Parkinson’s law basically says that every task will expand to fill the available time.
For me, though it’s not true with every task, it is with writing. It’s not that I don’t put in the time or effort, or rack up the words. I do. The problem is that I’m a fiddler, and though I have a plot (which I love) and know what needs to happen in each scene, I spend way too much time word-smithing instead of just getting on with the story. When the prose won’t flow, I wind up deleting words almost as fast as I type them in. (Seriously—one day my gross word count was over 900, but my net was negative 56.)
Since this is a destructive habit, I’ve tried a lot of different things to get over it.
- Telling myself to move on and not worry about the clunky bits.
None of the ten thousand ways I’ve paraphrased that basic sentiment have worked for me. I suspect that kind of self-talk doesn’t work for most closet perfectionists. When you have a bad habit, telling yourself to “stop it” just does not work. For me, all it does is make me feel guilty because, not only am I not making real progress on my manuscript, it makes me feel like I’m defective and have no self-control.
- Disabling the delete key.
Yes, I’ve tried it. Unfortunately, I also know how to turn it back on. Besides there’s always backspace, cut and New File.
- Choosing white or a light grey text color so that it’s difficult or impossible to read what I’ve just written.
I thought this one was a great idea, but it didn’t pan out. (See problems with delete key above. Plus, I messed up my finger position at some point so the text came out like it had been typed by a hyperactive, blind monkey. War and Peace? I don’t think so.)
- Self-imposed deadlines and goals.
I try, really try, then blow right past them. Also, I wind up spending more time on calendars and writing lists then on actually writing.
- Mutual group goals.
By this I mean things like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I always start out fired up, but then miss the first goal and go back to my snail’s plod.
Those are just a few of the things I’ve tried—there have been others. Though those strategies may work for other people, they have not worked for me. But a few months ago, a writing friend and I started exchanging our novels with each other in small, sequential installments. Knowing that someone expected to get that next section on the first Friday of the month has helped me keep on track. It has given me forward momentum, but at only once per month my progress has been pretty slow.
Wanting to take the experiment further, I enlisted the help of my brother Larry. He and I talk most mornings, because, while he’s bored driving to work at o’crack of dark on one coast, I’m bored walking the dog on the other. Though our conversations cover lots of topics, from the news (we’re both political junkies) to movies, we also talk about how the writing is going. He has helped with the story, the characters, the plot—everything. So I asked him if he’d mind me sending him installments of roughly 2000 words every week, and hold my feet to the fire. And, because he’s wonderful and invested in the story, he gave me an enthusiastic “yes”.
To keep myself honest, that week I sent him most of what I had finished, then started sending the installments the next week. My official deadline is Friday, but I really have until dog walking time Monday morning. If he doesn’t get the email by then, he will call and give me major grief. (We’re talking merciless mocking. No one can mock like my big brother.)
And you know what? It’s working! (Yay—there was much rejoicing.)
So if you have the “I fiddle too much” habit and haven’t been successful breaking it, enlisting a reader to hold you accountable might be the answer. If you decide to give it a try, here are a few tips.
- Don’t choose a person who will be overly critical.
Writing critiques are invaluable, but there’s a time and a place for nit-picking and it’s not when you’re struggling to plow ahead. You only want a check on the big picture stuff, so don’t pick someone who will quibble over phrasing or word choice.
- Choose a person who is enthusiastic.
If you feel like you’re imposing your work on someone, you’ll worry too much about polishing, as well as feeling guilty about sending your stuff in the first place. Then, of course, you’ll stop sending it.
- Choose a taskmaster who is a good-natured mocker.
One of the reasons people like me have problems plowing ahead is that we take this writing stuff seriously. Knowing that I’ll face relentless teasing when (not if) I fall down is the best kind of negative motivation. It de-fangs the fear of failure while also stinging enough that I really don’t want to miss that last ditch deadline.
- Don’t choose a person who cares whether or not your laundry gets washed.
By this I mean don’t choose your spouse or anyone else who lives with you. Your family depends on you to get things done other than writing and will accept too many excuses. Your taskmaster should blow away any excuse short of death.
If you don’t have a handy Larry you can ask another writer to be your taskmaster and simply reciprocate. However, writers tend to be too sympathetic about the writing process and therefore more likely to let you slide on your goals. If you want someone to be a taskmaster for you, you have to be one for them. Both of you have to agree that you won’t let the other person miss a deadline without mocking. Good natured mocking is key!