Overcoming Procrastination

Marg McAlister

For a writer, there's not much worse than forcing yourself to sit in front of the computer when you're just not in the mood to write - especially if this goes on day after day. It's important to attack this "I just don't want to write" mood head on, before it gets to be a real problem.  

It's not going to make much difference to your finished output if you put off writing for one day - but it will make a huge difference if you opt out most days. Before long you start telling yourself (and anybody who wants to listen) that you have writer's block. That seems to put things on a semi-official footing. It's like having measles: "You have writer's block? You poor thing. How awful. I hope you're over it soon."  

The implication is that there's nothing you can do about it - you just have to suffer until it's over. Usually, this is untrue. You CAN do something about it. To overcome procrastination, you need do at three things:  

  • Identify the cause
  • Take steps to fix the problem, if it's not writing-related
  • If it's writing-related, then choose from a list of activities that will keep you writing (or at the very least thinking about writing)

1. Identifying the Cause of Procrastination Why don't you want to write? This is the key question. The most obvious answer might be "I just don't feel like it", but that's not going to get you far. You need to identify the cause so you can choose the best activity to get you moving again. Here are some possible reasons:

  •  You don't like your characters. (Who wants to write about people they don't like?) 
  • You don't know where the story is going. 
  • You're tired out from work or looking after family - there's just no energy left for writing. 
  • You have plenty of energy, but you simply can't find any more hours in the day. 
  • You have to edit and polish a scene and you don't know how to assess what's wrong. 
  • You have been writing for years and getting rejections and you don't know if it's all worth it. 
  • You like writing but you hate the whole bit about sending out your work and dealing with editors or rejection. 

The first thing you need to acknowledge is that writing is hard work. Sure, it can be fun, too - but if you want to be published, you have to take the good with the bad.  

As well as having a ball dreaming up new characters and devising gut-wrenching challenges for them to face, you have to edit and polish your work. You have to learn to spot weaknesses in your writing, and how to fix them. That might not be as enjoyable as 'just writing', but it IS satisfying. It also gets you closer to publication.  

Every one of the "reasons for not writing" listed above has a solution. So will any other reason you can add to the list. Your job is to think about the problem and find the solution. (The assumption here is that writing IS important enough to you to take action.)  

2. Fixing Non-Writing-Related Problems  

Problem: No time to write.  

Possible Solutions: Delegate jobs/responsibilities. Resign from committee(s). Swap TV time for writing time. Get up an hour earlier. Go to bed an hour later. Write in your lunch hour. Drop back from full-time work to part-time work. Organise a year off work just to write. Negotiate with family for writing time at weekends. Write in short bursts - grab time where you can.  

Problem: Too tired to write.  

Possible Solutions: Medical checkup - is there a cause other than just being busy? Make sure that your malaise when it comes to writing is not a symptom of a bigger problem, or general depression. If your tiredness is simply because you're a busy mum or business professional, take stock.  

  • Prioritise both at work and at home.  
  • Delegate tiring tasks/jobs.  
  • Share jobs with other parents (such as driving kids to sports training, driving kids to school).  
  • Hire a cleaner.  
  • Hire a gardener/lawn care person.  
  • Drop back from full-time to part-time work.  
  • Organise a roster for household jobs AND ENFORCE IT.  

The problems of being too tired to write and having no time to write are almost always related. This is logical - busy people get tired from running around so much, and they are always trying to cram as much as possible into the time available. The only answer is to cut down SOMEWHERE.  

If you're overtired and overworked, writing is going to be just another burden, instead of being fun. You're the only one that can solve this problem.  

3. Activities to Get You Writing Again  

Take the time now to prepare a list of possible writing activities that suit you and your work in progress. The same activities won't suit everyone. Your job is to create a range of activities that are right for you.  

Choose the best one for your current 'reason for not writing'. For example, if you are putting off writing because you don't like your characters, choose an activity related to characters. If you are delaying a stint at the keyboard because of a more general 'can't be bothered' feeling, then choose a 'lighter' activity that won't tax you too much.  

Here are a few examples:  

1. Characters  

  • Deepen (or create from scratch) a character profile. Have fun inventing a background for your character that goes back to childhood. You don't need to use all this info - but it can be both enjoyable and illuminating.
  • Do an author/character interview. Ask questions related to the story and see what comes to the surface.
  • Browse through magazines looking for photos of people that would make good 'models' for your characters. This can help to bring them to life for you.
  • Create a new problem for your character to face. For a switch, have this problem UNrelated to the main plot - after all, this happens in real life. We are constantly thrown off track by unforeseen circumstances. Make it something the character has to deal with before he/she can move on. (This could give you an idea for a subplot, to help 'boost' the middle of the story if things begin to drag.)

2. Plotting  

  • See the last point above for 'characters' - create a new sub-plot.
  • Create a "problem within a problem". Have your character solve a problem or overcome a hurdle, only to discover that by doing so she has inadvertently created another problem to solve.
  • If you're stuck, start asking questions about the character's motivation. What led up to the point where you're stuck? WHY did she do what she did to get to this point? Trace back her actions as far as you need to. Is there a point where you could have a character make a different decision? Would this improve the plot? Sometimes it's worth discarding a couple of chapters that are taking you in the wrong direction. (It's better than giving up on the whole novel!)  
  • Buy and read a book on plotting. Jot down ideas as you read.

3. General Malaise  

  • Study 'first chapters' only. Borrow books from the library or re-read books on your shelves. Read as a writer. How did the authors begin? How did they introduce characters? How did they get the plot rolling? How did they arouse the reader's curiosity? Make notes about how you could start a new book or rewrite an existing first chapter, based on what you've learned.
  • Sign up for a short writing course that requires you to hand in a piece of writing each week or every two weeks. It's often easier to write a short scene for assessment than to keep working on your own novel - and you're learning at the same time.
  • Arrange to meet a group of writers for lunch. Don't make it a critique session. Discuss how you all deal with procrastination. Agree on a strategy to make sure you all keep writing.
  • Buy one or two new books on the craft of writing. Highlight at least one point in each chapter that you could apply to your own writing.
  • Start a journal. Write in it every day - even if it's only a paragraph. Keep it for writing about the writing life, or make it a journal of your everyday life.
  • Write a to-do list for the next week and give yourself one 15-minute writing task each day. Make yourself stick at it for that 15 minutes, but keep going if you feel motivated to do so. (If you do half an hour one day that doesn't mean you can skip the next day!)
  • Work on the principle that "a change is as good as a holiday" and write something for a totally different market. For example: if you write fiction for adults, then try a nonfiction article, or a short story for kids. If you always write about training dogs, try an article about home budgets or growing tomatoes or home schooling.

The key to overcoming procrastination is, as you might expect, to GET BUSY. If you can't bring yourself to continue with your work in progress, let it sit for a while and do something else. There's always a writing-related task of some kind that you will enjoy - especially going out to lunch with other writers!


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