When it’s too hard

Here are some strategies I try to use to make my writing life move forward.

Setting achievable goals:

There are several ways to do this, but the most important aspect of these goals is that they be achievable. That is, that on the first attempt, you can do it. As an example, I’m reading a book called Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. Here is a quote from her book:

If you look at a piece of writing, all neat and orderly, and know nothing about how it actually came about, you might deduce that it was created using what Arlo Guthrie calls ‘the good old-fashioned boring model.’ But this isn’t how good, finished writing usually occurs, and even when it does, such a method may not have been the best or most satisfying way of producing it. In her essay, ‘Elusive Mastery: The Drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art,” Brett Candlish Millier looks at the seventeen drafts of Bishop’s poem in order to discover how exquisite writing really gets done. The most shocking thing I found out from reading Bishop’s drafts is that her first draft looks nearly as awful as my own first-draft poems do; it’s what Bishop does after that –and how many times she does it–that makes all the difference. (33).

One of my professors referred to this as the “fallacy of rewriting trumping writing.” I mention his comment because it points to the fact that not everyone agrees that re-writing is writing, nor that re-writing improves writing. (Some say it perfects it to the point of dullness–all glossed up, but nothing sexy about it at all). You’ll decide what works for you.

Tools that have worked for me

Incidentally, looking for effective ways to encourage myself to write has been one of my favourite modes of procrastination, but, after all these years of “research” I can’t say I’ve come across anything more interesting than these pieces of advice. You’ll find them everywhere.

        • Write everyday (or every weekday)
        • Set achievable goals
        • Write first (before reading your email, before looking on facebook, before The New Yorker)
        • Make a mess first. Then clean up. (Writing is re-writing)

To prevent me from procrastinating on the internet:

Freedom

This is a program that blocks the internet for whatever period of time that you set. No facebook, no emailing, no access to The New Yorker, nor to this website, nor to academic databases, nor to any of the other seemingly productive things I like to do on the internet.

How I give myself achievable goals:

By time spent writing or reading

I use the pomodoro technique, which is basically a way of breaking my worktime up into 45 minute stretches (or 25 minute at the beginning). Taking a break after the 45 minutes is mandatory. Setting goals for those 45 minutes helps to (ie. it must be work that relates to an essay I’m working on, so, for example, making pages for my website, like now, doesn’t count!).

There are plenty of online timers or timers you can set on your computer. Here are some:

Pomodoro Timer

About the technique

A timer for your menubar (MAC)

I know it’s quite nerdy, but sometimes I mark my pomodoros in my calendar by ticks or by stickers.

By word count

This is lower tech, but not always appropriate to the kind of work I need to do. But, it does work when what I most care about is making sure I get a lot of writing done (regardless of quality). You can decide to write 500 words a day (like Hemingway did), or more, like Stephen King.

Here’s an article on habits of famous writers.

As with the pomodoros, if I’m recording my progress my word count, I will often write down how many words I accomplish in a day in my calendar. In both cases, these are rewards I’m giving myself. (In addition to emailing friends, going for a coffee, buying a new book, going to a movie, having a fancy dinner).

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