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Writers Talk About Writing

Five Ways to Tackle the Writing You've Been Avoiding

Many of us postpone doing things we don't like. Taxes (guilty). Washing dishes (guilty, occasionally). Making the bed (at least I overcame this one 20 years ago). But the real doozie is writing. Why do so many of us defer, delay and shilly-shally about writing for so damn long?

It's not as if the good writing fairies are going to come and tap out the words on our keyboards while we're off doing more interesting stuff.

Procrastination is both painful and costly. Think of the report you should have finished two weeks ago. Consider the customers you may have lost because you didn't get a sales letter written on time. Think about how terrible this delaying makes you feel about yourself.

The next time you're tempted to procrastinate when you should be writing, consult this list and see which of these five tips will work for you:

1. Limit your writing time. As counterintuitive as this may sound, stopping yourself from doing something may be the best possible way to kick start your inner writing cheerleader. Don't allow yourself to write for more than 15 minutes per day — and use a timer (either a kitchen one or an online version) to coerce yourself to stop when the bell dings. Limiting your writing time will force you to become much more productive — in the same way most of us manage to clear off our desks just before vacation. Instead of sitting and staring at a blank screen, you'll know you have to produce.

(If your job involves a lot of writing, you won't be able to limit yourself to 15 minutes but you can approach the writing in chunks. For example, tell yourself you can write for no longer than 30 minutes at a time and must do something else in between writing sessions.)

2. Break the job into smaller tasks. Like most people, you probably think of writing as a single immutable chore. It's not. It's a number of much smaller jobs: Thinking. Mindmapping. Researching.  Each is separate. All are part of writing. Just do one and then pat yourself on the back for starting to chip away at the much bigger task.

3. Stop worrying. Every time you catch yourself worrying about what someone else (your readers, your bosses, your teacher, your clients), will think of your writing, stop yourself. Worrying is a useless activity disguising itself as a useful one. Instead, turn your attention to what you want to say in your first draft. (Remember, you will have plenty of time to worry about your readers later, when you're editing.)

4. Embrace the pain. I've recently started convincing myself to do the most bothersome and vexatious tasks first in my day. (For me, this is no longer writing — although it used to be.) Crazy as this will sound, I've accomplished this by persuading myself to welcome pain — after all, the only way to get beyond pain is to face it directly. I tell myself, "bring it on!" and then work through the task until it's completed. The feeling is totally liberating. If you hate writing, tell yourself you welcome this kind of pain because it has an important lesson to teach you. Then face up to it.

5. Plan how you're going to reward yourself when you're done. I know this might sound ridiculous when you're in the throes of procrastination but that's exactly when rewards can be the most useful. Just offer them strategically. For example, tell yourself you need to write for 30 minutes before you're allowed to check email or Facebook. Plan for other rewards, too. For example, you can lure yourself to finish a much-loathed project, by promising yourself a book or a magazine you've wanted to read for a long time. If the project is really big (or really loathsome) make the reward even bigger. Be creative.

There's a common misconception that procrastinators are perfectionists — they don't want to do something because they fear it won't be "good" enough. But in fact, research has shown that we procrastinators are simply impulsive and have a hard time delaying gratification. 

My advice? Use one of my tips to help you endure the short-term pain and then you will be free to enjoy a profoundly satisfying long-term gain.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday October 13th 2012, 1:42 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Great ideas. The agonies of writing always think about a quote from Thomas Mann: "A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."

BTW, a tool, I guess you'd call it, that's been inspiring a lot of people I know is the Cult of Done Manifesto:

http://www.brepettis.com/blog/2009/3/3/the-cult-of-done-manifesto.html

Although it's not specific to writing, it sure does apply. (And it's not perfect ... but it's done!) These in particular really help me:

6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.

8. Laugh at perfection. It's boring and keeps you from being done.

13. Done is the engine of more.
Saturday October 13th 2012, 7:47 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Mike,

Thank you SO MUCH for introducing me to Bre Pettis and the cult of done. I agree with just about everything he says (well, except rule #3 saying there is no editing stage. Wrong!!) I especially like "Done is the engine of more." So true!

I now have someone new to follow in my RSS reader. Thank you!

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