Craft Lesson: Write Around the Margins

Craft Lessons

Finding time to write is a constant challenge in most writer’s lives. Except for the fortunate few whose bestsellers keep them afloat, most of us search—and often—fail to find free moments for dreaming of ideas, structuring, composing, and revising the stories that are closest to our souls.

As an inveterate listener of The New York Times Book Review podcast, I was heartened the other day to read the Review’s editor, Pamela Paul, touch on the subject in a recent interview.

“I don’t get to write during the day because my day job is overseeing book coverage…and editing,” she said. “That means writing is squeezed into the margins of my days.” Along with motherhood, hers is a full life, so it’s interesting to see what borders exist that enable her to find time to write books. She’s published several, the most recent being, “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet.”

“Pre-COVID,” Paul said, “I did most of my writing on the train to work. Initially, I persuaded myself that I would only need to work one-way. That delusion was quickly dispelled by reality, and when I’m writing a book, it generally takes up much of the weekends as well.”

Paul also writes essays or short pieces for her paper and those are written “in a fury of inspiration. It spills out quickly and prevents me from sleeping.”

But what if you commute by car, are already kept up at night by your baby’s squalling, or simply need a good night’s rest to function during the day? What if much of the weekend is taken up by chores, family time, dates, etc? Where can other margins be found? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Set the alarm an hour early to write while the rest of the house is asleep.
  • Pass on lunch with colleagues to eat at your desk and use the rest of the time to work on your novel, short story or essay. 
  • Carve an hour or two for yourself on the weekend, which leaves the rest of the 48 hours to accomplish everything you couldn’t do during the week. 
  • Write in short bursts. It’s amazing how many words you can type in 15 minutes if you lower your standards and remarkable to see how quickly you can generate a rough draft ready for revision.
  • Finally, take a hard look at how you spend your days. How many hours do TV sports consume? Scrolling through Instagram and TikTok?  How much time spent binge-watching “Squid Game” could you devote to writing?

If you’re too wiped out at the end of the day—I get that—at least try putting down your phone and take your draft—either on your laptop or better still, a printout—to the couch or your favorite chair and start marking it up. This sort of task switching, I’ve found, is energizing. Afterward, I can’t wait to make the changes. 

Just as margins exist on all sides of the page, so do borders of time in our lives. The smart writer looks for—and takes advantage—of them.

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