Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

How to Beat the Big Writing Project Blues

I'm in the final stages of writing a book. My working title is: The WriteNow System: 8-1/2 steps to writing better, faster. The work's going well, although not quite as quickly as I'd like, which is kind of embarrassing for someone who bills herself as a writing speed expert.

Actually, the writing went just fine -- better than I thought it would. Several months ago, I was even ahead of schedule. But I recently bogged down in the editing phase. This was partly a product of other things going on my life (I regret to report I'm considering a major home renovation) but also a natural result of nearing the end of any big writing project.

Like the mountain climber approaching the peak or the marathoner hitting 18 miles, I was starting to flag. This was thoroughly predictable and something every writer should plan for (especially a professional, God help me). So let me share my five-step plan that got me out of the slump. You, too, should be able to use it to deal with our own big writing project blues.

  1. Be brutally realistic about how much time your project will require. For the editing stage, edit a sample page or chapter and then multiply that by the total number of pages/chapters in your project. This will reveal how many hours of work you have left. The answer might be profoundly depressing but at least it will allow you to plan. Confront the ugly truth.
  2. Set a reasonable goal. It's a good idea to start by working backwards from your ideal completion date. For example, if you say to yourself: "I want this project finished by July 1," you'll have "x" number of days to do the job. Let's say your project is 8,000 words long and you have 16 days until the planned finish date. That means you'll need to handle 500 words a day to get the project done on time. Think about it. Is that too many words a day? If so, you need to postpone your target date. Or are you unhappy with the finish date? Then make your daily target more aggressive. Play around with the numbers until you come up with a completion date and a daily requirement that makes you happy.
  3. Plan to work on your project every day. Most of us are more likely to accomplish tasks we do daily. They become part of the woodwork and background noise of our lives -- and therefore don't appear to require so much effort. As well, working daily will give you momentum. (Note: It's okay to take weekends off or scale back your weekend goals.)
  4. Don't do too much on any given day. I went crazy recently and spent far too many hours -- many more than I'd committed - at the computer, editing. Know when to stop. If you burn yourself out, you'll regret it (and probably fail to meet subsequent deadlines.) It's all about pacing.
  5. Keep a record. Just as dieters write down how many pounds they lose and runners chart how many miles they cover, you should keep a record of how your writing project is progressing. Create a simple chart in Word or Excel and then fill it in each day as you do your work. Referring to the chart can be a terrific motivator -- as well as an excellent way to celebrate your success.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. 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:

Monday June 25th 2007, 2:19 AM
Comment by: Rose D.
No comment just yet. Thank you.
Tuesday June 26th 2007, 2:17 AM
Comment by: Belinda T.
Thanks for the advice. I find it quite hard to divide my workload by an exact number of words, though!
Wednesday June 27th 2007, 12:31 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Yes, it's hard to divide your workload by an exact number of words. But try not to get too freaked out by it. It's really not much different from: deciding how much time you're going to spend at the gym each week; how much money you're going to spend each month; or, if you have your own business, how many prospects you're going to meet with each quarter. It's just about having a goal and working toward it. Without the goal, you don't know what you're aiming for. The absence of a goal also makes it easier to watch TV or surf Youtube when you really ought to be writing...

The other thing about declaring a daily goal is that it makes writing projects seem much more do-able. I find it awfully hard to visualize writing 80,000 words (the length of a shortish novel). But I can easily imagine writing 220 words a day -- which, over a year, is exactly the same thing!
Wednesday June 27th 2007, 8:44 AM
Comment by: Belinda T.
Yes, it's incredibly important not to freak out about how little time you have left to meet your targets. Heard something nifty today that sums it up: Many people worry about not having enough time to do their work. The trick is to spend less time worrying, and more time working!
Saturday June 30th 2007, 3:40 PM
Comment by: Alden B.
Your goal should be to do your project, not to write so many words. Take your outline (presumably you've made one) and break it into roughly equal-sized chunks. How much is a chunk? As much as you can cover in one session. How long is a session? As many hours as you can and will write per day.

Using chunks ("modules" if you prefer a Latinate term) instead of words as your production unit should give your writing more unity and coherence. And you'll be less likely to say "blah, blah" when "blah" will do.
Saturday June 30th 2007, 4:35 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Interesting idea, Alden. I think it perhaps illustrates that we all need to refine systems that meet our own needs. That said, I do caution against outlining and against writing in logical chunks.

I believe outlining should be reserved for very large projects -- for anything less than 5,000 words it's not necessary and often tends to slow people down. Instead of outlining, I suggest mindmapping (I have written a booklet on this which is free via my website if you sign up for my newsletter, www.publicationcoach.com)I have had many of my coaching clients tell me they doubled, tripled or quadrupled their writing speed simply by abandoning outlining and replacing it with mindmapping.

For larger projects, of course, you can't avoid outlining, but I suggest doing it in the most cursory way. For example, you an set chapter subjects/titles for a book. Then you can mindmap the chapters and proceed from there.

The reason I caution against writing in chunks is that once you have "finished" a section, you often lose the impetus to write the next section. You've lost your momentum and you're stuck back in the "start up" phase.

Instead, I often suggest people finish a writing session in the MIDDLE of a section or paragraph -- even in the middle of a sentence! Then, when you go back to writing the next day, you have a very clear task in front of you and you will be eager and excited to get it done. You can then build on that energy to move onto the next sentence, paragraph and section.

It's a small psychological trick, but a very powerful one.

Saturday June 30th 2007, 6:02 PM
Comment by: Natasha L.
I think the best piece of advice is not to get distracted by other little jobs, i.e. work avoidance behaviour--or "wabbing" as it is known in our house. In fact, Daphne, writing an article for the Visual Thesaurus frankly qualifies as wabbing in my book.

Also, it is fair enough to say do a bit of work on your project every day but it really is starting that most people find hard.
Sunday July 1st 2007, 12:53 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Good point, Natasha. And love that word wabbing...

Part of the reason I recommend working towards a word count is that it helps people avoids wabbing/waffling. Writing for "30 minutes a day" may or may not result in any writing. Writing a "section" of a book is measurable but easier to avoid. For example, if the section is going to take, say, 3 hours to complete, it becomes all too easy to conclude: "I just don't have the time today." And then today spins into tomorrow and the next day and....

But most people are perfectly capable of writing 300 words a day without breaking into too much of a sweat. Working five days a week, for a year, that's 78,000 words -- almost a full length book.

You are right that "getting started" is the hardest part. That's another reason why I so strongly recommend mindmapping. It's an excellent tool for helping generate that "ah, NOW I know what I want to say" feeling. When you have that feeling, writing becomes a pleasure instead of a drudgery.

(Writing for Visual Thesaurus is not wabbing for me because my job is to write about writing! But it may well be wabbing if you want to be a novelist.)

Friday July 6th 2007, 9:28 AM
Comment by: LEE (New York, NY)
I enjoy reading all suggestions, and use many to stay on track. I don't count words until I feel I've completed a section or chapter, as I don't like the pressure. Writing comes easy when I've done my research and am comfortable with the topic.

When writing isn't the 'thing-of-the-day,' I work on the website, references, rework the outline, review notes, just do something. This seems to help me maintain momentum and reach goals.

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