Seven Productivity Hacks to Get Your Writing Project DONE
If getting started is the hardest part of writing, than finishing it up comes in as the second highest hurdle to conquer.
Whether you are writing an article, blog post or a book – sitting down to finish what we have started often causes so much angst that nothing gets done. Although I have been a writer for all of my adult life, I still battle with the getting started part and then finally finishing my project.
Several years ago, when I was a student in the Johns Hopkins University writing seminars, I decided I wanted to write a travel essay about my trips to Israel. I had reporter friends there who could set me up with settlers and refugees and I wanted to write about what it was like to live daily amid the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (You can read the final product here -- it is the last piece posted in my portfolio.)
I reported it to death --- I went everywhere – several Palestinian refugee camps and more than a few Jewish settlements. I interviewed everyone and anyone who would talk to me. I had five reporter’s notebooks full by the end of my third trip.
The trouble of course began when I got home, sat down at my desk and started to write. I felt nauseated! Overwhelmed.
I had no idea where to start. So I just started writing anything, started in what later turned out to be the middle. But everyday was a hard start for me – I would procrastinate, spend time cleaning my cell phone, doing laundry or going to get yet another cup of coffee.
The situation improved when I picked up a few tricks from my writer friends who suffered from the same aliments.
1. Lower the Bar for Success
No, I don’t mean accept as your final product sloppy or bad writing – what I mean is that it does not matter if your first draft is good. What does matter is that it gets finished! One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, devoted an entire chapter of her book "Bird by Bird" to “Shitty First Drafts”.
“All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” -- Anne Lamott
The enemy is perfectionism.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” -- Anne Lamott
Banish this bad habit by telling yourself and truly believing that the first thing you write does not have to perfect and ready for publication. No one is reading it right now but you. You can fix it up later after you have gotten the thought, the scene, the chapter or whatever out of your head and onto the page.
Silence those voices in your head that are telling you what you are writing is about as interesting as the kitchen sink with a loud “SHUT UP”.
Even when I was a daily journalist on tight deadlines I quickly learned if I wanted to get anything done and meet my editor’s deadline, I had to write something and write it NOW. Either me or my editor, depending on how much time I had, could pretty it up later.
2. Don’t Edit While You Write
Like I just wrote, it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around. Don’t stop to correct typos, recast a sentence or move paragraphs around. Those are editing tasks that can be accomplished later.
3. Write in Short Sprints
Writing a piece is a journey so try to enjoy the trip.
"Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” --- E.L. Doctorow
I love that quote because the image is so vivid – I can’t think too far ahead because then I feel overwhelmed and anxious which leads to no writing getting done.
When I was writing my Israel piece, I broke it up into chunks and set a timer for writing parts of it. First for only five minutes, then 10 and so on. It really helped me focus and gave me a mini deadline – a topic I will visit here shortly.
Write that short character description, that love scene that you have been avoiding or a section about the story’s setting.
4. Choose the Best Time of the Day
Of course, this is easier said than done. Most us have full-time jobs and/or kids to take care of all of which tend to suck all the energy out of us during our most alert and productive hours of the day.
You might have to do what I and many other writers do which is get up an hour or two earlier than you usually do -- before your kids are demanding breakfast and your spouse is asking what there is to eat and write.
It won’t be easy to haul yourself out of bed before the sun rises so start small. Try a half an hour first and then work your way up to an hour or two. When I first started doing this I was too groggy to be really productive but after a few weeks I got the hang of it and now I find that it’s a habit.
5. Set Deadlines and Reward Yourself
If there is one habit that I learned as a journalist was to meet my deadlines. I had no choice. Break your book or article into manageable pieces and set deadlines for them. Set shorter deadlines within those deadlines. Piece by piece you will get it done. I broke my Israel piece down into sections by place and wrote each one separately, then I went back and put them together for the final draft.
Oh yes, I should say something about the reward part --- my reward for finishing this blog post is watching an episode of "Homeland". Witnessing Carrie's antics is a big motivator for me!
6. Join a Writer’s Group
When I was writing my Israel piece I was still in graduate school and we critiqued each other’s work. After all the time I spent alone and writing – talking only to myself – it felt good to get feedback from other writers. They often had good ideas on how to fix certain problems that were vexing me. I got encouragement and was able to find solace in the company of others who were struggling just like I was.
7. Stop Writing
Yes, there is the perfect time to stop writing for the day. I think it was Hemingway who advised writers to stop writing at a point where they know what they are going to write next so when they sit down the next day they will be able to avoid that sinking feeling of not knowing where to go next in their piece.
When I come to the point that I am tired and need to wrap it up for the day I make some quick notes about where I want to go next in the piece. I do this so I won’t forget or go off on some other tangent.
For some advice from more experienced writers than me, check out:
"Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamont
"The Situation and the Story" by Vivian Gornick
"Story Craft" by Jack Hart
"Crafting Novels and Short Stories" by Writer's Digest Books
"Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft" by Janet Burroway
"Telling True Stories: A Non-Fiction Writer's Guide" by various authors complied by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University