By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)
You should be writing. Yes, you read that correctly. You should be writing, not browsing online, checking e-mail, finding little distractions… or should you?
Three years ago, our Absolute Blank article was “Mirror, Mirror: Finding Your Writing Style” by Theryn (Beaver) Fleming. One of the types was The Procrastinator, the writer who can be prolific once she’s gotten started but just can’t seem to get started. Beaver’s sage advice was to make writing appointments and keep them, using the story ideas you store up while “not-writing.”
Does procrastination have a positive place in a writer’s life? Sure it can, as it can come in handy for anyone. The key to making procrastination into a boon instead of a burden is to use it to improve your work.
There are three ways writers procrastinate: doing non-writing activity, doing writing-related activity and doing throwaway writing.
Let’s talk briefly about the last way. You may be asking, “isn’t any writing that I do considered ‘good’ writing?” It can be and usually is. If you want to work on your novella and you become engrossed doing a background story that relates to the action, you’re not necessarily doing any throwaway writing. If you start doing a character bio and are inspired to write the emigration of the main character’s great-great-grandmother and get caught up in a sweeping saga of love, loss and liberation, that’s not a productive use of writing time (fun as it may be). Of course, no one’s forcing you to stay with your original idea. Maybe the first idea is boring you and the other one gets your juices flowing. The point is that spending your valuable writing time doing superfluous work might make you feel like you’ve wasted it in the end.
I suffer from writing-related procrastination. It doesn’t have to be fiction that I’m dilly-dallying about writing. It could be a blog entry, a letter or, just as an example, an Absolute Blank article.
Let’s say I have an idea for an article. I want to get some more information or read other articles on similar topics. I “Google” whatever search terms I like and start working. At least, I call it “working.” I find a good article at a site and decide to see what else is in their archives that might be inspiring. I check out their forums, if they have any. Someone has posted a link. I click the link and go to another writing site. The new site has an archive of articles that I need to look over. It’s research, after all! The circle continues until I recognize what’s happening and either begin writing or tear myself away. One key is to recognize when you go from research into random websurfing.
You can set a time limit for research, if that works for you. Alternately, you could try to train yourself to recognize that you have enough research for the time being. If, like me, you enjoy the research, use it to treat yourself. After five days of solid writing, spend a day doing research, organizing your notes or cleaning up your bookmarks.
Unless you’re a professional, salaried writer, non-writing activity takes up most of your day. Your job, your classes, your life in general is chock-full already. Where to fit in your passion for creative writing?
You can work on your writing any time. I think about plotlines and characters while driving or while drifting off to sleep. I keep a little notebook in my bag to jot down ideas, things to look up, even character names when I’m out. Non-fiction writers can use their day jobs, no matter what they are, for writing inspiration. I got lots of ideas for characters and dialogue while working retail customer service.
Let’s take Beaver’s advice and make a writing appointment with yourself. Someone else is on pet and/or child duty. The answering machine is on and the online connection is off. You reach for a floppy with your story on it and have some trouble finding it. So you take “just a minute” and organize the disks. What you really need is a pen and some paper, just in case. Another minute to find that. Ooh, better use the bathroom. Don’t want to have to get up in the middle of a sentence. Better get a drink while you’re up. And a coaster. The screen looks smeary so you find a Windex wipe and clean it off. And the keyboard. The CPU. The printer. The mouse. The volume knob on the speakers…
Finally, you get around to writing. It’s good. You’re chugging right along. It occurs to you to do a word count and you’re over 500! If you were Graham Greene, you could quit. You’re a little bleary-eyed with a stiff back. Knowing you’re a procrastinator, do you dare walk away now that you’re in the groove?
You dare. Here’s the why and how:
- Writing is work. Like most any work, it can be physically draining. If you were out gardening and started to get uncomfortable, would you stop and stretch your back? Of course. It doesn’t mean you’ll leave all your equipment out in the elements for days. You’re not going to leave your story open on the computer for days either. Just a quick stand-stretch-squat can get your blood flowing again. If nothing else, flex your fingers and turn your head in every possible direction. Writing is a job and every worker deserves a coffee break or two.
- Eye strain. It’s a reason, not an excuse. Take a little break to focus on something else or to close your eyes. You don’t even have to leave the computer (or the page). Think about your story and what you will write next while you take this break. As Martha Stewart said, “I catnap now and then but I think while I nap, so it’s not a waste of time.”
- You’re intense. When you write, you get absolutely focused. Maybe you’ve just written an emotional and/or critical scene and you need to step back from it. There’s nothing wrong with playing a round of Tetris or catching the end of “The Daily Show.” If you want to stay in writing mode, time this break and return when your head is cleared.
- You’re stuck. Here’s a case when that writing-related procrastination is a good idea. You need to use the thesaurus (another reason for an eye break or a stretch break). You have to look up a farming term. Sometimes you might want to write around your roadblock. Sometimes it’s a good idea to take a few minutes to get properly “unstuck” so that you can concentrate on what’s ahead, not what you’ve already written
- You’re distracted. Maybe you are a stronger person than I. You ignored the dirty computer screen and the unkempt pile of character notes. As you write, you notice these little things and you find yourself thinking more about chores than writing. Allow yourself a break to take care of some stuff if it’s distracting you. I keep a timer near the computer for several purposes and this is one (the previously-mentioned round of computer games is another). When the bell dings, back to your seat.
- You need to edit. You’ve just written gold! Pure gold! Unfortunately it doesn’t mesh with chapter one. Rewrite chapter one. It’s productive work, not writing-related procrastination.
- You have, ahem, “human needs.” Hunger, thirst, potty break, whatever. Just take care of it and come right back. You can’t concentrate on what you’re writing if you’re thinking about something else. For refreshment breaks, have someone serve you whenever possible. One fun way to keep a writing appointment is to make it on pizza night. What else to do while you wait for delivery? Take that half-hour and churn out a little something creative.
- You’re done. Maybe the reason you’re stalled in your writing is because you have nothing else to do. You’ve completed the chapter, the poem, the paper, the article or whatever you’ve been slaving over. Now’s the time to send to a friend for a second opinion, post it for some feedback or hand it over to the dutiful one who brought you drinks and let the dog out while you wrote.One tip: never leave off a piece of writing without leaving yourself something new. If you finish a chapter, write a couple lines of the next chapter. The Future You will sit down to work on it, dive right in and feel productive.
Now it’s time for me to blow the whistle and send my fellow procrastinators back to work. Get some inspiration from the boards, the calendar or archived exercises and get to work already!