Procrastination is a particularly difficult problem for writers, which is why I have been putting off writing a column about it for a long time.
Everybody has a natural inclination to postpone a tedious task, but writers face a particularly onerous set of obstacles because we not only have to slog through the job, but be creative at the same time. We are compelled to prod our minds at bayonet-point to come up with an intriguing lead, cover the requisite facts in a coherent fashion, and produce what is often a dauntingly large chunk of prose.
Here are some techniques to overcome the inertia that keeps us from starting and progressing on a writing project:
Begin with the Second or Third Paragraph. We wordsmiths demand of ourselves the unrelenting ability to craft leads that are inventive, compelling, and, of course, excruciatingly clever. And then we beat ourselves up when we can’t deliver and subsequently dither and procrastinate while we wait for our muse.
Here’s a cure for that. Instead of sweating out dozens of false starts and freezing in fear and frustration while you await the arrival of a creative thunderbolt, begin with the second or third paragraph. Then go back and write the lead. It’ll probably be a better lead, actually, because you’ll have had time to see how the content has developed and you’ll now be able to creatively preview it.
Instead of Sitting There Bleeding onto the Keyboard Trying to Figure out What to Say, Write Yourself a Memo About What you Want Yourself to Say.
For example, if you are assigned to write a major report, don’t start writing it. Instead, assume the guise of your own editor and write a set of instructions to yourself. (“Open with an anecdote showing how email miscommunication has resulted in a major account blowing up for us, and then move on to figures from the studies I’ve collected showing how this is a near-universal problem. For example, in the study from the University of Toronto… .”) If you follow this approach, three things will happen: 1) you’ll take a lot of pressure off yourself, because giving instructions is a lot easier than actually doing the task, 2) after some tinkering, you’ll come up with a logically ordered outline of the piece when you write the memo, and 3) you’ll probably find that your “examples” are well-written and you can just drop them into your draft.
Start with anything, but start now. Once you’ve started, you become a person who has started. It’s like no longer being a virgin; you can’t go back. It’s much easier, psychologically, to motivate yourself to keep pecking away at a project once it’s underway, even only symbolically underway. Do you have a major project due in two weeks? Overcome your instinct to put it off until the night before the due date by writing one paragraph today. Write a sentence if you can’t manage a paragraph. If you’re really stuck, create a blank folder for the project. Anything! Having accomplished at least something today, you’re facing a much less onerous task tomorrow because you’ll be continuing the work, and not starting it. And don’t be too fussy about what you write. You can always go back and edit it later. To paraphrase Churchill, insisting on perfection in your prose is a prescription for paralysis. Moreover, a day’s thought and perspective on even the roughest of rough drafts can produce some pretty exciting insights into how the piece can develop.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article, but I fully realize you are doing so only to avoid writing. So get back to work.