The garbage will do

The other day someone took to twitter to ask writers what their first drafts look like. Are they tight and polished? How much work do you have to do once you get things drafted? Is it all clean and basically perfect?

I’ve got more space to answer here, so I’ll start with this: no one sees my first drafts. Just me. I’m not even going to take a photograph of one of the pages to give you an example of what it looks like after I’ve read it through and marked it up. So that’s comforting, at least: nobody ever has to see your first draft.

I did respond with this photograph of my personalized editing stamps, and I want to talk a bit more about them. Starting with a question to you: how many times would you have to anticipate writing something before you bought a self-inking stamp to use instead?


Not only are my first drafts far from perfect, but I know what issues I should be looking for. I’m predictable.

Why not just correct those issues while I’m drafting, then? You try it. Writing’s hard. It’s enough of a struggle to get the words on the page without also adding the idea of perfection on top of it. Have you ever found yourself staring at a blank cursor because you don’t want to make a mistake? That’s no way to get things written.

So, while I won’t show you an ink-covered draft page, I will at least go through my stamps with you.

cite! – the meaning behind this one should be clear enough, but having this stamp also means accepting a particular practice: that I don’t have to always stop and look something up when I’m writing. If it’s going to interrupt the flow, I’ll just dump something in that’s close to what it should be and then go back and look it up later, during editing.

delete – not everything I write will make the final cut. It’s sad, but sometimes darlings have to be killed. Or at least moved into a different document.

transition – ah, yes. I am fond of using headings to jump from one topic to another without adding in a transition. Part of it is how I need to write the next section before I fully understand what I’m transitioning to. Another part is being able to jump from section to section when I’m writing without forcing myself to follow the outline point by point.

SO? – the big one. I’m rather fond of knowing exactly why I’m talking about something and how it connects back to my main point, but not actually coming out and saying it. And again, that’s fine, because (again again) nobody reads my first drafts. It’s something that can easily be picked up and worked in on a second pass.

unpack – yeah, it’s a buzzword, but these stamps are tiny and you can only fit so many letters on them. Basically this fits in with SO?: there’s something going on here, but I haven’t actually slowed down enough to say it. I’m trying to get through all of these ideas without fully laying them out and explaining and making connections. The ideas are all there, which is the most important part, and I can add in the support while I revise.

wut – everyone’s favorite. Look, there are times when I just have no idea what I was saying. Maybe I’ll figure it out. Maybe it’ll get changed to delete.

awk – sometimes I’m an awkward duck and it shows in my writing. Revising makes me look less awkward. Did I mention I never show anyone my first draft?

LONG – I like long sentences. I think they make me look more academic. But, when I go back and read them, I really see that they make me look difficult to follow. It’s another easy fix.

I have stamps of these things because I know that I do them. I anticipate that I’ll keep on doing them.

I give myself permission to keep on doing them.

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. (Thanks, Terry Pratchett.) No one else has to see it. No one has to judge it – not even you. Get the words on the page first so you can shift to concentrating on having them make sense before you show them to someone else.

I, personally, recommend the personalized stamps. They add a little bit more fun to the process. And maybe a little bit more self-acceptance, too.

How do you care about a project for months?

Books take a long time to write. It’s exciting at first, getting the initial idea, working up the proposal, and hoping you get accepted, but then … you live with the idea for months, writing and revising, and other ideas pop up and seem more interesting. How do you hang in there long enough to finish when staring at a page of the manuscript makes you want to tear your hair out?

The advice totally comes from the James and the Giant Peach movie: try looking at it another way. (Imagine a giant stop-motion earthworm saying it with an English accent. Unless that makes it more scary than helpful.)

Last week I forced myself to tackle the conclusion of the book I’m currently working on. When you start a book, you pick one way of organizing your ideas. You have to – otherwise it’s nonsense. And you pick something that you thing readers will be able to follow easily, while still getting your point. But, when you pick one organization, it means rejecting all the others.

I like to write up all my chapters and read them through before going for the conclusion. The time between reading and starting to write can vary, but it’s at least long enough for me to read what I’ve actually written (as opposed to what I thought I’d write) and highlight the main points. Then I like to type up all my notes, print them off, and cut then apart so I can rearrange them.

