Authors who hold down full-time jobs outside of our writing activities often have a love-hate relationship with our “first” careers.
On one hand, we love what we do — hopefully, or why do it, right? — and we also enjoy the relative security that a regular gig offers.
On the other, working 40-80 hours a week and commuting back and forth makes it hard to find the time and energy to write.
As with most aspects of life, though, the line between writing and working is not quite so clear-cut, and you can use that to your advantage.
Becoming a better writer improves your communication skills, which will make you a better, more valuable employee. And going to the office every day affords you several advantages in your quest to become the best writer you can be.
In fact, your career has probably instilled in you several habits — like the five below — that you can leverage to become a better writer starting right now.
It’s a hassle, isn’t it?
You have a pile of work to do at the office, but your calendar is full all the time, and co-workers are always trying to add more — more meetings, more project status check-ins, more “quick conversations” to explore new “opportunities.”
If you want to actually get anything done, you’re forced to block off time on your schedule to do it.
The projects you’re involved with are driven by big, honking shared calendars that project managers rap across your knuckles every chance they get.
You have to enter your requests for time off into a time-tracking system, or send them to your boss.
Even your day-to-day activities in the office are governed by the calendar and the clock: you have team meetings every Monday at 10 am, you leave for lunch at noon every day, and you must submit your timecard by 5 pm each Friday.
Sometimes, it seems like you’re nothing but a servant to the clock.
But, as mundane and boring as all this time accounting is, it works. Corporate culture thrives on the schedules we set, and they help us knock off milestone after milestone on the path to big, collective accomplishments.
The good news, even if it feels unwelcomed at first, is that you can leverage the calendar to make you a better, more productive writer, too.
One reason that “aspiring” authors often give for not getting very far with their writing goals is that they simply don’t have time to write. In most cases, the truth is that they haven’t really analyzed their daily schedules and taken control of the time they do have available.
For example, here are some “pockets” that many folks have available for writing, even though we’re extremely busy:
- During breakfast
- During lunch
- During the daily commute (if you carpool or take mass transit)
- In waiting rooms
- In the stands at your kids’ soccer practice
- At night, right before bed
I’m sure you can come up with plenty more, too.
The key is not just to identify these golden opportunities, though. You have to claim them by entering them in your calendar — I mean physically writing them onto the wall calendar by your fridge or typing them into your Google Calendar — and then telling everyone about your commitments.
These are your writing times, and no other meetings or obligations will trump them unless there is blood or huge sums of money involved.
And you shouldn’t stop with your writing windows, either.
Schedule due dates for your novels and blog posts.
Schedule time to go to the library or find new books online — you need to keep reading, always, as an author, so schedule everything involved with doing that.
Mark your calendar for anything and everything related to your writing, and you’ll probably discover that you have more time to devote to your craft than you ever imagined.
There has been a pretty heavy backlash against multitasking in recent years, and for good reason.
Long the darling of job description writers and hiring managers everywhere, multitasking is the act of performing two or more activities at the same time. The idea is that if a person can multitask effectively, then they will get more done in a day.
The key word there is “effectively” because recent studies have shown that multitasking in the moment is more or less a myth and that our brains must actually cycle through the steps necessary to work on each task every time you shift gears, no matter how frequently that is. This context switching can be exhausting and confusing, and it generally leads to worse overall performance instead of better.
So if multitasking is a bad habit of your work life, why does it appear here on a list of good habits that can help your writing?
Because, as often happens, we’ve taken a concept with great potential value and convoluted it to the point that it’s shunned by many people who might benefit from it, like writers.
The key to making multitasking work comes down to timeframes.
For instance, while a developer shouldn’t try to write two programs in the same coding session, that doesn’t mean he can’t have two projects going on simultaneously. Maybe he’ll work on one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, or alternate between them over the course of days or even weeks.
In fact, this is the natural rhythm for many businesses because the work we do often relies on input from others. If Ted is out of the office on Tuesdays and you need him to perform user acceptance testing on his project, you’ll have to work on something else those days.
This multi-pronged approach allows employees to explore multiple professional interests, and the context switching is not much of a burden. Instead, cycling between projects usually provides a welcome mental break after you’ve been banging away in one area for a while.
This is where multitasking can be a boon for writers.
If I had to bet, I’d say you have at least two or three stories or blog post ideas revving through your mind right now. So, rather than chain yourself to just one of them and do nothing else until it’s finished, why not pick a couple and alternate your writing sessions until both are completed?
Don’t try to work on them both at the same session — that’s the old, broken concept of multitasking — but do keep both projects alive at the same time.
The variety will both of them stay fresh and help stave off burnout, and I’ll bet you finish them as soon or sooner than you would have by brute-forcing through just one at a time, even when you don’t feel like it.
One of the biggest obstacles writers face to finishing what we start is simple overwhelm.
