11 Ways to Be a More Productive Writer (Who Makes Real $$)


I did a presentation at TBEX Toronto in 2013 with a range of slides on succeeding as a travel writer in the digital age. Some of them got a chuckle, some got frowns, but the one above got a collective gasp. A rather loud one. I knew it must have gotten some attention when people pulled out their cell phones and started taking pictures to post on social media.

Note that it shows a balance, but it looks like work. I’m not a hobbyist just taking press trips for fun. This is my job. It’s a career, a business I own and run. If you want to earn real money in this hyper-competitive field called travel writing, you have to be serious about your productivity. Sure, it’s a fun gig, but that doesn’t mean you can be a slacker.

I’ve heard the excuses, I’ve watched the growing frustrations, I’ve seen the road kill along the travel writing and blogging journey. I probably know what you’re doing wrong before I even meet you. If you really want to succeed (and don’t just revel in whining about your lack of revenue), start here.

11) Turn off the TV

The average American who does watch TV reportedly spends a mind-boggling 136 hours a month in front of it. Even if you’re enlightened enough to spend half that much it’s 68 hours a month. Cut that in half again and you’ve just found 34 extra hours you can use to write something great that requires real research or insight, something that will last.

10) Have a Social Media Plan and Time Budget

What are you trying to accomplish when you log into your social media accounts. Have you even thought about it?

If you’re spending more than an hour a day farting around on Facebook, probably not. Take a good hard look at your stats if you’re a blogger or your bank account if you’re a freelancer and see what you’re actually getting out of those hours and hours you’re “networking.” Yes it’s fun to socialize, especially if you’re in a home office and are craving some human interaction. But if that’s the reason, go meet some friends for coffee or happy hour instead. Set an amount of time per day you’ll be on social media and stick to it. For me it’s generally around four hours a week tops at this point. And I have five Twitter accounts, six Facebook accounts, two G+ accounts, Pinterest boards…

9) Batch Your E-mail

Do you keep your e-mail open all day and react like a puppy every time you hear it ding? This is a sure way to work reactively instead of proactively. You’re basically saying to yourself, “Whatever anyone else out there wants from me is more important than what I want to accomplish in the next hour.”

I’m not saying don’t check your e-mail regularly, but do it in intervals (every two or three hours for instance) and block out time to do all your replies in one shot for a while. There are occasionally fires to put out and answers to give so you can get your check or book your plane ticket, but most things can wait hours, if not days.

8) Have a Blogging Schedule/Pitching Schedule

If you’re a serious blogger, one who is not doing this as a hobby, you should have at least a rough schedule. Some people are so disciplined they always have a new post go live at 9:00 am on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Others post whenever the mood strikes them. I’m suggesting something in the middle, where you at least say, “I’m going to post twice a week, usually on Tuesday and Friday,” or whatever. If you’re not disciplined, you won’t plan ahead, you won’t pre-post ideas to flesh out later, you won’t treat your blog like a business.

If you’re mostly a freelancer, don’t just query an editor when you’re in a productive mood. Send out x queries a week or one a day or whatever is going to get you to your goal. Make them targeted and good, of course, but having a schedule forces you to constantly look for and come up with new article ideas and keeps you in front of editors you have worked with before.

travel writer Leffel

7) Turn Off the Wi-Fi Sometimes

This is related to the social media and e-mail temptations above, but it also speaks to something more fundamental: the need to concentrate. There are several good books out there full of documented cases that multitasking makes you stupid and the people who think they’re good at it are generally the most scatterbrained of them all. (Here’s one I like.) If you’re going to be a writer, you need to write. Not 140-character quips, but real writing measured in thousands of words that flow well and engage the reader. The best way to do this is without something else tugging at your attention. If you need to, get out of your regular workspace and go to a park, a cabin, or an old-school business that doesn’t have Wi-Fi. Or do some real writing on that next long plane/bus/train trip.

Despite that slide at the top with all the content I’m cranking out, every year I win a slew of “best travel writing” awards for my longer narratives. That’s only possible because I know how and when to shut everything off and concentrate. One. Task. Only.