For me, the actual act of cutting and arranging is more useful than manipulating everything digitally. I start sorting my little strips of paper into piles based on very general section ideas. Last week I put a bunch of sticky notes on the floor with proposed categories and dealt out the strips of paper into each one. This can mean adding another sticky note if there are too many strips that don’t seem to fit, or combining a couple if their piles are smaller and the ideas too similar.

Sorting my ideas this new way made me remember why I’d liked it in the first place. I’ve been working with them in one order – the chapter order, the book proposal order – for months, but putting all the main ideas together in a single pile helps me see how the chapters are connected to each other instead of being isolated ideas.

It also helps remind me of the “so what?” that can get forgotten when focusing on each individual chapter instead of the whole book.

And I kept hearing Earthworm in my head: try looking at it another way. Taking a step back to look at the forest and organizing it in a way other than just by type of tree. Putting down the individual puzzle pieces and looking at the picture on the front of the box again.

It can be a lot harder when the deadline suddenly seems closer and you realize you have to finish something that you might not think is any good anymore. There’s the temptation to keep banging away the same way you always have, just trying to get it done, instead of taking a breath and trying something else. But keeping your nose to the grind isn’t always the best way to get things done.

Sometimes you need to let things drop, take a deep breath, and look at them a different way so you can help remind yourself about why this idea was worth all the effort in the first place.

Reframing rejection

The other day I was updating my spreadsheet of proposals and queries. It’s kind of a depressing process, because it means checking my emails again for dates of rejections, but it also reminds me of what I’ve sent out, what’s been decided, and what’s still hanging. As far as guessing when I’ll hear back, well, that’s another question for another time, but it got me thinking about rejections.

The thing is, there’s no secret language in a rejection that actually means “You suck.” Even those form rejections – they don’t actually mean your work is terrible or that you’ve somehow failed as a person. It’s not the greatest feeling in the world to receive them, no, but “I’m sorry, this isn’t a fit” honestly, truly doesn’t mean your ideas are worthless or your writing is garbage.

Imagine you’re decorating a wall. Maybe you’ve just moved, or rearranged the furniture, or put up new wallpaper. You’ve got this space, and you have a lot of lovely artwork. Of course it’s lovely – you’ve bought it all, and you’ve got a good eye. But you’re working with a few limitations.

The first is simply space. If you have more art than you have wall space, something has to be cut. As hard as you try, you just can’t squeeze it all in there.

So next you look at composition: what goes with what? Can you make a nice arrangement of these five pieces, but the other three don’t really fit? Maybe they don’t work with the color scheme or the overall theme. The other three might go together, but they aren’t going to work here. If you tried to cram one in, it would just stand out and throw everything off.

And when you do get the five arranged, does the light hit them properly? Are they too crowded, after all? Do you need to switch something around, or buy a new frame, or even wait until an order arrives so you have enough hardware to hang things?

You’re not passing on something because it isn’t good. It just doesn’t fit here, among all the other pieces. Pieces, of course, that you personally can see, but the artists can’t. Van Gough wasn’t pondering how he might paint something that would look good between this Monet and that Picasso. He was just … painting. Producing his best work. Not sure which pieces would become popular enough to be dorm room posters and which would become obscure.

When you’re the writer submitting your work, you don’t really get to see the wall or the other pieces. You’re offering your idea up and hoping that it makes the final cut – that it looks good in the space and fits with the other authors around you.

And that’s something you have no control over. When you get the “Thank you for sharing, but this doesn’t fit” email, that’s all it means: I’ve got a wall and a wide selection of artwork, and yours didn’t end up fitting the overall tableau.

There are certainly ways to get an idea of the wall – reading multiple issues of a journal before you submit to it, for example – but unless you’re an editor selecting articles for your own collection, there’s no guarantee of getting in. Which means a list of rejections, and the need to be resilient and seek out the next possible wall on which to display it.

How long is your list of rejections?

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?

Do your rough drafts ever get … less rough?

The more you write, the better you get at it – the same as practicing any other craft. And on top of writing, you can read (or watch YouTube videos, attend seminars, or buy master classes) about writing. You can get degrees and get published and all the rest, but … does there ever come a time when all the rules and practice mean that your first draft is going to come out perfectly? Well …

As my friend Bob Kubiak tweeted yesterday, “in the moment you’re working, most writing advice is forgettable.”

You can memorize all the rules – no adverbs, said is dead, pick your favorite – but, when it’s time to actually get the words on the page, that’s not what’s in your head. You’re just trying to get it down, to beat the blank space, and especially if the “rules” make you freeze … they go out the window.