We sit down to write a blog post or a short story or — gasp! — a novel, full of enthusiasm, and start banging out the words. An hour or day into it, though, our minds are swimming with competing thoughts and we start to lose confidence in what we’re doing. We take a break, shake things out, and come back to our writing desks, and that’s when it happens.
We look at where we’ve been and where we still have to go and realize we’ve taken just a few steps up the mountain that stands between us and our finished work. It’s the turning point that leaves so many of our unfinished pieces gathering dust on hard drives and cloud servers.
But how many times do you leave projects unfinished at work?
I’d wager it’s not very many, because you don’t want to get fired.
It’s not just the fear of losing your job that keeps you plowing forward day after day until you hit your targets, though, is it? Business learned a long time ago that most employees are most productive when we know exactly what we need to be working on every day, and we’re even better if we have some chance of finishing our day’s work before we head home.
In fact, that’s why the whole field of project management exists — to give individuals the direction they need on a regular basis to contribute maximally to the overall goals of a concerted effort to do big and important things. For most of us, most of the time, the heartbeat of this process boils down to having clear tasks on which to focus.
To get the most from your writing efforts, you need to take the same approach to your own projects. You don’t have to develop complex project schedules or huge, intricate spreadsheets, but you should strive to break down each of your big goals into tasks, ideally ones that can be completed in a day’s worth of your writing time.
Some examples of task-level breakdowns include:
- Outlining your next novel
- Writing the rough draft of a chapter in your novel
- Writing the rough draft of a short story
- Writing a blog post
- Writing part of an “ultimate guide” blog post
- Compiling your book and/or publishing it to KDP
You get the idea, right? Smash those mountains in front of you into boulders that you can conquer with laser focus, and your writing productivity will soar.
Hand-in-hand with developing a task-oriented mindset is the ability to properly prioritize your projects and tasks.
For instance, if you’ve broken down your next novel into a set of tasks that you plan to knock off over the next few months, you need to decide where to start. Your task list might consist of the following steps, somewhat randomly ordered:
- Write your rough draft
- Create your cover
- Create a Facebook page for your book
- Write chapter beats (synopses) for your book
- Publish your book to Kindle and Smashwords
- Email your list about your book
You could start wherever you like on this list, but what’s really the most important thing to do first in order to eventually finish your book and make it all it can be?
For most of us mere mortals, I would suggest that a quick outline is a vital first step to proving to yourself that your story has enough meat for you to pull it off. After that, you could move on to story beats — where you flesh out the ideas for each chapter — and then write your first draft, chapter by chapter.
Once all of that is done, you’ll have some clay to work with, and you can carve in the final details through editing and re-working any parts that need it.
But what if you start with the promotional activities instead? You might spend a day or a week building a Facebook page and trying to boost your Twitter following, but guess what? That will be a day (or seven) that you haven’t spent writing, and your blistering-hot story idea likely will have lost some of its luster in your mind.
Maybe you’ll get to writing it soon but, hey, you had a great new idea in the meantime, didn’t you? Maybe that’s the one you’ll finally finish.
If you don’t learn how to prioritize, it probably won’t be.
There is a concept that’s especially prevalent in software development called “gold plating,” and it’s the bane of project managers everywhere.
Gold plating basically means continuing to add features or make “improvements” to a product beyond the point when the specifications agreed upon with the client have been met. Developers often couch this behavior as a way to give the customer something extra and thereby enhancing the relationship between the two parties.
That sounds great and may be true in some cases, but in my experience, the real motivation for gold plating in most cases is an underlying fear of delivery. As long as you’re writing code and developing new functionality, you’re “safe” because the software is all yours. The moment you push it out to your clients, all its warts are exposed for the world — or at least a small part of the world — to see and gripe about.
Left unchecked, gold plating can keep a perfectly good product from seeing the light of day for months or longer, no matter what the motivation for the lagniappe.
That’s why good project managers need to have enough technical chops that they can smell the BS of gold plating when the development cycle begins to drag out longer than expected.
They know that the most important thing they can do for their clients and their employers is to deliver high-quality software, built to spec, on time, and within budget. They know what’s good enough to allow your company to fulfill one obligation completely and move on to the next without wasting time and brain power.
My own nose for gold plating is fairly well-developed, and I’ve noticed something interesting over the last few years: software developers have nothing on writers when it comes to fear of delivery.
Some of us will do almost anything to avoid publishing our books, blog posts, and short stories. I mean, do you really need to send your novel out for a fifth round of editing or add yet another section to your 4000-word post before they’re ready for the world to see? Will that extra effort and time make any difference in your readers’ satisfaction with your work?
And, more importantly, if you do add another layer of gold plating, will that be enough, or will you look for yet another round of improvements? Will you ever pull the trigger?
If you’ve been sitting on a finished book or monster blog post for longer than you want to admit, it’s time to turn that baby loose and move on. Become a delivery machine who publishes again and again and again.
Otherwise, you may still be slathering on the gold until you die.
Also published on Medium.