Reflections on Writing, Part I

Producing a book takes a long time. Producing a book based on a dissertation takes a really, flipping long time. Even those humans that are really great at delayed gratification need a little help here and there during that process. This past week, I shared my manuscript at a workshop hosted by the Center for Presidential History. Needless to say, I have loads more work to do, but the fact that I had words on a page that I was willing to share with readers felt like a major milestone.

So I thought I’d celebrate by sharing a few writing tips that have helped me over the last year as I worked my way through this book. I’m far from perfect (see loads of work mentioned above), but sometimes the strategies that help the imperfect are more valuable? I don’t know. Take it for what you will.

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1) Write often. On average, I wrote at least five days a week over the last year. Not all day mind you, sometimes for just 45 minutes. But writing is a muscle and you can’t let it get flabby. The more you do it, the easier it is to start again, produce content, and the less pressure you feel from that voice in your head saying “it’s been 5 days since you last wrote.” I’m not a huge fan of hard and fast rules, so I’m not saying you MUST write one hour per day, but consistency is key.

2) Deadlines are friends. I live by deadlines. I can’t get enough of them. I break my work down into chunks, set deadlines religiously, then abide by them. Not only does it make the final deadline seem so much less scary, but getting in the habit of meeting little deadlines feels great. I get a thrilling sense of accomplishment from finishing a task and the more deadlines you set, the more tasks you can complete. Yay! Deadlines also help me see what is attainable. Sometimes when I look at my to-do list or my wish list and then I look at the semester, it seems so large and unattainable that I want to crawl under the covers and not come out. But (!), if you break it down week by week, usually you can accomplish more than you think and it feels way less daunting. I’d also recommend scheduling in wiggle room here or there if possible. Not every week will go according to plan and it’s helpful to give yourself a grace period.

3) Use a scrum board. I learned about this concept from a You’ve Got This podcast episode 82. Essentially, the idea is you have one board (or piece of paper) for “on-deck” items, one board for “in-progress” items, and one board for “completed” items. Here’s why I love it. I can see what’s on-deck and coming next for planning purposes, but I don’t have to worry that I’m not working on it right now or missing deadlines. That reduces my stress and my feeling that I’m not juggling things well. I love having a completed board. With a list or an app, your completed items tend to disappear. If you are type A, you probably question how much you are accomplishing or whether it’s enough. A completed board helps you reflect on what you’ve actually gotten done, which is hugely important for maintaining productivity.

A few other tips: I like to color code my sticky notes for my scrum board (classes get one color, articles another, the book gets one, and applications another, etc.). I also try and break down tasks into small increments. I think scrum boards work best when you can move stickies (or items) with some frequency. So you don’t want a sticky/task to stay in the in-progress column forever, or it kind of defeats the purpose. I also keep these lists and time lines on an app on my phone so that I can keep track of tasks and deadlines when I’m out of the house.

So why bother with the entire board? Isn’t that repetitive? Perhaps. But the paper format seems to work best for maintaining the bird’s eye view of my tasks and segmenting my tasks (rather than just one long list) allows me to stay really focused on what absolutely must be done right now. Give it a try!

And come back tomorrow for part II of my writing reflections…


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