Writing is hard. Even if you’re good at it and you enjoy it, it’s hard. How do you get this idea that’s here, in your own head, and turn it into words that will put the same idea into someone else’s head? How do you catch someone’s attention at the beginning and hold it all the way through? How do you make sure that there’s a clear purpose for every point, and it’s all connected with beautiful transitions?

You don’t. Not on the first round. It’s called a rough draft for a reason, and although maybe you get a little smoother the longer you write, they’re still … rough. It’s not supposed to be perfect, and if you really want to be a writer, you’ll have to learn that editing is just as important.

The more I write, the more I recognize my usual first-draft pitfalls. The header photo shows the self-inking stamps I bought for this round: LONG, cite!, awk, and wut. These are four things I find myself writing frequently on my first draft and correcting before anyone else even sees my writing. I’m a big fan of long, meandering sentences; saying things I don’t back up; awkward wording; and just … who even knows? In the moment, I wrote something just to keep the cursor moving so I could get the ideas down on the page, and it doesn’t make sense when I read it later.

But it’s okay. And it’s more than just okay – this is all part of the process. Writing isn’t “one and done.” You don’t bang it out and turn it in. You don’t even bang it out, skim it for spelling errors, and turn it in.

When I set a deadline for a book being due, I have to build all of this in to my personal timeline. I need the chapters drafted by this date, so I can do an initial pass and write the conclusion, but still have time to let it sit before a second pass at more of a distance. And it’s far more than just these four stamps – I’m looking for places where I latch onto a word and want to use it 20 times in a row, or places where transitions are rough (or missing), or places where I get off on a tangent and forget my point.

The function of the rough draft is, in fact, to be rough. There are going to be problems with it. The thing I’ve learned is that you can let it have problems – if you need to forget the rules long enough to get the first draft down, go for it. Give yourself permission to break every single writing rule you’ve ever heard.

Then, when you go back to edit, figure out which ones you really should adhere to.

Writing rules exist for reasons, and if you can understand why people hand out the edicts they do, you can also choose whether or not your work needs to follow it. Your edited work, of course – your rough draft doesn’t have to be readable to anyone but you, and every book or article you’ve ever read has been gone over time and again, usually by multiple people, to make sure the writing gets ideas across as clearly as possible.

Do rough drafts get a little less rough? Sometimes. But some days they’re just as messy as they’ve always been … and that’s okay. All writing has to be edited, but you can’t edit a blank page.

How do you know when it’s time to stop researching and start writing?

So you’ve got an idea and a stack of books. Whether or not your college composition class included They Say, I Say you know that writing an academic piece is stepping into a conversation, and you can’t do that without listening first. The plan is to work your way through the foundational texts and then pick up the more recent works, but how long does this part last? At what point can you stop worrying you’ve missed something important and just … start writing?

This is kind of a trick question. I’ve worded it the way a lot of people approach it: first research, then writing. Finish one line on your to-do list, and then move to the next. But, even though this is a wonderful method for procrastination that doesn’t feel like procrastination, it’s not actually the best way to approach your writing.

It’s a very good way to make sure you never start your writing.

And it’s completely understandable. Writing is hard enough without worrying that you’ve left out some piece of information that the critics will immediately grab and try to wave in your face. Before stepping into the conversation, you want to make sure that you’ve listened to all sides and you’ve got it all down. It’s a scary move, trying to make a point when you feel like you don’t have all the information.

Your first draft isn’t when you step into the conversation. In academics, as in fiction, the first draft is just you telling it to yourself. It doesn’t have to be perfect, because yours are the only eyes that will see it, until you decide otherwise. Your first draft is just for you, and you should start writing as soon as possible. It shouldn’t be research and then writing, but research and writing, happening alongside each other.

You also don’t have to pause in the middle of the page to stop and actually do that research. My first drafts include a number of things in brackets, highlighted, or both, telling me what I’m missing and what I’ll need to put in later. Sometimes it’s just tracking down a quote I know I have, but at the time I didn’t want to interrupt my writing flow to do it. Other times there’s a gap where I know I need more research, but for now I mark the hole so I know what to look for later.

Does this mean my first draft looks like swiss cheese? Sometimes. The further you get into a topic, the fewer holes you’ll have. But does it also mean I’ve beaten both the “blank page terror” and the “but when do I start writing” question? Yes, indeed

If you’re asking yourself if it’s time to start writing today, then “today” is the second-best time for you to start. The first is always in the past, so let it go, and get some words on the page. You won’t get anything published, or get anyone else’s eyes on it (the point at which you do start to join the conversation) until it’s written.

