I know I’m not the only writer who works on more than one project at the same time, but I think I might also be an outlier. At a writing retreat it seemed like everyone else was amazed when one of the presenters said he’d have more than one in progress at any given time. I wouldn’t recommend it, exactly, but we don’t always have control over when special issues are announced or ideas strike. I do have a pretty solid idea of my personal limit, though, considering how many things I was juggling over the summer of 2019.
So last week’s writing post showed you the top of this index card, held on my bulletin board by my helpful star carrier pin (the lantern glows in the dark!). I wanted something more fun and cheerful than just a thumb tack because the list itself is anxiety-inducing. At the top, marked with the red checkmark, is the chapter from last week on the heroic criminal: final edits due on July 12, and hey look, it’s done! Except … there’s more underneath that bird.
In 2019 I took on more than I should have. It didn’t turn out to actually be too much, but … let’s not do that again. I had three book chapters due – heroic criminal, a chapter on IT, and one about post-WWI male violence (which can all be found here) and the book proposal for Media and the Murderer. Those were all planned. The last one on the bottom – “Stephen King likes to kill kids” – was a request from another publisher … which led to another book proposal. (That one got rejected with a suggestion for a shift in topic, but since I wasn’t the right person to write the new suggestion, I tore things down and rebuilt them into my upcoming book for McFarland.)
But that’s five projects going on in the same year. Not everyone can – or should want to – work on that many at once, but if you get yourself into a similar situation, there are a few things you can do to keep from running around in circles.
- Have a clear idea of what each project is about. This can be the abstract, the proposal, or just a sentence. What makes this one different from the others – especially if two of them might be similar enough to use the same sources? Make sure your main argument is clear in your own mind. My index cards are turned backward for the photo because hey, I’m protective of my little idea nuggets, but they’re summed up in a short phrase on my corkboard.
- Keep track of due dates. Each of the cards also has a date on it, and you can see on the printed sheet – a call for proposals – that I’ve got the due date for the proposal and the actual piece written large in red. When you have the big end dates in mind, you can work backward on where your project should be at any given time.
- Focus on one at a time. On any given day, I’ll make it my intention to work on one of those projects. Sure, ideas might pop up for another, but that’s what notebooks are for. Write it down and let it go. Focus on the project you really need to work on for today. (Don’t forget to jot down your other ideas, though. “I’ll remember it later” is often a lie.)
- Try to keep your projects in different phases. This, like having your main ideas very clearly spelled out, helps you switch back and forth between them without getting too confused. Of the four cards currently on my board, one is at the proofreading stage, one has been proposed and is in the “waiting to hear back” stage, one actually has an intended home and due date (the CFP), and the other is currently “just” an idea. This way you’re not trying to write two intros at the same time or trying to keep two methodologies straight. (Although once the editors have it, your timeline is in their hands and you might end up doing edits on two pieces at once.) As much as you can, control the stage of your project.
- Don’t forget to take a step back for the long view. It can be easy to get involved in a project, especially when you hit the really interesting sections, but don’t get lost in something and lose sight of your other commitments. That’s the main reason for my corkboard, which is near my desk: to remind me of the due dates. That way I can take a deep breath and, at a glance, see if i need to shift my focus for today to work on another project.
There are pluses to working on multiple projects at the same time – bored with one? Switch to a different one! – but it also takes a lot of discipline to make sure you don’t stretch yourself too thin. It can be hard to say no when an apparently perfect opportunity knocks, but it’s also important to know the best way you work and how much you, personally, can handle.
What do you do when you have the chance to work on multiple projects at once? How many have you worked on at the same time?