Freelance Writing Funk? 3 Mindless Productivity Hacks from a Pro


Mindless Productivity Hacks for Freelance Writing. Makealivingwriting.comIn a freelance writing funk? When your blank screen looks like a yawning abyss, it’s a telltale sign.

You don’t even want to approach the edge of that first line. All that emptiness reminds you of how far you have to go to get to the other side.

Despair sets in. Your mind reels. Productivity tanks. And your freelance writing well goes dry.

Sound familiar? It doesn’t have to be like that.

There’s a way to get any freelance writing project to go from bud to blossom to bouquet.

For years, I’ve used three unique productivity hacks to blunt the fangs of writer’s block, get more work done, and make a living writing. And if you do it right, it’s almost a mindless exercise.

It’s how I’ve published a novel and landed assignments for magazines like Forbes, the Los Angeles Times, Vox, Popular Mechanics, WIRED, Writer’s Market, and many others.

If you’re in a freelance writing funk, feel like you don’t have any good ideas, or it’s taking you eons to write content, it’s time to let your mind go. Here’s how it’s done.

Meet freelance writing pro Tom Bentley

Tom Bentley: Freelance Writing Productivity

Tom Bentley

Meet Tom Bentley. He’s been a writer, editor, author, copywriter, and freelancer for more than 30 years.

He’s written hundreds of articles for top consumer magazines.

And he’s published nine non-fiction books and novels, with another on the way.

He’s also written for Make a Living Writing about:
How to beat loneliness as a freelance writer, what it’s like to write for Contently, Skyword, ClearVoice, and eByline, and how to cash in on writing short articles for magazines.

Plant a word-seed to get freelance work done

So what’s the mindless secret to being a more productive freelance writer? Word seeds.

Word seeds are in essence quick notes, and sometimes a single word, that vividly capture a concept.

Think of it like the pre-writing batter that makes the best cakes, because their ingredients are structural elements—ones that can grow to make the sum of their parts a sweet, risen whole.

The ‘shoes for poodles’ example

Say you are supposed to write the elements of a complex landing page for a marketing campaign selling shoes for poodles.

  • Do you try to write the whole-cussed thing in one setting and watch it die? a ‘borning?
  • Do you even want to risk trying to get the headline and first paragraph down in one run, fail, and rail against the cosmos?

I wouldn’t. I’d use word seeds to get started, generate ideas, and get organized to write.

I’d probably scribble something like:

  • Curly toes to match curly fur
  • Tie them with teeth
  • Velcro
  • Matching capes
  • Athletic and evening wear, and so on.

That might not sound like much. But when you let your mind go and use word seeds, it has a positive impact on creativity and productivity.

If you want to be a more productive writer without losing your mind, here are three reasons to use word seeds:

1. The oyster-sand-pearl effect to boost productivity

Word seeds supply you several benefits. Listing terms and phrases in pre-composition sticks them like a swizzle stick into the soft folds of your mind. Believe it or not, they have that oyster, sand, pearl effect.

Even if you might not feel them, they are scritching and scratching in those soft folds and changing from seed to sprout.

The incubation period for ideas

Going back to my word-seed ideas after a day or two has always proven fruitful for me.

Review the seeds, and then sentences or entire paragraphs will appear fully formed, the whole cloth made of the thin threads of your notes.

Mounting evidence shows that concentration followed by relaxation is useful, even actions that are “mindless” like:

  • Showering
  • Listening to the radio in the car
  • Vacuuming
  • Bicycling

When you make time for mindless activities as a creative, there’s an incubation effect. The brain continues to work in the background, so that there’s a kind of Eureka! moment of insight.

Besides showing that vacuuming has a creative purpose, this has fascinating implications for addressing workaholism, the nature of creativity, and personal development.

Do this: Before your next freelance writing project, write down simple phrases and words about what you need to write. It’s a kind of warm-up for the brain. Your brain starts doing homework about your project while you’re thinking about other things.

2. Seedling security to keep freelance writing going

Writing down quick notes also provides some security to help you keep freelance writing projects moving forward.

  • Ever had an editor reach out and ask for an update about your piece, and you’ve got nothing? Don’t do that.

Word seeds can help, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Simple notes can be enough. Plus, reading your notes provides a prompt that spurs new seedlings.

You can later organize them in a raw order of how the piece of writing might unfold. The process usually generates new ideas, too, like your next pitch or prospect you should contact.

Here’s how to maximize seedling security to speed up the writing process:

  • Don’t discount the value of even a single word being a springboard to writing an ad, an essay, a marketing campaign for poodle shoes, a scene in a story.
  • Use  descriptive, vibrant words, not vague ones.
  • Carry a notepad with you for when you’re away from your computer. Keep one by your bed.
  • Note: Write legibly. (For me, this is impossible, but perhaps your handwriting isn’t the result of alien probing).
  • Use word seeds to break down a writing project into manageable increments.

