Getting big projects done: best practices from successful writers

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.

That meshes with the advice James Clear shares, from Khaled Housseni:

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:

  1. Identify what you want to achieve.
  2. Allocate 15 minutes a day to it.
  3. Over the next year you will will spend 91 hours on your task.

4 Comments for “Getting big projects done: best practices from successful writers”

  1. posted by Jackie on

    Great advice as I am just beginning to get more creative with my writing.

  2. posted by Madame Hardy on

    An important caveat to the “every day” technique you see so often: Sometimes, for whatever reason (health, vacation, other responsibilities) you can’t do something every day. You can still use this technique and say “Every day it’s possible, and on days when it’s impossible I won’t feel guilty.” The important thing is what you do the day after you’ve missed one: don’t feel guilty, just start again.

    “Do this every day” can also keep you from getting things done. If the guilt/shame for missing a day gets in the way of your progress, rephrase to “This day, the day I have right now, I will take another step.”

  3. posted by Pauline Wiles on

    The math is simple, but I’d never made the connection between 15 minutes a day and 91 hours… that’s a really powerful message.

  4. posted by Kathleen on

    These are very good reminders to relax and just get on with things!

    Kim Wilkins (author) plays ‘word count bingo’, where instead of dividing wordcount by days, she breaks it up unevenly – a few 5000 word days, a few 100 word days, a few days off – and marks them off on a chart as she meets the relevant target. Which both gives you credit for overachieving and some slack for sick days etc.

    For those who have problems with delayed gratification,
    I also break down my big tasks into known steps. It helps stave off panic because I know what to concentrate on next, and I schedule in rewards at key points, which gives me an achievable goal when the ultimate goal is still a long way off.

    For example, I’m revising a very large manuscript at the moment, using a technique which should work but which I haven’t tried. The time involved is scary when I don’t have the confidence of experience. But I have a list of steps (make notes, answer research notes, sort notes, sort chapters, transfer text into program, do high-level autoreplace, edit first chapter etc). And when I’d made all the notes, I could go to a movie in Gold Class, when I finished research I could buy a book not on that topic. When I’ve edited the first part I can book a painting class, etc.

    Or when I reach a certain level in my mortgage repayments, I can go out for a degustation meal, which helps me when the final gratification is still 25 years away.

    Or if I show up at an exercise session three weeks in a row, then I can buy more socially acceptable gym gear.

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