Tales of Space and Time
Besides seeing projects as complex in space, the prolific also see them as complex in time. While novice writers see writing as “just writing,” the prolific see it as a process consisting of these or similar stages:
- Conceptualization (a.k.a. note-taking or “noodling around”)
- Planning and outlining (a little more structured than above)
- First Draft
- Final Draft
- Cash the Check (for freelance and other writers who get paid)
Note how the stage most people think comes first—First Draft—actually appears halfway down. A major cause of unproductivity and blocks is that the writer omits, or skimps on, the earlier stages—which means she is trying to write something she doesn’t sufficiently comprehend.
Trying to write a first draft without first spending adequate time on stages 1-3 is like planting a garden without preparing the soil, or building a house atop a shaky foundation: a risky proposition at best. Sure, once in a while a piece will just seem to write itself. But that’s usually because we’ve either thought about it a lot or figured out a link between it and other topics we’ve thought a lot about. So the early stages were, in fact, done, only perhaps at a different time. (Also, the confidence that comes from writing something familiar helps us resist perfectionism.)
Obviously, the stages differ from project to project, and writer to writer. Some projects demand extensive research, others only a little. Some writers create detailed outlines, while others work from the seat of their pants (the famous “plotters” versus “pantsers” divide). And some writers do the stages mostly linearly, while others jazzily intermingle them. Whatever system works for you, and the particular project you’re working on, is the right one.
It’s helpful to remember that most of us enjoy working on some stages more than others, and those are the stages we tend to get stuck on if we’re prone to procrastination. That’s procrastination as a toxic mimic of productive work, and it happens especially with first draft, research, and revision.
Conversely, many writers dislike, or are afraid of, certain stages and try to avoid them. These are, typically, the first draft and submission, as well as marketing and other business “chores.”
Armed with the knowledge of the stages of a writing project, you can now use your writercopter to move not just through space (the landscape of your project), but time: more specifically, back to a prior stage whenever you’re stuck. I recommend moving back to conceptualization, planning, outlining, or drafting, but not research because it is a frequent vehicle for procrastination.
Another important productivity technique is to identify the easiest parts of your project so that, when all else fails, you can work on them. When, during the writing of this book, I was severely distracted or demotivated, I worked on the bibliography. Why not? It had to get done, and doing it empowered me and helped me get re-motivated as soon as possible.
You can do this temporally, too. The earliest and latest drafts of a project are usually the easiest, because the earliest ones tend to be free and fun (if you don’t get perfectionist), and the later ones tend to have most of their elements in place, so that what you’re doing is mainly line edits. So if you’re working on multiple projects, or a project with multiple sections, all in different phases of completion, do “earlies” and “lates” when feeling distracted or otherwise unmotivated; save the tough middle drafts, where you’re trying to make order out of chaos, for when you’re feeling fresh and energetic.