3 Reasons You Should Be Doing Writing Sprints

At this point in NaNo, you’re probably in one of two places. You might be well ahead of the game, and you’re looking at your word count total and smiling and nodding to yourself, perfectly happy with how you’re doing. On the other hand, you might have realized that you’ve fallen behind, and are starting to wonder if completing this project is even possible.

Today’s article is for both types of people. If you’re ahead of the game, this is a great technique for getting further along. If you’ve fallen behind, this is how you catch up. I am, of course, talking about sprinting.

 Oh God no, not that sprinting. I’ve got the physical endurance of a wet paper towel.

Writing sprints are one of the best tools you can employ to hit high word counts and get your projects towards completion. I pretty much exclusively write by sprinting, and without it I never would have finished Weird Theology, or the first drafts of the next two books in Small Worlds, or the first draft of a new series…I really need to get more editing done on those. (After NaNo, I’ll probably do a whole post, if not a series of posts, about editing.)

If you’re not familiar, a writing sprint is a technique where you set a timer while you write. You mark down your word count before you start, and then you write without doing any editing, not even backspacing. When when the timer goes off, you finish the thought you were on and mark down how many words you’ve now written. Sprints should run  somewhere between five and thirty minutes. I personally favor twenty minute sprints, since I find it’s long enough for me to get into the scene but not so long that my attention starts to waiver. If I’m having a rough day and can’t focus, I go for shorter ten to fifteen minute sprints. You’ll find what works for you as you experiment.

Sprints offer a number of advantages that make writing a breeze. Well, a relative breeze. I’d never call writing a breeze, not really, although…

You know what? Let’s just get to those advantages.

1) Sprints build stamina.

If you’re new to sprinting, you might find that your initial sprints peter out after five minutes, or that your word count is much lower than you expect. That’s because you’re not used to sitting down and focus writing for a set period of time. When I first started sprinting, I was getting about two to three hundred words per twenty minute sprint, which was nowhere near where I wanted to be.

However, just like running sprints can build your physical stamina, writing sprints will build your mental stamina. (At least, I assume that’s how it works for physical sprints. Again, I am a pile of overcooked noodles when it comes to physical activity.) You’ll be training yourself to think of sprinting time as writing time, and the more you do it, the faster you’ll get. You’ll also be able to go longer. I’ve reached the point where a twenty minute sprint of eight hundred words means I must have been distracted. Don’t think that means I’m special – it’s something you can train yourself to do.

You’ll also find soon that, as you sprint, you’ll get faster overall. Your fingers are used to the idea that being on the keyboard means it’s time to go, your brain is more used to pushing for speed while maintaining accuracy, and so you hit the zone so much easier. Sprinting is great for hitting goals in NaNo, and it’s a practice worth continuing.

2) Sprints can make writing social, and the good kind of competitive.

Writing can be a lonely thing. You’re in your home and fairly isolated, either because you live alone or you step away from your family to avoid distractions. Even if you’re writing somewhere public, like a coffee shop or bookstore, you’re still doing something that does not pair well with social interaction.

Yeah, you’re not going to get a whole lot of writing done like that.

Or doesn’t it?

There are a number of Discord and IRC channels out there dedicated to writing, as well as Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags. Even if you don’t do either of those, there’s a good chance you know at least one person who is also doing NaNo (ask around and I’ll bet you imaginary money you’ll find someone). Most of them have some kind of sprinting happening. On three Discord channels I frequent, they have bots that actually automate the word count portion of the sprinting. It’s also become a custom to say “Good words!” the instant the sprint starts, which adds an element of community and encouragement to the proceeding.  

I love sprinting in these public forums. See, there can be a camaraderie in writing. If you know other authors, you know what this is like – the fact that you are writing means you have something in common. Sprinting takes it to the next level. Usually when I sprint in a public group, people shout encouragement at the start and give each other praise at the end (even if they aren’t participating). It’s a great, friendly environment that encourages you and gives you a bit of tangible feedback even if they haven’t read your stuff.

If you’re sprinting with other people, the social nature of sprinting can  really shine. If you’re like me and you thrive off friendly competition, you’ll really light up doing these sprints, because you’ll have the extra motivation of wanting to win at writing.

Just don’t take the competition too far. This is chill. Don’t be a jerk.

It might seem silly, but there’s a real sense of pride when you win a sprint. In my experience, these competitions are always friendly, with everyone congratulating all participants. It’s just a fun way to remove the isolating aspect of writing, and keep the words going.

3) Sprinting is essentially a specialized pomodoro.

I’ve talked about the Pomodoro Technique before. If you’ve read that post, you know how much I love working this way. (You were also probably expecting this post because I talked about sprints and their advantages there.)  It improves focus, maximizes efficiency, and has been proven to relieve stress. It’s the best way to do any work, and writing is no exception. Sprints are specialized pomodoros that add the element of tracking word counts so you can see how far you’ve come.

If you want to get the full benefit of interval work from your writing sprints, take a five minute break between each sprint. It’s actually ideal to do this no matter what – it gives you time to think about what you wrote, fix any minor mistakes you want to correct, stretch your hands and wrists to keep the dreaded carpal tunnel syndrome at bay (check out some great stretches here), get a drink of water, respond to texts or see your family to assure people you aren’t dead…whatever you need to do during this time. My personal favorite is to do four twenty minute sprints separated by five minutes each, which also happens to be the length prescribed by the actual Pomodoro Technique. Takes about an hour and a half, and at the end of it I’m always shocked by how far I’ve come.

Just like with sprint length, you should experiment with what works best for you, and be ready to adapt as needed. I love the four by twenty method, but you might find that if you’re chaining together sprints in this way, you want shorter sprints, or longer breaks. One of my friends does ten minute sprints separated by two minutes each, while another favors thirty minute sprints with ten minute breaks. Experiment, and see what lets you hit the best rhythm. When I first started sprinting, I made spreadsheets to track my word count for different lengths and different intervals, and converted it to Words Per Minute so I could see what was working best!

I’d only recommend that if you obsess about efficiency, but it’s definitely worth trying if you do.

Do you use writing sprints? Do you love or hate them? Let me know in the comments below!

9 thoughts on “3 Reasons You Should Be Doing Writing Sprints

  1. A.M. Molvik

    Writing sprints are something that I use quite a bit and I enjoy doing them. I don’t do them against other people, but I do try to beat my last record of how many words I wrote in ten minutes or however many I decided to write. I feel like I’m going to be doing a lot of them today.


  2. James

    Good tips Alex. Doing my first Nano this year. Only slightly behind. 33k written in 21 days. Determined to get over the line and finally get a (first draft of a) novel complete.


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