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Robert's Rules of Writing #70: Engage the Enemy

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Procrastination.

With rule #70, Masello tackles that issue, one that seems to affect all writers at some point or another. Often it feels a lot easier to put off doing our writing than it does to sit down actually do it. As others have noted in their own essays on procrastination, many writers would sometimes rather clean the bathroom than face the keyboard.

Masello's own advice on how to avoid procrastination hearkens back to his school days. He noticed that he always felt uneasy when he put off doing an assignment, and discovered that the only way to relieve this tension was to actually do his work. If he didn't do his work, but spent his time in leisure instead, he noticed that he couldn't really enjoy himself. For him, procrastinating simply wasn't that good an option.

So his main suggestion to fight procrastination is mostly just to do it, because of how it can affect you emotionally. To some extent, I can understand where he's coming from; I too get antsy if I put off work for too long. But on the other hand, the advice he offers isn't very proactive. If you're not the sort of person who gets antsy, you're not going to be able to follow it.

And sometimes, you won't be able to follow it even if you are. On a personal note, this past year I've had a handful of writing projects with deadlines, and I have to admit that I have heard the siren song of procrastination myself. Although I do set goals for myself, like many others, I don't always meet them the way I should. So how do I tackle the issue?

In one of his many essays on writing, "Do It Anyway," Mystery Grand Master Lawrence Block gives advice that is pretty much encapsulated in the title of the essay. He tends to feel that procrastination is rooted in fear that the work you create won't be good enough. The key to facing this fear, he says, is just to do the writing anyway. Chances are it won't be as bad as you think.

(It's possible that I'm conflating two different essays here. If so, there's no need to correct me, as the point is still a valid one.)

But how do we turn Masello's and Block's advice into practical action? I have three techniques I've used to fight procrastination, which might help you as well.

1. Set yourself a daily page or word quota.

It's probably the oldest piece of advice in the book; I know I've heard it repeated too often to count. But it really works. If you say to yourself, today I have to write 500 words (or 1000 words, or 250 words) before going to bed, and you really stick with it, you'll find that the work gets done faster than you expect. As Gay and Joe Haldeman like to say, a page a day is a book a year. Surely those of us who call ourselves writers can eke out the time to write a page a day. Or at least a sentence.

2. Promise yourself a carrot when you're done.

I've also seen this piece of advice elsewhere. In the past, writers used to promise themselves a chocolate or a few pages of reading someone else's novel once they finished their daily quota. Some writers give themselves the license to watch television after they're done. In our modern world, I've known writers who refuse to check their email or anything else on the Internet until they've finished their word count for the day. Find a reward that works for you.

3. Have someone else provide the stick.

This is a technique that I haven't seen recommended elsewhere, so if you offer it to others, be sure to give me credit (he said with a smile). When I took a year off to write full-time, I knew I would need someone else watching over me to make sure I actually got my work done. Since the only reason I had this opportunity was because Nomi was willing to support us for the year, she in essence became my boss. I had a daily page quota, and every day I had to email those pages to her so she would know that I had gotten them done. By our arrangement, I couldn't slack off, because if I did, I'd be falling down on the job. And treating writing as a job, where your boss can fire you if you don't get your work done, can be one of the best spurs for actually getting your work done.

Any other techniques for avoiding procrastination that others would like to offer? My guess is that we'd all benefit from such advice.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein

Comments

Couldn't be more timely for me! Of course, I sat here reading this post instead of writing... ;-)
Not so much a tactic (I'm too busy building a house to write, so I'm all for procrastinating right now!) as it is another reason for procrastination.

Patricia Wrede once suggested that beginning writers procrastinate because they are afraid of locking themselves in, when they want to be free to explore all options. Choice (writing) limits the options.

Her solution: nothing is carved in stone. Pick one. Take it until it runs out. If it runs out too soon, go back, pick another. Repeat.

In other words, as long as you are still writing it, nothing is so precious it can't be changed. So go ahead and write it.
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