For me, writing is a lot like exercise. I enjoy doing both once I’ve started and hit my stride, and I definitely love the sense of accomplishment once both are done. But also like exercise, I often have to aim lower and strive for less on writing projects to get started and finish strong. This may sound odd at first, but if you’re like me, perhaps these strategies will help you, regardless of the work you do.
Sometimes the best way for me to get to the gym is to plan a less extreme workout. The same is true for getting to a writing project. If I think about what an incredible success a writing project will be or about how much is expected, it can be hard for me to get started. The higher the bar, the more pressure I feel and the more I over analyze every idea, word and sentence. So, when I get that feeling, I have learned to intentionally aim lower. I tell myself, “Instead of a ‘world-record marathon’ paper that will be hailed as brilliant, I’m going to make this an average ‘2-mile-jog’ paper.” And as the pursuit of mediocrity reduces the pressure, what usually happens is the words begin to flow, I hit my stride, and by the time I get to that ‘2-mile mark,’ I just keep going, in some cases to some of my most successful projects.
Sometimes the best way for me to get to the gym is to plan to spend less time there. The same is true for writing. Some writers perform best when they can dedicate large blocks of uninterrupted time to a project. I am not like that. Oddly, the more time I have, the less writing I accomplish. The extra time allows me to procrastinate getting started, or I spend way too much time wrapped around making a sentence perfect. So, even when I have lots of time to work on a project, I often start by planning to work on it for 30 minutes. Even with my short attention span, I can commit to focusing on writing even the most boring or challenging project for 30 minutes. And, like aiming lower, often that 30-minute sprint turns into a 3-hour writing marathon.
Sometimes the best way to excel at a physical activity is to think less about it and just do it. One of my favorite books on writing is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. She has a chapter called “Shitty First Drafts,” which has become one of my writing mantras. When I find myself stuck trying to think of that perfect word or the best way to organize my thoughts, I strive to think less and just write without considering perfect words, grammatical details, or strategic phrasing. Knowing I can clean it all up with cut and paste later, I just spew out my thoughts. And when I get stuck on the best word, I leave a _____ to fill in later. And usually, when I come back to that sentence, the word that stalled me comes quickly. Sometimes the less we think, the better our thoughts flow.
Sometimes the only way to improve at a physical activity is to ask for help. For years I worked long and hard hiding my ignorance. I’d spend hours looking for answers that would have taken minutes to learn, if I would have simply asked the people I was working for or with. I was afraid they might think I wasn’t smart enough for the work. But with age and experience, I have come to accept my ignorance, so now I just ask. And usually, not only do I get the answer more quickly, I get additional information that gives important context for the topic and how it needs to be portrayed in the paper.
Delivering a less than perfect paper early or on time is almost always better than delivering a near-perfect paper late. No paper will ever be perfect. There will always be something that could have been said, phrased or organized better. The challenge is to focus on what will truly improve the effectiveness of the paper and know when to stop perfecting those things that are good enough. So, as a deadline approaches and I am putting finishing touches on content that is already complete, I always have to remind myself and accept the fact that whatever I deliver, it will be less than perfect.