Breaking down the writing process

I was talking with my writing buddy last week a little bit about my process. He’s working on his dissertation proposal, I’m working on a book manuscript, and we Zoom together three days a week for two hours at a time. We chat, catch up, and then mute ourselves and get to work. It’s accountability in that I block out the time but, at the end, we can shrug at each other and say “Nope, today was awful, didn’t get it done,” and it’s fine. No consequences.

When we start, we ask each other what our goal is for that session. Mine’s usually not very specific – “I’m working on Chapter 8” – but on Friday I finished proofreading the main body of my manuscript. I rewarded myself with a gold star in my planner and, when we regrouped, the question came up: so, what’s next?

Let’s look at the gold star first: it says “editing done” because “editing done for the intro through Chapter 9 on the first pass of the draft” wouldn’t fit. But it still deserves a star because it’s necessary, and it’s finished. There are a lot – a lot – of little steps on the way to publishing a book, and if you don’t celebrate all of them, no one will.

The star also helps me visualize how I’m breaking things down into those steps. Right now I have two more on my immediate to-do list: move all the edits from the hard copy to the Word document, and write the conclusion. These can be done at the same time, jumping back and forth when one gets to be too annoying. (Usually making all the little changes, adding in the missing transitions, searching for quotes or citations, etc.)

But the point my writing partner took away from it is that not all of the steps can – or have to be – done at the same time.

Yes, reading and writing will overlap, but I don’t sit down at my computer thinking about the next seven steps. (This is something I’ve personally been working on because, if you know me, you know I’m always worried about the next seven steps.) When we Zoom for our sessions, my goal is specifically writing the next part of a given chapter.

Not researching it during those two hours. Not pausing to look something up and getting sucked down a black hole. Not even footnoting properly. Just … writing the next part.

Giving myself permission to write it imperfectly and come back to fix all that later.

I wasn’t thinking about the conclusion while I wrote each chapter. The chapter intros and conclusions come last during that step and, when I was proofreading, I was highlighting the points I need to include in my conclusion. And I haven’t even gotten around to formatting everything properly yet – I want it all there first before I worry whether my citation style is up to snuff or if my headings look right.

It’s okay – even necessary – to put blinders on while you’re focusing on a task. Setting a clear and manageable goal for your writing session (and a reasonable length for that session) is necessary and incredibly helpful. For one thing, it gives you the focus necessary to build up all the pieces you need to complete a big project. For another, it allows you to feel like you’ve accomplished things at different points along the way.

It’s not just gold stars for “They offered me a book contract!” and “I delivered the manuscript!” Those two moments are months apart, and you have to figure out a way to keep going to meet your deadline. A way to feel like you’re making progress.

I choose gold stars and a recognition of my accomplishments. How about you?

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