Advice on completing a writing project, fast
June 17, 2011 7:09 AM   Subscribe

I need to complete the bulk of a major writing project (think: book, or academic dissertation) in much less time than I'd planned for (think: 100 days rather than a year or more). What is your best piece of advice for working efficiently/intensely/sustainably for this kind of period? Tips from non-writers definitely welcome too.

There are several excellent posts on Ask Metafilter about writing and discipline, and I know the basics (make a schedule and stick to it; stop reading AskMe posts and get on with it, etc). But I am interested in anything specific, perhaps less obvious, that worked for you. Especially in this kind of timeframe, which seems to me both stressfully short, yet too long to just work completely flat out, a la NaNoWriMo.

Thank you!
posted by game warden to the events rhino to Work & Money (16 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
You're right about the advice already on AskMe: it's all good stuff.

Your timeframe is the interesting bit: long enough to require stamina but too long for an intensive approach. I think you need to look outside of the project and:

- eliminate every unnecessary, unproductive or energy-draining task or activity that you can, including any social commitments you can drop for this timeframe
- plan in the good stuff: weekends off, regular fresh air and exercise
- create a whole-day set of habits so you're not having to expend energy and creativity thinking a out what to do next: washing, meals, laundry, shopping etc can all be planned and go on a schedule
- learn what increases your energy and include more of this (foods, activities)
- learn what decreases you energy and include less of this (foods, activities)
- get a support team around you: people who understand what you've got to do and can help you relax, do stuff, get energised, keep energy-drainers away from you

...and within the project:

- break each stage (planning, research, chapters, editing etc) down into individual goals
- have daily, weekly, monthly goals within your timeframe
- break each goal into specific steps you'll take each day, week etc to reach each goal
- celebrate each one as you tick it off.

Include revisions in your goals: plan in times to come back to revisit your structure, chapters etc and re-write with hindsight. I find this the single biggest aid to a great manuscript, even if I'm battling against time.

Good luck!
posted by dowcrag at 7:25 AM on June 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

My best piece of advice, as a writer-programmer, is to catch up on sleep during the same period. Aim for 8-10 hours per night.

My second best piece of advice is to have someone change your wireless password, take your network card, etc.
posted by michaelh at 7:26 AM on June 17, 2011

Create an outline, then execute against it. You can write far more than you realize if you simply think in advance what you want to say.

Don't think about writing a book, think about writing chapters. Otherwise, you'll get overwhelmed and freeze up.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 7:35 AM on June 17, 2011

I did something like this (lots of writing in a several-month period), and for me exercise really made a difference. If I sat still writing all day without any physical activity, I didn't sleep well, which left my brain in a fog the next day. I also had to get over feeling guilty about spending an hour at the gym when I could have been working, but once I started to see exercise as facilitating my writing rather than taking time away from it, I went more regularly, slept more deeply, and got more writing done. And also got some bad-ass muscles in the process.

The other small, specific thing that helped me was to set a word count goal for new, from-scratch prose I would generate every day - it kept me from spending all my time doing the easier stuff (editing to death material I'd already written, doing more 'research' etc.)

Good luck!
posted by amy lecteur at 7:36 AM on June 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

Make sure you're taking breaks efficiently/intensely/sustainably during the same period. Use your work-time to your fullest potential, but don't let the amount of time you're spending on your work interfere with breaktimes. "Intensely" probably isn't the best word for using your break-time most efficiently, but the best description would be to make your non-work-time as absolutely non-work related as possible. Don't take time to read scholarly journals related to your work, don't catch up on work-related YouTube videos, don't get coffee with people in the same field who are going to talk about your work.

Letting your intense/efficient work seep into all of your time is not sustainable -- you need time away from the work, you need plenty of sleep, you need to be able to disconnect from it, so that once your batteries are recharged you can get right back to work the next time you sit down to start typing again. Burnout happens when time away from your work gets abandoned in exchange for more work. You might think working 2x as many hours sounds better, but if you're only operating at 30% functionality because you're tired and your mind is wandering and you forgot where you left off and somehow you now hate what you're writing about so damn much compared to back when you started, it's not going to do you any good.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:51 AM on June 17, 2011

In the last few weeks I've been getting myself to write more consistently, and the tools I use to write affect my output more than I ever anticipated. Use a simple text editor, it takes away all the distractions and lets you concentrate on writing. With word processors there's just too much fluff.
If you use Windows, I strongly suggest trying Ommwriter the clickity-clickity sounds when you type are wonderfully compelling, and there is a free version. If you have a Mac, I suggest IA Writer. I was using Ommwriter before Writer came out, but the typography built-in Markdown formatting work into my workflow brilliantly. I also find it has a better user interface. Although…I often miss the clickity from Ommwriter (which also has a Mac version). Both also have iPad versions if you have one of those.
posted by thebestsophist at 7:56 AM on June 17, 2011

Get up early. Really early. Like 5:00AM at the latest. And then go to bed around 9:00 or 10:00PM. Most people get up and stay up way later than that, so shifting yourself back a few hours will give you a significant chunk of time every day when you aren't likely to be disturbed.

