Writing a book is a huge project; many people who have a book they would like to write are so daunted by the effort required that they never get that book written. But successful authors have strategies for getting the work done — and these are strategies all of us can apply to our own big projects, regardless of type.
Break the work down into bite-sized pieces
Matt Swanson captures the overwhelmed feeling some potential authors have:
I’d like to write a book, but I don’t have time to do all that work.
But do you have an hour to outline a table of contents? Could you write 500 words today?
As Swanson indicates, focusing on just the next small step can get someone going — and step by step, the big project gets done.
In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes about focusing on “short assignments.” An example of one short assignment:
All I’m going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words.
Michelle Richmond echoes that thought:
Don’t be afraid to write a paragraph here, a page there. Not everything has to be a full-fledged chapter in the early stages of novel-writing. If you have a scene in your head that you know you want to write, go for it. But if you sit down at your computer and feel flustered and uncertain, allow yourself the freedom to think in small bits. Tell yourself, “Today I’m going to write 1200 words about where my character lives,” or “Today I’m going to write 500 words about what’s troubling the narrator.”
Lamott also quotes E. L. Doctorow:
Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
What this means for the rest of us: Our big projects could be things such as preparing our tax returns, uncluttering our photos, or getting our files in order. We can emulate these authors, and break each project down into small pieces that feel doable.
Create a daily habit
Over and over, writers talk about the importance of writing every day — or at least five days per week. Some set a goal regarding number of words; others focus on hours spent doing the writing.
Srinivas Rao, who is writing a number of shorter pieces rather than a book, realized he’d never makes his commitments if he waited to be inspired, so he started writing 1,000 words every day:
If I woke up at a place that wasn’t home, I wrote 1,000 words.
If I had no idea what to write, I put my fingers on the keyboard … and I wrote 1,000 words.
If I didn’t feel like it (this one is really important), I wrote 1,000 words.
You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not.
What this means for the rest of us: We can also create daily practices, with specific goals. We could set the equivalent of a daily word-count goal; for example, we might commit to going through a certain number of files, papers, or photos. Or, we could decide to spend a certain amount of time working on our big project every day. Either way, we don’t have to make a huge time commitment — we’re not doing this for a living, as authors are with their writing! But seeing daily progress might be just what some of us need to keep going and get our projects done.
Here’s a strategy that Darren Rowse shares:
- Identify what you want to achieve.
- Allocate 15 minutes a day to it.
- Over the next year you will will spend 91 hours on your task.