a first draft in five minutes a day?

This is a brief post. It’s a brief post about a brief strategy which helps you to get started on writing that feels a bit – well – a bit boring. It’s the five minutes a day strategy.

Boring? Yes … sometimes we all have to write things that don’t excite us. We often try to put off tedious writing. We find it hard to get going. We have no energy. Just thinking about the writing makes us feel tired. And perhaps resentful.

When faced with an enervating writing task, it’s tempting to put it off. To do something that’s more interesting. Or perhaps we could sit and look at the blank screen for a while, then switch to email, or marking, or analyse some data, or one of the many other tasks that need doing.

So the boring bit of writing stays unwritten. It becomes increasingly pressing. But no less tedious. You can’t face it. Rinse and repeat. 

Here is one way to get going. Set aside five minutes. Five minutes only.

For the first minute, brainstorm on your screen or on a piece of paper as many elements of the boring piece of writing as you can. What are the bits of stuff you have to write about? Just bullet point them. Don’t fret about it, you’ll know the most important.

Now you have a list. That’s already an improvement on a blank screen or page, but you can do more.

Pick the most boring of all of the boring items. Set your timer for four minutes and write or type as fast as you can about the boring topic for the four minutes. You goal is to reach 250 words. That’s it, just 250 words. Don’t pause, don’t correct the syntax, and leave a blank or write “something” if you can’t think of the right word. Just get stuff down. Your goal is not to generate a coherent flowing piece of writing but to get out as much of the boring stuff as you can.

At the end of the five minutes you’ll actually have made a start on the boring bit of work. You might like to reward yourself for getting going.

Now, if you have time, you can repeat this procedure straight away. Choose the next most boring thing on the list, set your timer for five minutes and write like there’s no tomorrow. Or continue on with the first one if you think you have more to say. Another 250 words down. Again another little reward. 

If you don’t have another five minutes, or the will to go on, put the list and the new 250 words aside and do the same exercise tomorrow.

Five minutes is not a lot of time. And two lots of five minute writing gives you a whole 500 words. (But if it’s not working for you, you have only spent ten minutes seeing if it will. Not a lot of time compared to staring at a blank screen. ) But if it has worked, good for you. You’re underway.

You can keep going in five minute slots a day. Once you have four slots done, you’ll have 1,000 words. Who knew a few days ago that 1000 words could be written without significant pain?

At the 1000 word point, you may want to put the chunks of writing together, and in the order that you think they will go in the paper. You can also add into the document the leftover bullet points from your initial brainstorm. And you now have something like an outline.

You may now be able to go ahead and fill in the various pieces, writing around the remainder of the points. Without timer. Without rewards.. Or you may like to keep going on five minutes a day, point by point, with rewards, until you have the entire outline – lots of chunks of stuff.

These chunks all need work, and they need to be strung together, to link into a narrative chain. But hooray. You do have, at the end of a sequence of only five minutes a day, something that is pretty close to a crappy first draft. Well done you.

So that’s the five minutes day strategy. It’s an adaptation of a common creative writing exercise, tailored to an academic purpose. While it may appear that the major part of this strategy is a short pomodoro, the more important aspect of the strategy is the development of tiny targets, sometimes called micro-goals. Each bullet point from your brainstorm is a tiny writing target.

For people who find getting going hard, or who have very little time to spend on their writing, developing and sticking with tiny targets can be very helpful.

You don’t have to confine tiny targets to boring writing. You can apply tiny targets to anything. With an initial focusing – the brainstorm leading to choice of the mini pomodoro – tiny writing targets can add up very quickly to a text that can then be worked on as a whole. It’s a crappy first draft for sure, but it’s not a blank screen or page. And even a lot of that next stage of second drafting, where you focus on structuring the argument, can happen in little five to ten minute slots.

Photo by Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in being stuck, boring writing, crappy first draft, pomodoro, speed writing, stuck points, tiny targets, writing to get unstuck and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to a first draft in five minutes a day?

  1. Joanne Seal says:

    I am finding these posts so helpful and motivating in current times. It can be hard to motivate when workloads are busy and finding headspace even more tiresome. This really helped and plan to look at boring aspects and achieve 2 x 5 minutes now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. julesgodfrey says:

    This is so helpful- I remember someone far wiser than me, telling me ‘don’t get it right, get it written’. As far as getting started, it really helps to fill the void.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. As always, Professor Thomson, great advice. I’ve currently got a 6,000 word reflective portfolio to write, but finding the time (without a definitive deadline to aim for) is difficult. It’s work for the weekends, but then there are the dogs to walk, and now, too, 6 Nations Rugby!

    To prevaricate or not to prevaricate! But your suggestions, here, are so helpful for this specific task, as the portfolio is in key sections, each with its own focus. So your method outlined in this blog is truly incremental, time-efficient and cumulative.

    Thank you, again, Pat.


  4. Iskandar Hamzah says:

    Dear Professor Pat Thomson

    Thanks for the brilliant tips. But as a non native English writer, myvocabulary bank is shallow and often end up thinking which words to use. Hence it usually took more than 5 mins to write 250 words.


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