Does it work? I finished my latest novel by writing only a half-hour a day over a period of months.

Do this: Seed the end of your work day with a few words, thoughts and ideas about what you’re working on. It’s a way to caffeinate your next day’s work, and be more productive.

3. The curiously-creative power of writing notes by hand

There are some interesting theories on the psychology of writing by hand and its positive effects for learning, memory and thought processing:

The presumption is that some areas of your brain relating to information processing and retention—and even creativity—are activated by the physical act of putting words on paper.”

True or not, and despite the aforementioned fact I have wretched handwriting, I often write down the kind of word-notes discussed above, and anecdotally, seem to remember them well.

Lately, I’ve been writing my notes with a pencil. The soft scratching on paper offers a little brain candy of sound and texture.

Of course, if you have a 2,500-word article to write, scribbling away might be a creative outlet. But few editors will be happy if you send them your scrawl rather than a doc file.

But for short notes, that later lead to tall articles, scratch away.

Do this: Plant word seeds. Come up with ideas. Then write them down. Scrawl them on a napkin. Scribble them on your palm. Write them in melted chocolate. Or if you must, add a few ideas to your document before you call it a day. Verily, your word seeds will grow.

Train your brain to be a productive freelance writer

If you want to get more freelance writing work done, train your brain. Just like anything else, you’ll need to practice planting word seeds. But it works. It’s a great way to boost creativity, improve productivity, and grow your freelance writing business.

What’s your productivity hack for freelance writing? Share in the comments below.

Tom Bentley is a California-based freelance writer. He’s written for Forbes, the Los Angeles Times, Writers Digest, Vox, Popular Mechanics, WIRED and many other publications.

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  1. Frederik

    The “incubation period” is real and extremely useful. I didn’t acknowledge this in the beginning of my writing adventures.

    Most of my better plots and ideas just popped up while showering or playing the guitar.

    • Tom Bentley

      Frederik, I’ve had full sentences spring into my head when doing “off” tasks and literally entire paragraphs a couple of times, those while bicycling. And they have always come a few hours away from actually working on or thinking about a writing project, and not with me thinking about the project while on the bike.

      No writers should rely on waiting for the muse to get their writing done (good luck with that), but when the muse seems to send you a writing cupcake out of the blue, it’s time to eat!

      • Mark R

        Ah, yes, the biking moment…..and the ‘while driving in car’ moment. I learned my lesson and now carry a digital recorder everywhere I go.

        • Tom Bentley

          Mark, yeah, I’d forgotten about when you are just spacing while driving (safely, of course) it’s a perfect medium for incubated thoughts to roll into your mind. I used to carry a digital recorder, and the phone is a decent substitute now, but I don’t carry it much either.

          Once a good sentence or paragraph comes into my mind when I’m away from a notepad, I usually just nudge it around in my mind and hope it’s there when I get home. But carrying the notepad or device is a better way.

          • Carol Tice

            I like the time just before I fall asleep… seems to spark a lot of ideas I need to jot down or make a mental note of for morning. If I get a bunch, I use a mnemonic, noting how many there are and giving each a 1-word prompt that will remind me of each idea.

          • Tom Bentley

            Carol, I like the one-word mnemonic concept pre-sleep, though I keep a notebook by my bed to write down things that come to me in my sleep that wake me up, though usually when I review them in the morning it appears that I’d taken LSD. I’m better making cogent notes when I’m fully conscious.

          • Carol Tice

            LOL! I often go to bed with some weird mantra like, “Cindy. Bottle. SEO.” To remind me of ideas I need to work on.

  2. Joey

    Reading is my productivity hack. I call it warming up the brain. From there, I will start my journal entry for the day. It’s all about practice and persistence. I also believe in taking 30 minutes to put on my favorite music, declutter a spot in the house. The word seed idea is similar to a technique I had learned once upon a time in college. I will definitely add it to my toolset.

    • Tom Bentley

      Hi Joey. I always begin the day by reading as well—well, that and a cup of strong coffee. Just a half-hour or so, while still in bed; seems to start the engine without any loud backfires. And I read for a bit at lunch as well.

      I can’t work with music on, because my mind insists on listening to lyrics, and I fear I’ll type something Lizzo is singing instead of my work content.

      • Jim McCarthy

        Easy answer to that, Tom – just listen to instrumentals (except the National Anthem, of course)! 🙂

        • Tom Bentley

          Jim, yep, once in a while I listen to jazz while writing, though rarely. I am a big fan of the anthem at baseball games, however.

        • Carol Tice

          I tend to stream jazz in my headphones when I’m at co-working… love it!

    • Molly Miller

      Reading is often a productivity hack for me too. And journal writing. I will investigate music… Thanks!

      • Tom Bentley

        Carol, I’m so accustomed to working in near silence (though the neighborhood, even here where it’s semi-rural, can be loud on occasion) that I forget how much I like listening to jazz when writing. I’ll have to try it again.

