Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Writing Life: Ten Tips for Dealing with Procrastination

The Writing Life is a Regular Writers in the Sky (WITS) Column by JJ Murphy. This month's article is:

Ten Tips for Dealing with Procrastination

I know something's up when I'd rather do laundry than write or when I conduct endless research, but never write a rough draft.

But what can I do about it? Here's what helps me negotiate this rough terrain in my writing life:

1. Define your most productive times. I write best first thing in the morning, before anything happens to distract me. This is when I write, proofread or review what I wrote several days ago. I also write well when I'm hiking, foraging or relaxing in the woods.

2. Assess your writing environment. I need natural light. At night I need correctly placed light. Shadows or glare are distracting obstacles that contribute to procrastination.

3. Remove distractions. I have a place where I can sit and write regardless of the weather. I like being outside better, but when I need research and support materials, my library and the Internet are important. If music is playing, it can't be intrusive. Turn off the TV - even the Weather Channel. The difference is amazing. If you do not have a room, office or a space all your own, dedicate a corner of a room or a quiet place in the library where you do nothing but write.

4. Write everything down. Freewriting, brainstorming, lists, outlines, organic notes (those diagrams with spokes) - whatever floats into your head - write it down. Organize it later. The idea is to fill up the page with words. If you have to start with "I hate this, it's dumb, I can't think of where to begin..." - do that. The more words you put on the page, the greater the chance that some of them get to the heart of what you want to say. Some writers choose to talk into their voicemail or use voice recognition software.

5. Take baby steps. I set a goal to publish a weekly writing-related article. I then defined the baby steps. I made a list of topics that I can add to when I get an idea. If an idea engages me, I'll write down my feelings, thoughts, learning or insights. I may have written about this topic before. Eventually I will have enough notes to begin the freewrite, which ultimately leads to a rough draft. These steps carry my momentum through the rest of the writing process.

6. Write the easiest parts first. If I am stuck for a beginning, I write a middle. If I have a conclusion or strong opinion, I write that first. Sometimes this is enough to set the process motion.

7. Reward your small victories. If I have been writing for 15 minutes to an hour, I take a well-deserved break. It soothes my eyes to shift from staring at a screen or notebook to looking out at the horizon. I may just stretch or get a cup of tea or I may use that time to break for a hike or some other treat. Taking breaks helps avoid burn-out.

8. Be prepared for setbacks. Even with these guidelines, setbacks happen. If I focus on being stuck, I stay stuck. Instead I look for ways to move on. Sometimes I write about the topic from an opposing point of view. I might write a dialogue between me and the procrastination monster, or I switch from writing nonfiction to fiction. The important thing is not to substitute washing the kitchen floor for writing.

9. Have a plan. Recognize the symptoms of procrastination and commit to changing the pattern. For me, procrastination can set in when my hiking is curtailed by bad weather. Walking or any rhythmic movement is essential to my writing. Weather is a fact of life; I will get stuck indoors. I have my tips list, an idea file, magnetic poetry and a whole range of ways to get words on a page. I don't need a final product. I just need to get my hands or my voice moving.

10. Accountability. Whether you write or not is entirely in your power. I cannot blame the weather, a sprained finger or anything else for my decision to write or not to write. If I want to provide my clients with work on or before a deadline, I have to write. If I want meaningful content for my readers, I have to write. I enjoy writing, but if it ever becomes a chore or a daily burden, I'll look for something else to do.

Freelance writer JJ Murphy helps companies, small businesses and individuals express the benefits of their green products and services. She earned her MA from the William Allen White School of Journalism, University of Kansas and her BA from the University of Connecticut. JJ's client list includes writers, business consultants, motivational speakers, psychologists, financial planners, educators, and politicians.

Visit her website for writing samples, articles, wild food recipes and more information, including JJ's favorite places for gear and supplies.