Some guys I know from grad school formed a writing group this way and found that even getting together once a week was incredibly productive. They were up before all their spouses and kids and were able to get a good few hours in before anyone else was even thinking about breakfast.
posted by valkyryn at 8:15 AM on June 17, 2011 [6 favorites]

I've done this a few times, including for a dissertation. What works for me is making an outline and then just running the numbers: estimated desired length divided by number of days = daily word count. And then you just hit the daily word count. (Be sure to account for editing time at the end.) Some days it is easy and you're done in a few hours, other days it will take longer. I would advise that you just . . . generate . . . text. Don't try to mix it with editing stuff. Do that instead at the very end. In my experience I'm good for maybe four hours of writing a day. After that's there's diminishing returns and the quality really drops. So whatever your limit is, work like hell for those hours and then sleep, exercise, eat, watch bad tv. AzraelBrown is right--go for fewer highly productive hours versus ten hours at the computer in which you're reading Metafilter or staring blankly into space. That's neither writing nor being away from writing. And really, you only need to be doing one of those two things until your project is done.
posted by fiery.hogue at 8:15 AM on June 17, 2011

Book != dissertation.

If you mean a dissertation, my immediate advice would be to stop writing the dissertation and write the papers you hope to extract from it anyway. This gives you a series of smaller goals and deadlines to meet, and it's far easier to mash 3 or 4 papers into a good-enough dissertation than it is to pull 3 or 4 papers out of a never-was-anything-else dissertation.

If it's a dissertation, outline and work from the parts that are easy to do to the parts that are hard. Lit review = last thing.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:54 AM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm doing this now. Lots of good advice on this thread, I'll add:

You can indeed learn to live without a social life. Tell all your friends who would call you that you love them but you simply have no choice, and you're going to ground for a few months and not to call you. Its easier to resist temptation this way, and also easier to say no when someone does call you.

Also, every person has that point within themselves when continuing to work is counter-productive. You start writing garbage, or your finger starts floating to the browser, or you're starting to play with the cursor (cursor up up up, down down down... why no I never do this why do you ask?). You can indeed push yourself past the ideal point, thats why its called crunch time - but once you get to diminishing returns there's no sense in persevering. Learn to recognize it for what it is and then get away from the computer.

Also, any large project involves various kinds of work, some of it repetitive and systematic, some of it creative, some of it sensitive, some boring, etc. Sometimes when I think that I've run out of oomph, I switch to a different kind of work and a different aspect of the project, and then I find that I can still keep going.
posted by tempythethird at 9:00 AM on June 17, 2011

Freedom. Set it for 45 minute intervals.
posted by kestrel251 at 10:12 AM on June 17, 2011

Response by poster: These answers are pretty much all fantastically helpful and encouraging. I am going to use the old "they're all best answers!" refrain, I'm afraid. Even the ones that echo what I already do are extremely reassuring.

Do, of course, keep them coming. Thank you.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 10:27 AM on June 17, 2011

One other suggestion: remember the writer's mantra. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good - and don't let the good be the enemy of the done.
posted by amy lecteur at 10:34 AM on June 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

Find a good library full of other people writing studiously, AND with a good coffee shop nearby. Work in cycles: 45 minutes in the library, 15 minutes in the coffee shop. 10am-6pm seven days a week suits me.
posted by roofus at 5:13 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

The book The Now Habit is a great book about procrastination. The author was inspired to research the phenomenon by watching people struggle with large pieces of writing, like dissertations. I think you will find his method of thinking about work as well as his suggestions for structuring time very helpful.
posted by squasher at 3:32 PM on June 18, 2011

I don't have extra advice beside what's been in given in all these great answers (and am bookmarking this thread for myself too), just wanted to add a million agrees first and foremost to the recommendations about getting regular sleep, fresh air and exercise -- that is the very first condition to be able to write more efficiently, clear your mind, have more mental energy, and it's also going to help with the reduced social life.

Not that this needs illustrating, but I have to say I endorse that advice so so strongly because it has become particularly obvious to me in the past weeks of extremely reduced mobility after a knee injury. My job involves a lot of writing, tight deadlines, and the complicated self-discipline of freelancing. I have an extra project for myself that also involves a lot of writing but no deadlines, so it's stayed on the back burner for ages. So when I realised it would take a long time to complete treatment and rehab, I thought oh ok, let's look at the silver lining, I'm going to finally have LOTS of time to do that side project on top of paid work. Yay! No more procrastinating! I have no excuses now! This turned out to be so, so completely delusional. Being forced to stay home and lie down most of the time messed up my sleep patterns and slowed down my brain to pathetic levels more than the anti-inflammatory drugs alone. I felt so sluggish all the time, could barely keep up with jobs, at a much reduced pace, and the rest of the time I'd nap or watch movies and tv series, even reading books was too much effort. Past couple of weeks, it's got a bit better with the injury situation and I can at least walk around more comfortably on crutches, so yay welcome back morning walk in the park! Can't do much more than that for now, but it's already been a great improvement on that feeling of brain fog and lack of concentration (and the resulting inability to keep any discipline for writing purposes).

So, get out every day for a walk or a run or a bike ride (sigh), possibly first thing in the morning before you even have your coffee and sit down to write, you will automatically find it about a MILLION times easier to adopt all the writing-specific advice (including taking little regular breaks later in the day and generally keeping a routine). It makes an enormous difference. Mens sana and all that...
posted by bitteschoen at 3:36 AM on June 19, 2011

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