You’ll never be able to read everything on your subject. If someone catches an omission during the review process, excellent. (It also means you’ve got a finite number of pages to read to make your revisions, so don’t get tempted to fall down the rabbit hole again here.) If a critic comes back at you with this one apparently essential piece you missed, earmark that for later reading, too, but also note that this is apparently the only critique they could think of. (Is there personal experience speaking here? It seems likely.) A good review will address questions of your position and argument, and not some article the reviewer has read that you apparently haven’t.

As much sense as it seems to make to finish up your reading before you write, it’s really just a procrastination tactic. And people don’t really work like that, either: all in, and then all out. If you keep reading as you write, and keep exposing yourself to new ideas and new ways of writing, you’ll also be able to sustain longer projects without getting fatigued. (I often refer to reading as “putting words back in my brain,” which is useful, considering how many have to come out of it.)

How do you know when it’s time to stop researching and start writing? You don’t. You never will. So start writing.

The usual parts of an academic book proposal

So you’re thinking about getting an academic book published. Maybe you’re pretty confident about the writing process, but what about proposing it? There are a number of common elements in an academic book proposal, so it would help to take a moment and think about those just so you know what’s coming.

Although these are common, always (always, always) read the specific requirements of the agent or publisher you are querying. Make sure you include all the information they’re looking for, and in the format they request.

  • sample chapters – you’ll be asked to submit a number of sample chapters. It’s usually low – one to three – and, for the purposes of the proposal, the introduction doesn’t count. It’s helpful to include the intro, though, because it will show how you plan to catch readers’ attention and then how your entire book will be organized. Most academic proposals do not require the entire manuscript to be complete at the time of the proposal.

  • an index or outline – because of this, you’ll be asked to include either an index of chapter titles, or some sort of outline. Most recently I had to provide an abstract for each of the chapters I didn’t submit. This helps you really solidify what your book is going to be about, and shows them that you know enough about your subject to craft a throughline long enough to fill a book.

  • estimated length of the final manuscript – some will ask for word counts and others for page counts, so double-check before making your best guess. Contracts usually come with a range or a limit. The consideration here is writing enough to cover your subject, but not so much that the size of the book drives up printing costs toward something most people will consider to be too expensive. Your book doesn’t need to be long to be good, and you might have to narrow your focus a little if it looks like it might start to grow as you write it.

  • proposed delivery date – because you’re not submitting the entire book, you also get to tell them when, exactly, it will be in their hands. If you think this date is more than a year out, then it’s probably not the time to query. Many academic presses want to know that they’ll have your manuscript that quickly. This also shows them that you know there’s enough information out there, and that it’s accessible enough, for you to complete the manuscript.

  • proposed title – pick a good, informative title, but keep in mind that this will change. The title falls under marketing, and a lot of people will have input on it before your book is published. They factor in things like key words and where those words appear within the title, considering where a lot of internet searches cut off the display. So make it a good one, but don’t stress too much about making your proposed title perfect.

  • comp titles and your book’s nicheI mentioned this last week, but this is part of the marketing: what will be the competition for your book? Who publishes those other titles? What gap will your book fill? Basically, convince them that your book will actually sell and not simply crowd a shelf in the store. Those texts should be fairly easy to name, since you’ve been immersed in the literature as you plan writing your book, but it’s not something many people are used to writing.

  • ideal audience – who is going to want to read your book? Are there specific college classes that will reach for yours instead of whatever’s currently on their standard list? Not everyone in the world will want to buy your book (sorry), but they’ll want to know that the interested group will be large enough to make publishing worthwhile.

  • a list of possible peer readers – if you don’t need peer review, or the publisher doesn’t require it, you won’t have to do this step. If it is needed, then you’ll provide contact information for the requested number of possible peer reviewers. They need to be people with whom you don’t have a personal or professional relationship, in order to preserve the purpose of the peer review process.

  • whether this manuscript is under consideration by any other publisher – it is rare these days to see bans on simultaneous submission due to the length of the process and the fact that “publish or perish” means not being able to sit around and wait for each possible publisher, in turn, to get back to you. If you do already have someone interested, dropping that into the proposal might catch the attention of a publisher you think could be a better fit for the book. If this is the case, include the deadline by which you have to get back to the interested party.

