Should You Earn More by Working Longer Hours?

There came a time, early in my career, when I was faced with a difficult situation: I needed to earn more money. But since I generated my income from publishers and others who chose for their own reasons and on their own schedules to hire me on their own terms – or not, there was no simple way I could get them to pay me more for the same volume of work I was already doing.

My choices seemed to boil down to the following:

  1. Work longer hours.
  2. Leverage the work of others.
  3. Lower my professional standards to spend less time on each piece.
  4. Automate my work to produce more material in less time.
  5. Speed up the internal processes involved in writing.

I spent many weeks contemplating the details and ramifications of each strategy, and came up with the following thoughts and conclusions:

Work Longer Hours

At first blush, this seemed the simplest answer to my problem. If I could earn (in the old days) $100 working an eight-hour day, simple math told me I could earn $125 by working a ten-hour day. What could possibly go wrong?

But as I dug into the details and implications, I began to see some of the problems this strategy would entail.

For example, I was already working as many hours a day as I comfortably could. Working longer hours would reduce the time I could spend with my wife and child. I wasn’t sure it was worth the extra money to cut back on the most important parts of the life I was working to build.

Working longer hours on paid writing projects would also leave me less time and energy for the unpaid writing projects that were dear to my heart and possibly stepping stones to a better career.

Even worse, working longer hours would require more effort, and that would tend to leave me even more tired at the end of the day. If not immediately, then eventually this additional fatigue would cause me to think and write less well. I would inadvertently begin to allow more errors – not just typos, but errors in thinking and in factual accuracy and depth – to creep into my writing. Perhaps my stylistic flair and creativity would degrade, as well.

I wanted none of this to intrude into my professional life.

Leverage the Work of Others

This approach is the basis of success in the world of business. After all, Henry Ford did not build Model-T’s with his own hands. Nor does Elon Musk actually construct the cars, rockets, satellites, and other products that are the foundation of his businesses – and his incomes.

In the old days, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and other Great Masters relied on students and apprentices to do much of the work required to move their masterpieces a long way toward completion, and today writers like James Patterson do much the same with the written work they crank out.

So it made sense for me to try and hire other writers to do at least the initial parts of some writing projects that publishers and others wanted to buy from me.

However, this strategy never worked for me, partly because I could rarely find suitably talented and/or skilled trainees and apprentices to work for me. But even when I did, I invariably felt that supervising their work took more of my time and effort than simply doing that same work myself.

Because leveraging others didn’t pencil out for me, I stopped thinking of this as a viable way forward (although I have continued to hope I’d find someone suitable).

Lower My Standards to Spend Less Time on Each Piece

This is one of the classic approaches to success in American business: lower production costs as a means to increasing profits.

However, lowering my standards was something that proved hard for me to abide. This is probably because – at least to me – writing professionally is only partly a business. It’s equally – perhaps more so – an artform, a product of my creative energies, and even a reflection of my personality.

Delivering work that is only “B” quality when I could have pumped it up to “A” quality not only conflicts with my personal values, it actually causes me emotional and psychic pain. For whatever reasons, I feel deeply there’s a minimum standard of writing that satisfies me, and when my work fails to meet or exceed it, I just feel bad.

Automate My Work to Produce More in Less Time

Back in the 1970s, I hung around with people who were experimenting with hobbyist computers. I was hoping that these early computers could provide a degree of automation to my writing that would reduce the total time required for me to complete at least some of the work I had on my professional plate.

But that was a pipe dream – at least until 1979, when I discovered that dedicated “word processors” were on the market, and for the most part they worked pretty well. Later, I found that home computers could run “word processing” software powerful and reliable enough to help me write better and faster than ever before.

I jumped on that bandwagon and have never looked back.

Find Ways to Speed Up the Internal Processes of Writing

Logically, this is a sensible way to try and earn more. Because of the way my mind works (I’m always looking for ways to do things faster, better, easier), this approach has long been in either the back or the front of my mind. Why not apply this same brand of thinking to the internal processes of writing?

The problem was – and remains – I don’t really know how to do this. I’m pretty certain that I have done it, but I don’t know how.

I have some thoughts and feelings on how I manage to write much faster today than I did in years gone by, but I can’t swear they are true, or that – if true – they will work for anyone else. But for whatever there are worth, I offer them here:

  1. I research what I am writing. The less I know about a subject, the more hesitant my writing becomes. Pounding away at research eventually gives me the confidence – and the knowledge – to write freely and quickly.
  2. Having fed the process through research, I allow what I’ve learned to “ripen” in my mind. I don’t try to force my writing. The best way for me to write faster is to hold off until I feel ready to write. I’ve become confident that when I’m ready the words will gush out of me quickly and well. So far, I’ve been right about this.
  3. I get a first draft done. Some writers claim they agonize over every word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, and page. They can’t move on to the next word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, and page until every word they have already written is perfect. This has never worked for me. My method has been to write all the way through the end – using whatever words seem OK at the time in order to get the thoughts out of my head and onto paper (or screen). I’m going to polish the material anyway, so I find little value in holding up the flow of thoughts just because my first attempt is not perfect. My writing mantra is essentially: “We’ll fix it in post.”
  4. I have several projects in mind and in progress at once. When I bog down on one, I simply switch over and try pushing forward on a second one. Or a third. I trust my subconscious to be working on my projects 24/7, without my awareness. It’s another angle on number 2 above.