        And Molly, I am on again/off again about journaling. I was doing a first-inthe-morning (and thenlate-at-night) gratitude journal, but I ditched it. I was just thinking of reviving that practice.

  3. Evan Jensen

    Hi Tom. Great ideas here to train your brain to come up with ideas, organize your thoughts, and be productive when it is time to write, by letting your mind go.

    Also totally enjoyed this self-deprecating humor:
    “-Note: Write legibly. (For me, this is impossible, but perhaps your handwriting isn’t the result of alien probing).” LOL.

    • Tom Bentley

      Evan, I wasn’t joking about the handwriting. Three days ago I took my notepad (usually next to my computer) to my girlfriend to ask her to decipher one of the business notes I’d made to myself. Neither of us could manage it. Undoubtedly it was an idea that would have made me a fortune! (Or it was bad poetry, who knows?)

    • Carol Tice

      LOL, my DH always used to call me from the store to get help interpreting my scrawl. Now, we use a shopping app so I type it in. 😉

      • Tom Bentley

        Yeah, I type up notes too, but I like the feel and sense of writing them by hand, nebulous scrape-marks on the page that they are.

  4. Jim McCarthy

    Great tips and, who doesn’t need this kind of advice from time-to-time?

  5. Molly Miller

    Thank you for sharing your practical, doable tasks to continue to inch forward in developing and writing an idea! I so much appreciate an experienced freelancer sharing writing tips for us newbie freelancers. One of my writing “jobs” is gathering notes that I have in my purse, by my bed, on the coffee table. Currently my best friends are steno pads and little spiral-bound notebooks. (I have one of each open in front of me this morning!) One of my tools is “knowing” when I’m writing…even when a formal story or article hasn’t taken form yet. For example, I know I’m writing now…and that the care I take in writing here… will allow my writing to be stronger and vibrant for a more formal writing project later. 🙂

    • Tom Bentley

      Molly, I like the implication that all writing is practice for writing—and that practice, of course, can go on for all of your life. This weekend I was hiking in the redwoods and then eating at an oddball place for an article series (“Trail Mix”) that I do for a newspaper.

      I have a little Moleskin notebook and a Fisher Space Pen (tiny thing) that I wrote the exact kind of word-seed prompts that I talk about in this piece. (“Banana slug” made it among the entries.) Those slugs of words will turn into something later this week.

  6. Jeannie Michael

    How comforting! I’ve always suspected that if I write it down (in pencil) it’s automatically worth saving, and it gets stuck in my brain so it percolates when my attention is elsewhere.
    Great post, thank you.

    • Tom Bentley

      Jeannie, you’re very welcome! The brain is a mysterious thing, but having seen the results of these scribblings, I think the practice has merit.

  7. Ubai

    Thanks for sharing your well-established long-term writing habit. Reading your piece has inspired me to get more organized with seed words. As a writing practice, I like to create a skeleton outline (albeit, on the computer) and work from there.
    I want to try the writing by hand approach. But you will appreciate the fact that my handwriting is a one-way street. I will write something, but I will not be able to read it again! LOL.

    • Tom Bentley

      Ubai, I’ve found that the seed concept (from tiny things big things grow) is notable for its condensed power: you can take just a few minutes brainstorming story/article concepts, not bothering with thinking of the bigger picture or the full structure of a piece, and from those bite-sized kernels you can cook the whole meal.

      For instance, a cluster of those word seeds later reviewed can prompt some headline ideas, logical structure of the piece, the conclusion, etc.

      As for your handwriting, you’re on your own—even when I try to slow it down, it still comes out as sneezed scribblings on the page. Oh well…

    • Carol Tice

      Ha, I have to transcribe my notes and type them up soon — a few weeks later, I won’t know what they say.

  8. Lucas

    These were great tips, thanks for posting it!
    I’ve found writing by hand is indeed extremely useful even though it’s so unpopular today.

    • Tom Bentley

      Lucas, yes, I’m an old-timer, so I can remember painfully inscribing my A,B,Cs (caps and lowercase) on big sheets of lined school paper. Kids now can probably just talk to Alexa and have her (that is, Amazon) transcribe and dissect their audio files. Oh, and there’s that thing called a keyboard…

  9. Wes Cherisien

    Love #3 Carol. I recently discovered this gem. In a world where digital is the new normal, I have found it surprisingly refreshing to dust off the old padfolio and jot my notes by hand. There are still times where I go digital for notes and to-dos but hand-written is my new go-to method. Thanks.

    • Tom Bentley

      Wes, I agree, it’s oddly satisfying to write (if not fully legible). I still hand-write letters occasionally, and am delighted to get them back in kind.

  10. Charlotte Addicott

    Thanks Tom, this is really helpful! I love the idea of using word seeds. I also have ideas come to me in the shower, though I’d never really appreciated the value of allowing an incubation period. I’ll be working this into my next assignment 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      LOL — I know writers who have a waterproof white board in the shower for jotting those down, Charlotte!


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