Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Wanted: Cure for Procrastination

“I don’t like writing. I like having written.” I read this in Writing to Learn by William Zinsser, but it has also been attributed to Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and Gloria Steinem. Most writers may have said it, including me.
Whether one calls it a malady or a moral failing, I suffer from procrastination. Well, that’s not exactly true – I don’t always suffer. Armed with denial and self-righteous justification, I often enjoy those activities that delay putting fingers to keyboard. (Excuse me while I go and hang the laundry on the line. Justification: I am eco-friendly!)

I’ve heard writers claim they don’t check email until noon. I don’t believe them. It’s theoretically possible, I suppose, but I can’t imagine it….. Since I live in California, the rest of the country has time to load up my inbox early in the morning. Most of the emails are writing-related, or at least from writer friends, though not always precisely related to our careers, and it’s only polite to respond to friends in a timely fashion. Then the usual round of internet check-ins: INK, news pages, and…… you know how it goes.

Nonfiction writers have the best excuse for not writing. At the beginning of a project, all those trips to the library, reading, taking notes, checking footnotes and bibliographies for more books and more trips to more libraries. Phone calls and emails with experts who share some arcane enthusiasm make me feel clever as clever and oh-so-justified for not writing.

As I research I get a sense of the format and themes of a book. This would be the ideal time to hack out a first draft, but no, I delve deeper. Scholarly journal articles are ideal sources for unusual quotes and details, so it’s off to UCLA Library. Self-righteous justification: since I loathe paying $9 for parking, I cycle the twelve miles roundtrip, and get virtuous eco-friendly exercise in the bargain.

OK, enough of the problem. What is (are) my solution(s)?

Deadlines – real or invented – and accountability.

Real Deadlines
1) A contracted article or book – Not only money, but future contracts depend on getting that writing done on time. It’s amazing how much easier it is to write when ready cash is involved.

2) An encouraging letter from an editor – “We like it but would like see a revision before we buy it.” I’ll usually get this done more of less quickly, i.e. a handful of months – unless the proposed revision is so far from my vision that I decline.

3) My critique group – My reputation is at stake here. What am I doing if I can’t produce enough writing to critique once a month? And I’m not the only one to send my work to the group at the last minute. It’s nice knowing that my procrastination gene is not a rogue mutation.

Invented Deadlines
4) Monthly writing goals – Not life goals or social calendar or even research or marketing goals, but writing goals – as in first draft, revised draft, completed manuscript. I print and tape them to my printer. The kicker: I share these goals with my online writer buddies and each month I fess up: DONE, IN PROGRESS, NOT EVEN STARTED. This trick works because my self-respect is on the line. A slacker – who, me?

5) A NAPIBOWRIWE variation – Inspired by NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month,) an annual international novel-writing binge, Paula Yoo ( recently invented NAPIBOWRIWE – National Picture Book Writing Week. She challenged people to write seven picture books in seven days. After my four months of ‘indispensable’ research on a twelve-chapter book, I decided to take NAPIBOWRIWE and make it my own. I would write one rough chapter a day for eleven days. (I’d already completed one chapter.) The first week I wrote three chapters, the second week I managed two chapters, and the third week I only wrote one. Some might scoff at my (lack of) progress, but I’m happy with this “blitz” method. Reason it’s taking so long: I’m doing more research as I write. Those last six words may just be the best long-term solution for my procrastination dilemma: “do more research as I write.

6) Which leaves my INK blog deadline – No money involved, just larky research-free blathering on about my two favorite topics: writing and myself. Reputation is part of it – the other bloggers manage to post once a month, so I must too. To prove that INK blogging is indeed larky, I’m writing this not the night before it’s due, or even the day before, but TWO days before my deadline.

Please, tell me about any cures (temporary or permanent) for procrastination you’ve tried!


April Pulley Sayre said...

Great advice, Gretchen. I actually have to put on a timer to get some of my work projects done. They seem impossible to finish. But I can do an hour a day on them. So I set the clock and go. Learned that one from author Carolyn Crimi who actually has an egg timer. I have a software clock on my mac in dashboard.

Lori Calabrese said...

What a great article!! The computer is my worst procrastinator, but I need it to write! It's so easy to drift away from Word to the internet! I need somebody to stand over me and slap my hand I guess!

Love the idea of the timer!

All the best,

Anonymous said...

Here's a good one I found on procrastination. Don't put off looking at it!