[Guest Post] Procrastination: The Great Leveler

AlanGelbHeadshotThis is a guest post by Alan Gelb, a writing coach and widely published author of fiction and nonfiction, including his latest Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story (Tarcher) and Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps.

His work has been featured in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and CBS Money Watch among others. Learn more at www.havingthelastsay.com

I hope you enjoy having Alan’s wit and perspective on The Procrastiwriter today!

Procrastination and writing go together like a day at the beach and sand in your swimsuit. In other words, procrastination is an unpleasant and, for the most part, unavoidable feature that comes with the territory, for professional and amateur writer alike. Procrastination levels, and in some cases completely flattens, the playing field.

I have been a professional writer for decades now, and have managed to publish four novels, a number of nonfiction works, a play, and multiple reams of business writing. Even so, I am still doing battle with procrastination because there are so many easier things to do than sit before a blank screen and wait for inspiration to come. By now, however, I have a tried-and-true system of little things that I do to work through the resistance at the start of a writing session. I like to vacuum, which feels virtuous, and so I might take a few minutes to do that. I could decide that my dog needs some exercise and so I’ll hit him a few balls. I might play a few rounds of word games on Sporcle. And then I inhale deeply, take myself in hand, and go about the business of writing, which always has that working-without-a-net feeling. One never knows whether a piece of writing will take off or not and the fear connected to that uncertainty is a big part of why we avoid a writing assignment.

HavingTheLastSayCoverHaving an extrinsic versus an intrinsic motivation for writing can also play a big part in how much procrastination you will be dealing with. Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of 16- and 17-year olds on their college admissions essays. They have a very clear extrinsic motivation—i.e. a deadline. If they do not get their essays done by a certain date, then they will not be able to complete their applications, they will not get into college, and they will spend the next year at home with their parents, rather than playing beer pong at the school of their choice. In contrast, over the last few years, I have begun working with people my age and older on an analogous kind of life review exercise. There, the only deadline is one’s own demise so the timeline can stretch out a bit. Deadlines are great for writers, professional and amateur alike. Indeed, my high school writers often beg me for deadlines, which I’m happy to give them.

In addition to deadlines, I have identified a few other tricks of the mind that will go a long way toward combating procrastination for any writer. These three are among the most effective:

Set Yourself a Quota.

It’s a good thing for a writer to have a strong sense of what constitutes a day’s work. When I was writing novels, which I haven’t done for a while, I would set myself a quota of 500 words a day. While that may not seem like a day’s work to a lumberjack, 500 words a day starts to add up quickly. Fifty thousand words, which is the very low range of the length of a novel, completed at the rate of 500 words a day is 100 days. You could actually write a 50,000-word novel in a little over three months! Or a 100,000-word novel in six months. Of course, novel writing doesn’t proceed as smoothly as all that, but this gives you some idea of what a quota can accomplish.

Suspend Judgment.

Not much can get done when you’re berating your abilities every step of the way. If you have a clear sense of what is meant to happen at each stage of writing—first draft; second draft; third draft; polish—then everything becomes more manageable. One of the first things I tell the writers that I work with, for instance, is to not get hung up on the first draft. It’s fine for a first draft to be down and dirty. Just send it to me, I tell them, and we’ll get the ball rolling.

Reward Yourself.

Writing is hard work—even that 500 words-a-day quota. It’s scary and it’s lonely. When you have completed your work, do something nice for yourself. A walk, a swim, coffee with a friend. You earned it.

The good news is that even the average person, who may never have identified a strong interest in writing, can produce a piece that is very far from average. In my mind, the key to this kind of excellence has to do with understanding the form that you are working in. In both of my books on writing, I emphasize that the narrative form is exactly that—a form. It has a number of prescribed elements, which I clearly lay out. And, like any form, whether it’s a golf swing, a dance move, parallel parking, or the creation of a story, if you understand the elements of that form, you have a far better chance of completing your task successfully.

Out of the many hundreds of writers I have worked with, I suspect that maybe one or two might one day attempt to write something for posterity. Attempting to write for posterity, however, can result in a very fast slide into procrastination of the most fatal variety. When it comes to writing, posterity is such a long shot that setting it up as an ambition strikes me as unhealthy. It is far better to write for writing’s sake and for your goal to be the creation of prose that is clean, graceful, well-ordered, and pleasing to the reader. I have seen so many of my writers achieve that kind of writing and come away enormously gratified by their efforts. After all, the wonderful thing about writing is that it doesn’t require expensive tools, uniforms, travel, or anything of the kind. It simply requires attention and a willingness to do the work and share a part of yourself. I am continually amazed by the courage, candor, and commitment that I see from my students, both young and old. In fact, they inspire me to do my best work as well.

It’s a grand bargain all around.