  • any pertinent information about yourself – this is where you can name your credentials and past publications. It helps position you as the expert on your topic and shows that yes, you have experience working with getting feedback on your writing. This is especially useful if you’re querying an agent, who will want to know that you’re familiar with the process of revision and the idea that the document you deliver is not already perfect and can, in fact, be improved.

No matter which path you go with proposing your academic book, make sure to read the submission guidelines in full before delivering the requested documents. Chances are good you’ll have to provide all of the above information in form or another – the submissions page will tell you how many documents to submit and, if they prefer them to be labeled in a specific way.

The submission process itself is a long one and involves a lot of waiting to hear back to find out whether your proposal has been accepted. You want to make sure that the packet you send out is the best you can make it and addresses all the questions the publisher asks, so you’re not caught up in a back-and-forth as they request it again. Make sure you look over the submission requirements carefully and go down each publisher’s checklist, giving yourself enough time to think about the answers to each of these areas.

Writing the proposal is very different from writing the book, and you need to spend enough time thinking about it, too, the way you do with your manuscript.

So you want to write an academic book proposal

Academics are used to proposing things: special topics courses. Conference presentations. Chapters for edited collections. To an academic, “CFP” means “call for proposals.” We’re used to the idea that we need to sum up our ideas and present them to a group of peers for approval before moving forward.

A book proposal, though still a proposal, is a different genre.

Most of the proposals we write are short. The people reviewing it don’t want to read more than, say, 300 words. We’ve learned to summarize the main ideas while invoking the proper number of references and making ourselves sound both smart and intriguing given a small amount of space. It’s enough to prove to strangers that we can speak on a topic for 15 minutes or give them a 5-7,000 word chapter by the given due date.

A book is, of course, a much longer project, and the purpose of the proposal can be a shift, especially for academics not used to writing things like grant proposals. You’re no longer arguing solely that your research is relevant and interesting, or that you’re an expert able to coherently and intelligently discuss your topic. For a book proposal, you need to shift your thinking slightly and consider facets of marketing.

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors, Bob Johnson, was telling us about the process he went through to propose his book Romancing the Atom. The part he stressed was how it was up to him, the author, to show the niche his book would occupy in the market. He told us that he had to provide the titles and authors of books that were similar and could be seen as competitors to the one he was proposing.

Granted, this shouldn’t be too difficult for scholars who in fact do research in their own field, but it’s a shift from reading books to add to your own argument toward thinking of those books as competition. This is especially true if someone who’s a big name in your field, and whom you may have met, has recently come out with a book: now you have to say why your book, written by a newcomer, would be chosen over this other one by an established researcher.

The publisher wants to know why your book is unique. This means you need to be able to set your idea apart from the others – while still connecting to the field and remaining in conversation – and to tell them why, exactly, people will buy yours instead. What is it about your book that makes it special, aside from the fact that you’re the one writing it? What gaps do the others leave that yours might fill?

We’ll get more into the usual parts of an academic book proposal next week, but this tends to be the main sticking point and the biggest new thing. Market my work? No, no – I just write a short proposal and then go talk about it. Journals have subscribers who are already interested in the sort of content that will be selected to be included, but this is a step taken by the editors of a book collection, too: does this chapter idea fit with the others? Does it make the point we want to make?

Is it the sort of thing someone would see and then want to buy?

But, come on – can’t the publisher have someone do all that work? If it’s marketing, isn’t it their job instead of mine?

Sorry, no. As the expert in your field, you’re the one best positioned to argue for how your work will fit and what new things it offers. The publisher takes care of a lot of things, but making these points in the proposal is really an argument for them to take the risk on your and your book. If they offer you a contract, they’re committing to the costs and hours involved in publishing your book, and they want to know that it’s worth it to them.

So: if you’re thinking of proposing an academic book this year, start also thinking from the side of marketing. Who’s going to buy your book? What does your ideal audience member look like? What classes might want it on their required reading lists? And why should they reach for yours instead of others already out there, either by the same publisher or a competitor?