6) Accomplish Two or Three Important Things Each Day

There are a hundred ways to compile and organize a to-do list and I’m not going to tell you which one works for you. But know that nearly all successful people keep one of some kind and they refer to it regularly. What the really successful people do though is prioritize. They separate the project-oriented, big accomplishment tasks from the million little “nice to get done today” things that may be easier, but less important.

If you accomplish two or three big things today—a good blog post, a finished article, a contract signed and sent, an ad deal closed, a pitch accepted—forget the rest of the list if you’re out of time. The other stuff can wait. Those of us who are entrepreneurs could work 24 hours a day if we had no family, no friends, and didn’t need sleep. There’s always something that can fill up the time. The key is knowing what will move you forward and what is just a task that needs to be dealt with someday, eventually. You’re your own boss, so take advantage of it. Do things that matter instead of things on someone else’s priority list.

writing schedule

Naps are good (especially in a hammock)

5) Pay Attention to Your Body Clock

Are you super-productive at 10 am and nodding off at 3 pm? Recharged and full of creative juices at 9 pm? Then recognize that and don’t fight it. Do your important creative work mid-morning, take a nap or go for a walk in the afternoon. Turn off the TV at 9 and go write a blog post. If you’re a night owl by nature, work at night. If you’re up at 6 am to get the kids to school and are wide awake at 7:30 am, knock some stuff out first thing. Again, if you’re not in an office, forget the confines of a “normal” work day and do great things when your body and brain are ready. Do the things that require little to no thinking (social media, for example) when you’re at a low energy point. And remember, naps are good for you.

4) Get Plenty of Rest and Exercise

You don’t need my wife the personal trainer to tell you to get a good night’s sleep, exercise regularly, and eat healthy food regularly. You inherently know all these things are good for you and that you need to do them. This is just a reminder that as a creative person—a writer or blogger—you are putting yourself at a serious mental disadvantage if you’re sleep-deprived, out of shape, and eating junk food all day. Besides, every good creative person and most honest business owners know you never get your best ideas while sitting in a chair. You need movement.

Your brain needs this.

3) Never Stop Learning

Great writers work at their craft for a lifetime. Few are so arrogant that they think they have nothing to learn. Most good writers read voraciously: novels, non-fiction, magazines, blogs. They also go to conferences to get advice, join mastermind groups, seek out advice from peers, subscribe to newsletters like this.

2) Pay for Things That Save You Time and Hassles

Writers who whine the most about working for crap money are, in my experience, the ones least likely to invest in themselves and their business. Not all apps, software, and services are free. A lot of useful ones require you to put down some real money. I pay monthly for an e-mail distribution service, a business phone/fax service for one of my websites, Feedblitz RSS service, Boing0 Wi-Fi, LeadPages, and more. But they’re all worth it. They all enable me to do more in fewer hours more effectively. My best investment though…

farming out WordPress

You’d rather work 2 days than pay this guy $50? Really?

1) Pay Others to Do Things Better/Faster/More Than You Can

Few of us are going to try to rewire our house if there’s an electrical problem or give ourselves an x-ray. Yet we bloggers and website builders are constantly trying to play superman and do anything and everything ourselves for our business. This is not only a serious time-suck, but it also results in frequent frustration. Go to eLance, ODesk, Microlancer, or a similar service and find someone really qualified to move your blog, redesign the template, design a logo, create a book cover, reformat your book for Kindle, and on and on. If you need someone to do something regularly, go get a virtual assistant and delegate. Open your damn wallet and pay some other freelancers to go beyond a one-person blog.

I certainly couldn’t accomplish all those things at the top without Jaime for Perceptive Travel, Kristin for this Travel Writing 2.0 site, and Lydia for everything else. I couldn’t have brought the sites under the Al Centro Media umbrella the success and profitability they’ve enjoyed without all those posts and articles someone besides me contributed. You’ve heard it a hundred times for a good reason: You’ve got to spend money to make money.

Last, I rarely go online on Saturdays unless I’m traveling alone, I spend lots of time with my family, and I frequently get eight hours of sleep. You don’t need to kill yourself to be successful. You just need to leverage your time and resources.


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