So while my title to this piece about earning more from writing asked whether to work longer hours, my answer is firmly “no.”  Once I’m working as many hours as I comfortably can, I have found it’s better for me not to try to increase my income by throwing more hours at my projects. It’s better to find some other way.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.


Daily scheduling

One of the keys to professional writing is to crank out a lot of good work. And to do that, you’ll need to put in a good deal of time.

The best way to guarantee that you’ll have the time available to accomplish a lot of good work is to develop and follow a daily schedule.

There are several elements involved in creating and adhering to a daily schedule. Let’s look at each of them in turn:

Identify Your Best and Worst Times of Day

In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, there was an ancient idea revived and developed by Wilhelm Fliess that proposed a person’s physical and emotional states fluctuated around 23 and 28 day cycles, respectively, starting on the day you were born. Later, a psychologist named Hermann Swoboda and an engineer named Alfred Teltscher expanded on this idea to include a 33 day cycle of intellectual or mental capabilities.

These “biorhythms” were thought by many to be so important and powerful that anyone should be able to predict days when a person would be particularly strong, happy, or smart, and other days when a person would feel weak, down hearted, or befuddled – simply by counting the number of days since birth and calculating where that person would be on the cycle of their relevant biorhythm.

There may be some truth to this notion, but that’s not the main point here. What’s undisputed is that you almost certainly do have periods of time when you can perform at a higher level, and other times where the best you can do is not quite as good as that.

This is the main point: you can and should take advantage of your natural ups and downs by tracking them – noting on your calendar, for example, the times when you feel your best and the other times when you feel your worst. Once you see the pattern, you can begin trying to use your periods of higher performance to do your best writing.

Whether biorhythms work on not for you, the cyclical nature of high and low performance often breaks down to something as simple as:

  • Being a “morning person” or an “evening person,”
  • Feeling better writing in bed before you go to sleep, or in the afternoon after taking a nap,
  • Waking up early and getting in some solid hours of creativity or staying up late in order to record whatever wonderful thoughts you have been accumulating during the day.

Identify Your Most Productive Patterns

Another aspect of this timing technique involves recognizing and exploiting the length of time at a stretch you prefer to work. I have found that I do better working three, four, even five hours at one sitting – the longer I go, the better my writing becomes. Other writers I know like to dash off a few paragraphs as soon as they come to mind, then do something more routine until another flash of inspiration hits them.

There’s no right or wrong here, no absolute better or worse. All I’m suggesting is that you discover the times of day, and days of the week when you are at your best, and do at least some of your writing during those periods.

Break Down A Project Into Separate, Simple Tasks

Once you know the best times to work on your writing, take the next step and figure out what you ought to be working on.

One of the best ways to do this is to have a plan for what you’re going to write, whether it’s a novel, a play, a poem, or anything else. At a minimum, it’ll have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It might have five acts. You might envision 20 or 30 scenes, seven key images, or ten important moments.

No matter how you have conceived the project at hand, if you know each of the parts you want to include in it, you can have the next part in mind as you sit down to work, and even before.

Knowing what comes next is helpful not only because it eliminates the “blank page” problem that so many writers dislike, it allows your subconscious mind to be working on the project during the interval between your last writing session and your next one.

Develop A Productive Working Routine

One way that has helped me be a productive writer over the years is to reserve certain times for writing, and nothing else. During my self-scheduled writing hours, I don’t allow myself to straighten my desk, sharpen pencils, answer the telephone, read, doodle, or anything else. I’m there to write. If I feel stuck or can’t muster the energy to work, my only alternative is to sit idly until I can start working on my project.

I have found that sitting idly during these intended writing times is so unpleasant and boring that I quickly start my writing engine and begin putting words on paper.

Another trick that many writers use is to stop writing in the middle of a passage that’s coming easily and feeling great. The idea is that later, when you come back to the project, you’ll find it relatively easy to pick up where you left off and start producing good material right away. The corresponding fear is that if you finish that great passage and then stop writing, when you come back to the project later on you’ll face a difficult time getting started again.

Either of these ideas may or may not be true for you, but there’s no doubt that if you regularly sit down to write during your “high performance” periods, you’ll produce better work than if you work at random times or – worse – when your performance level is on the downswing.

Follow Your Schedule

Any or all of this may seem great, but I can assure you that it’s helpful only to the extent you actually put it into practice.

If you don’t have enough self-discipline to follow your self-imposed schedule, understand that becoming a professional writer requires more of it.

Stay Flexible

Having said all this, I want you to remember that creativity should never be a chore, never a drag on your time or energy, never a task to get through so you can do something else that’s more fun. Creativity should be your most enjoyable activity.

That’s why it’s important that your working schedule – no matter how carefully laid out and how many great techniques and ideas it incorporates – should be more of a “guideline” than an implacable routine.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.