New Year, Same Me

So it’s the time of year when we’re all supposed to be setting new goals, and they really should be SMART ones: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. My husband is really good at this kind of thing and ends up with a whole list of proposed achievements for the new year, and he’ll check in on them and adjust as the months go by. Me? Eh …

Making up goals for a whole year gives me the same sort of feeling I get while looking at a syllabus: I’m supposed to do how much in how long? Even if I’ve taught the class before and I know it’s very much doable, it just seems ridiculous. Insurmountable. After all, how am I supposed to accomplish all this when I’ve never really done much of anything before?

With that attitude in mind, my only real goal for 2021 is to keep better track of what I do accomplish. My husband is better at this, too: he’s been keeping a journal of accomplishments for years at this point. I tried last year, in a blank book, but didn’t keep it up. I felt like maybe I was padding my days (I wasn’t) and worried I might forget something or leave things out (I probably did). But I also had a discussion with someone the other day that made me realize it’s important to at least keep track of my writing progress.

If you don’t have a mentor or someone in your life who’s done it and is therefore able to remind you of how far you’ve come, it’s easy enough to forget. When you’re living it, it doesn’t necessary seem easy, exactly, but come on. If I can do it, surely anybody could do it … right? So what you really need to do is remind yourself that this thought is in fact … wrong.

I’m using my planner as a place to keep track of how many words I write during a session (instead of random notebooks kept haphazardly to prove to myself I’m actually doing something) and to just … keep track of the things I do in fact accomplish. To remind myself that I’m not just a lump on the couch and that, on days when I am, it’s because I’m resting from everything I’ve already done.

How about you? What are your goals for 2021?

Taming the Inner Two-Year-Old

Sometimes trying to write feels like wrestling an angry two-year-old, except you’re the two-year-old. You’re cranky, and distracted, and you’d really probably like to have a snack right about now. The problem is, if you’re writing toward a deadline, you also have to be the adult.

The adult is the part that reminds you of your due dateand your daily goal. The part that points to the calendar and calculates what your new daily goal would be if you slacked off. The part that wheedles and begs … but also the part that can find ways to appeal to the two-year-old inside you.

The other day I was telling someone that things have to be Just So when I’m writing. It’s not a ritual, exactly, but an acknowledgement of my inner two-year-old. The toddler inside my head will take any reason to stop working and give up on something that’s too hard, or will just get distracted by anything else. So I’ve developed a number of things to keep myself focused so, as much as possible, the toddler has nothing to grab onto.

Instead of getting frustrated with myself for not being able to focus in a certain way, I’ve figured out a number of workarounds. It’s one thing to get frustrated with a kid who doesn’t want to do something, and another to try to figure out why the kid is being so stubborn. In these cases, I’ve chosen kindness toward myself and have purposefully organized my writing space and process to give myself the best chance. Weird, right?

Take these sheet protectors. I totally got them for Christmas and I am thrilled because I use them a lot. I like printing things off and having them in front of me so that my screen can be devoted just to the document I’m writing – fewer clicks and fewer distractions for the toddler – but I discovered a while back that I have this thing about writing on what I’ve printed. If it’s notes, I don’t want to do it. Making marks just messes things up.

Enter the sheet protectors. I don’t know why they work for me, but they do: the marks go on the sheet protectors, so I can still color-code to my heart’s content, but the original notes remain unsullied. It’s weird, sure, but it’s a step that I know happens to work for me.

Or how about this one: some days I start with a blank document, and it actually helps. Most days – and for a lot of people – the huge amount of white space is paralyzing. The flashing cursor just counts off all the seconds you should have been writing, but haven’t yet. But, on my worst days, I feel like adding to the original document would be like writing on my notes: sullying something that might not have been perfect, exactly, but isn’t going to be made any better by my current ramblings.

So, on those days, I open a blank document and release myself from any sort of expectations. They don’t even have to be titled properly. I’ve got one called “written doodles” that just worked for me because clearly it didn’t have to be great. They were just doodles, after all. Just me, trying to get my thoughts in order.

Other times it’s the room itself: the proper chair. Background noise, or silence. A better playlist. Turning on a space heater or opening a window. When I’m at my crankiest, I have to tend to all of these things first and make myself as physically comfortable as possible so that my thoughts can then focus on something other than “I’m hungry” or “The tag on this shirt itches.”

You don’t have to power through that kind of stuff. Writing is hard enough as it is without giving yourself more hurdles. The longer you work at it, the more you’ll discover your own little quirks and be able to tackle those straight off, building up your writing space and priming yourself to be as comfortable and distraction-free as possible.

Be nice to your inner two-year-old. Sometimes they really know what they’re doing.