I stumbled upon this site while researching the various sprint strategies. I think it’s pretty awesome, and if I was sprinting with others, I would definitely check it out. It has a built-in timer, a star reward system for every 100 words, and there’s a progress in single mode and in group sprint mode, ramping up your competitive spirit.
If you’re doing a group challenge, check out https://ohwrite.co/. It’s similar to creating a “chat” room, and it comes with all the necessary hardware—timers and word counters.
Cool Timer is a desktop app that is basically a countdown clock. There are two versions, free and deluxe. I use the free version, but the deluxe has some nice little features, too, like solving a puzzle or having it play a song or a radio station.
I find Cool Timer is great, not only for writing sprints but for managing my social media time. I set the timer for 15 and hit play. It’s a little app that can be set to be the topmost thing on the screen, making it visible if you need it, or hidden away if you just need the beeping.
Song, a friend of mine, recommended this one when I asked what apps were popular. Similar to My Write Club as you reach milestones, cute images pop up. It isn’t just kittens; they show you how to change the search phrase for anything. I found this one enjoyable.
Focus Keeper – Pomodoro timer
This is an app found on Apple and Droid devices. It’s basically a timer that looks like a tomato.
If you’re one of the people who once you pick up your phone you scroll social media, you probably shouldn’t use a phone app to track time. Let’s try to keep temptation to a minimum.
Shaxpir is a writing software program that comes with a free and paid option. I use the free. It stores things on the cloud.
I recommend it, because it has a timer for time writing, your average words per day, and your average words per hour. To me, it looks like Scrivener’s baby form. It has room for character details, world building, eBook export, Word doc export, and other things like a built-in spell checker. It’s a good program for drafts and that’s what sprinting is about, getting the draft done.
This one was recommended by some people in various groups. I haven’t used it, and it seems to be limited to Apple products. I tried finding it on Google Play, and it doesn’t seem to have the same program despite having the same name.
Pacemaker: A Word Count Planner
I think they did a better job summing it up than I would have. It comes with some cool line graphs and percentage trackers. This might be a good way to visually see your progress over days/weeks.
You don’t have to go fancy to sprint. I use Word and a timer, and I keep track of my word count on a piece of paper that I trash at the end of the week. If I hadn’t found sprinting useful, I wouldn’t have made a post on it.
Some people need more incentive than others, hence the website recommendations above. Some people prefer the solitude of their office and others love to post a FB post saying, “Sprinting on the :15, see you on the :30.” Next comment from them is their word count followed by their next sprinting of “Sprinting on the :40, see you on the hour.” Some of my favorite posts are seeing friends sprint and in the comments are “OMG I can’t believe my MC did that!” Some great hashtags to search for are #SprintAThon #WordSprint #WritingSprint #WordWar. You might find a new sprint buddy.
Writing is as much about finding out what motivates you as it is about experimenting to gain increased productivity. If you aren’t writing, it isn’t getting done, and outside of hiring a ghostwriter, it’s the one thing you can’t outsource. So, get off here and go write. I’d love to hear how your sprinting went in the comments below.