TIME MANAGEMENT FOR WRITING I

 

A person who has not done one half of his day's work by ten o’clock runs a chance of leaving the other half undone.  ~ Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

If you wonder if your writing time could be more productive, then read these additional time management tips. Will they work for you?

1.         Try this: Before you begin a new chapter or new section, think about the work you must do: How much content do you need to cover, what ideas or arguments will you include, how many subsections will you use? Then consider how much time will be needed to produce good writing...on this topic...by you. Write down that amount of time. Then start writing on that section and keep track of how much time it actually took to do what you planned. When you're done writing, refer back to the number you wrote down. (Do you ever finish sooner than you thought? Well, congratulations to you. That's never happened to me.) It always takes longer. The next step is the most critical, the important part of this exercise. Analyze why it took longer. Maybe you took more breaks, ate more snacks, watched more television, or got distracted more often than you had planned. So do you know what action you should take? Identify and eliminate the distractions that prove to be your weakness. (Do not connect to the internet. Do not check e-mail or Facebook. Turn off your phone. Write for 90 minutes before you stop.) Or, did you just not give yourself enough time to do this writing task? Do you anticipate that a task will be easier and thus quicker than it turns out to be? Do the thoughts make more sense in your head than they do on the paper or screen so you underestimate how much time you'll need to get your mental notes into written form? Does a project that you believe will take 90 minutes turn out to require double the time? It's OK to be a lousy judge of how much time something will take. It just means that you must adjust your schedule in one of two ways: One, you must start your project earlier. Give yourself additional time by starting a week, a month, or more earlier based on what you anticipate you'll need. Or, two, you can work so much more quickly than you've ever been able to work. I recommend the first option. It allows you to retain sanity (not to mention friends and loved ones), and it improves the quality of your work.  

2.         How much writing would you get done if you were told to abstain from writing, or to write only when you were inspired? Boice (1990) reported on a "writing intervention" with 27 faculty members. All faculty reported problems getting their writing finished, yet all had perfectly manageable writing projects to complete. Boice assigned faculty to one of three conditions. Perhaps the most desired assignment was given to nine faculty who were told not to write for 10 weeks except "in case of emergency." Faculty in this "abstinence" group assumed that the 10 weeks away from writing would let them develop more, and more creative, ideas for their writing. Boice told a second group of nine to schedule 50 writing sessions over 10 weeks but to write only if they felt in the mood to write. (Another nice assignment, right?) These "spontaneous" writers also predicted they would experience more creative writing ideas. Boice told the remaining nine faculty to schedule 50 writing sessions over the 10 weeks. But, if they did not write at least three pages during each of these scheduled times, for a minimum total of 150 pages, a check signed by each would be sent to an organization they hated. (The Democrats? The Republicans? The NRA? Planned Parenthood?) Faculty in this "expensive contingency" group, clearly having drawn the short straw, predicted that they might be productive but definitely not creative. Do you know what happened? The group "forced" to write produced over three times as much as the spontaneous group and over 15 times as much as the abstinence group. By the faculty members' self-report, the third group, forced to write with an expensive contingency, had a "useful, novel idea" each writing day; the rate was half as often and a fifth as often for the other two groups, respectively. One faculty member, forced to write, said: "It really isn't what I thought it would be. I don't feel the pressure because I don't even think about it very often....It feels good to be so self-disciplined. What I really like, though, is how easy it is to start writing. No struggle. I look forward to it. I think about what I'm going to write during the day. Sometimes I'm tempted to start sooner. That sure doesn't sound like me" [laughs] (Boice, 1990, p. 81)  

3.         One other suggestion from Boice is this, which may seem counterintuitive if you're having problems starting to write each day: Set limits on your writing. "Start writing before you may feel you're ready. Finish writing before you may feel you're ready. Know when you've done enough with your writing project" (Boice, 1990, p. 86) Boice explains that not waiting until you have the perfect plan and perfect paper in mind and then turning the paper over to reviewers before it's been perfectly written "both teach the values of giving up one kind of control, i.e., wanting to be perfect, for another, healthier kind of control, i.e., being able to work and communicate comfortably, without unnecessary anxiety" (p. 87). Boice offers an interesting take on procrastination - it is a type of limit-setting. When you procrastinate you limit yourself to a flurry of a few writing days rather than writing day after day. "What these procrastinating writers ignore, though, are the aversive properties associated with last-minute writing - fatigue, anxiety, lack of confidence about writing ability, among them" (p. 87). There are healthier ways to set limits, and they result in more productive writing outcomes.  

4.         So what if none of the time management tips seem to work for you? Or you use these strategies and still are overextended with school and work and life? Write when there's very little time to write. I love these examples provided by Keyes: Perhaps the most commercially successful contemporary fiction writer ever, author of more than 30 books with sales of over 80 million in the U.S. alone, was a widow at age 36 with five children.  She wrote from 5:00 to 7:00 each morning for three years to complete her first book (Keyes, 2003, p. 40). The Canadian poet and novelist Carol Shields wrote in between diapering and nursing five children she had in 10 years. When she did not meet her two-page a day goal, she wrote in bed as she was falling asleep each night. "Nine months of two-page-a-day writing resulted in her first novel Small Ceremonies. Shields later observed that she never wrote this quickly again, or in such an organized way." After winning a Pulitzer Prize for The Stone Diaries, she told NPR's Terry Gross, "Now I have the whole day and my output is no more than it was then" (Keyes, 2003, p .42). Anthony Trollope wrote dozens of novels at night after leaving his British postal surveyor job. Agatha Christie wrote 12 novels in six years while working full-time at a hospital. The Pulitzer Prize winning author of Wit wrote after work at a bicycle shop. An assembly line worker wrote during breaks at the Fisher Body Plant in Flint, Michigan, to start his career that led to the Newbery Medal. Attorney Scott Turow wrote Presumed Innocent during his 30-minute train ride into Chicago each day. bell hooks worked fulltime at the phone company while producing essays. Debra Rienstra wrote her memoir Great with Child in 15 to 60 minute blocks and was so sleep-deprived "that she could not fully remember writing the book.  Franz Kafka was a clerk, Herman Melville a customs official, T.S. Eliot worked in a bank" (Keyes, p. 44). I don't know about you, but after I read Keyes's description of these successful writers, I would feel foolish saying I don't have enough time to write.

Boice, R. (1990). Professors as writers: A self-help guide to productive writing. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Keyes, R. (2003). The writer's book of hope: Getting from frustration to publication. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

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Some of the information in the BreakWriting postings is drawn from previously published work, and I have tried to properly attribute the ideas and work of others. If I fail to do so, please tell me so I can clarify and correct (Graduate Mentor).

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