Time, Productivity and the Writer

Time, Productivity and the Writer

Ever wonder how outsiders view the productivity of a writer? Ever feel guilty for every second your keys aren’t tapping? Ever work with others who have no understanding of the creative process?

Earlier this year, I was part of a team in charge of revamping the company image. My role was to write a new company value proposition and slogan that would inform all marketing activities. Details of how I went about this and the weeks of anguish can be found in my series on Writing the Value Proposition.

The final proposition took weeks of work before it was accepted as Tomorrows online ideas — today. The slogan came soon after — The Ideas Factory.

One of the sales team mentioned to me that, at that rate of output, I was being paid about a thousand dollars per word.

Staring out the Window

Writing is unlike most other jobs within the office. The accounts team always has tasks to complete that require a constant flow of activity. They flick from spreadsheet to database and back again, entering information, printing invoices, counting money and producing tangible results. Similarly, the sales team has a bank of continually ringing phones, targets to meet and products to shift.

And there I sit, seemingly doodling on a pad or flicking through the pages of a magazine, with nary a key stroke to be heard, sometimes for hours.

This leads to a misunderstanding that writing is somehow as quick to produce as other work and that I’m being lazy. And then my guilt kicks in. I imagine the resentment or suspicion that must build in my co-workers as they observe only a few lines after hours of work. Yet, the opposite is true. In the same time it took to produce my few lines, two desks away someone else may have produced pages and pages of work for their manager. But I have worked just as hard, if not more so.

What might seem like idle web surfing or wasting time with magazines is actually the key to the whole process. Research needs to be done. Notes need to be taken. Words and ideas need to be jotted down, crossed out and added to. Most important of all, thinking needs to happen.

Sometimes the only way to work is to stop doing anything else and simply focus on the problem, staring ahead as your mind works through all the various permutations and possible connections in your head in search of an idea.

This doesn’t look good in a busy office.

Managing Expectations

Today I had to write the copy for a website landing page – about 100 words in its entirety. Those 100 words took a couple of hours to produce.

Yesterday, a banner advertisement of two lines took me most of an afternoon.

The time is not taken in tapping keys. When I present the completed copy to the boss, I don’t hand over my pad of notes and scribbles to justify the hours spent. He gets one sheet containing a few lines of carefully selected words. But only the writer knows how carefully each word was selected.

When dealing with clients, explaining this creative element is very important. In employing you to produce the finished copy, they are not merely paying for a simple transcription of words that are just waiting in the air to be actualised. Writing is not merely fitting tab A into slot B and repeat. The fee is recompense for the time taken to research, the originality of the ideas and the expertise in refining every word and every character on that page.

Of course, none of this should be taken as an excuse for writers to slow down or avoid basic time management. We need to meet our deadlines and work as many hours as needed to balance the best quality possible against the time frame allotted. In fact, tight deadlines can sometimes be the greatest catalyst for inspiration. It’s amazing what a burst of adrenaline and an immovable deadline can do for your creativity.

Brevity Takes Time

Word count is no indicator of the time it takes to produce. Paradoxically, a longer word count can be quicker and easier to produce than a shorter one.

A recent assignment required a specific list of points to be included in an email of less than 300 words. It took a number of drafts to create the copy and then reduce and compress the sentences to fit the required word count. Every sentence was analysed for any possible edits. Paragraphs were restructured. Longer words were replaced with shorter synonyms. In copy, even the number of characters can be important. But only the final 300 words will ever be seen by anyone else.

Never make the mistake of telling a client that a job should be quick, simply because it is only a few words. If they were any old words, it would be quick. But they are not. The final piece should have the right words – the best words to achieve the result required. And this only comes with time and effort.

Quality, Not Quantity

For many writers, it is easier to avoid the issue of time accountability. Working from home means there is no one else working to a different routine a few feet away, looking disdainfully at the writer’s quiet reflection. But those of us who work in offices not used to the creative process deal with the guilt of never looking quite as busy as everyone else.

In many ways, I find plodding routine tasks far less stressful than writing. Give me some long, laborious data entry task to do, as happens a couple of desks away from me, and I can produce reams of work in a steady flow without any of the anguish that goes with trying to coax an idea out of the grey matter. But would that make me more productive?

Sometimes it can be useful to lift the curtain on our creative process and show those around us how those final words finally made it onto the page. The numerous drafts. The debate over whether a particular word detracted or enhanced a line. The pain in trying to find an original way to talk about an exceptionally boring product. Only then can others appreciate how quality of writing is far more important than quantity.


  1. Great post.
    My favourite is when I’m asked to just ‘throw together something quick’. If only it were that easy….or quick.

  2. Woof Contest Top Five

  3. Your last post under “Managing Expectations” reminds me of this quotation from Bill Patterson’s “Calvin & Hobbes”:

    Calvin: “You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood.”

    Hobbes: “What mood is that?”

    Calvin: “Last-minute panic.”