7 steps toward making headway on that manuscript

Let’s face it. Writing is sometimes a joy. Especially after the fact, when you’ve finished something.   Your three hundred words for the day.  A particularly troublesome paragraph. Or, that holy of holies: a manuscript, newly proofread and, through the magic of the interweb, now sitting in the inbox of some unsuspecting editor. Huzzah.

But starting work on those three hundred words, that paragraph, that manuscript, is tough for all of us. I have an almost cartoonish capacity to dither before launching into writing. All the little OCD’ish behaviors–straightening out my desk, aligning the keyboard and monitors, checking my email, adjusting the chair, checking my email, scratching my…beard, writing blogposts, checking my…OK…you get the picture–that inevitably precede any writing assignment. But once I get to work, I can usually make some progress. Here’s my recipe for getting some serious writing done. 

  1. Close email. Don’t just close the window. Close the program.
  2. Open up your software: MS Word, Google Scholar (only that window), any digital notes, and my Endnote bibliography. Array them so that the written page (typically in Word Outline mode) is at eye level, everything else is a click away. This is your last chance for OCD-ish dawdling; don’t blow it.
  3. Print out your latest figures and tables. I keep figures/tables/appendices in a document separate from the manuscript even though they will all be bound together eventually. This improves the performance of MS Word and avoids those aggravating spinning beach balls just when I’ve begun to make progress. It also removes the need to flip back and forth (or worse, scroll) when I should be typing.
  4. Set your timer to 25 minutes. This will take a bit of explaining. There is a something out in the blogosphere called the Pomodoro technique , which is just embarrassing enough that I hesitated before embedding the link. It’s named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer (I knoowwww!) and is used to merchandize a bunch of stuff. That said, its singular principle– that you divide your work into 25 minute races of pure concentration, broken up by 5 minute intervals when you goof off, relax, tidy up the office–just seems to work. For many, including myself, 25 minutes is a nice block of time to get into the flow of writing. Moreover, because you are using a little alarm app like TinyAlarm, if you steal a look up to your menu bar, you can see how much time you have remaining in this little writing sprint. And, for some reason, if I have only three minutes to go before the alarm goes off, I work harder. I race the alarm clock. Yes. I know.
  5. Write. Write damn you! Write like your life depends on it! The wolves are chasing the sled! The T-Rex is in your rear-view mirror! TinyAlarm is watching!
  6. Take a 5 minute break. Twenty five minutes of uninterrupted work will have generated at least a few sentences. Or some serious editing. And when the alarm goes off, you may need a break (especially, if, like me, you tend to sit like a contorted gargoyle in front of the computer). Finish the sentence, stand up, and stretch. Sometimes, you may not even hear the alarm. That means you are in the zone. Shhhh TinyAlarm! I’m busy!
  7. Go to 5.

Remember Rule Number 1 here at GTDA: Whatever works.

So, what are your writing rituals?

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2 Responses to 7 steps toward making headway on that manuscript

  1. Busy Signals says:

    On my previous blog, I had a series of pre-writing rituals, similar to what you describe–setting up the environment, getting my sources together, etc. The final step was usually to open Word and do a skeleton layout–not even an outline, just a series of one-word element descriptions: “title, subtitle, paragraph, blockquote, paragraph, heading, etc.” Then I’d pick a place (only about one in four times would this be the beginning) and start filling in content.

    Over time, that skeleton layout became sort of a trigger–if I didn’t feel like writing, or even hadn’t done the prep work, if I would just open Word and lay out the sections, I’d generally feel (more) like writing right away.

  2. NS says:

    “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
    ― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

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