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Writing and busywork, busy work, busy-work

23 September, 2008

Whether we spell it busywork, busy work or busy-work, the form is not the problem. Rather it is the ease with which we get caught up in a maze of busywork, then stress out when we see our writing goals recede into the distance. How can you combat the problem of busywork and keep your writing on track?

Know thy enemy

First, it’s important to understand what busywork is.

Busywork can be any time-wasting activity that negatively affects your writing goals. Some people say they cannot write until they have cleaned the house first. Others compulsively play  computer games instead of getting on with their writing. Still others let precious writing time leak away because they get caught up in too many social commitments.

Another kind of busywork is more insidious. Moira Allen, co-editor of the online writing digest, Writing-World defines it as work that appears to be worthwhile and important.

This higher-level busywork is seductive, especially when it involves writerly activities that we’re good at and enjoy doing. Many of us undertake diverse writing and editing tasks, run writing workshops, teach writing, and mentor other writers. Sometimes we need this work to make a living. But sometimes it grows into an addiction, and we take on more and more work, paid or unpaid, at the expense of our writing goals.

Why sabotage our long-term goals with this kind of busywork? One reason is that the work is often stimulating. We get lots of warm fuzzies from others for undertaking the work and doing it well. As well, the writing work can make us feel virtuously productive, compared to trying to reach writing goals that seem distant and nebulous. Many times this kind of busywork provides quick gratification, compared with the frustration of pursuing a long-term writing goal, where gratification can be pretty scarce until we get towards the end.

When does writerly work morph into busywork? When it takes up an unconscionable amount of your writing time, concentration and energy that could be better used to achieve your writing goal. A writing-related activity is not busywork if you can comfortably undertake it whilst still progressing your main writing goal. It becomes busywork if you end up spending so much time and energy on the activity that it jeopardises your chances of achieving your goal.

Solutions for busywork

It is unrealistic to say ‘no’ to everything except your writing goal. But you can teach yourself to be  selective.

1. Establish a clear writing goal and sub-goals

Establishing a clear writing goal, plus some sub-goals, shows you  how much writing time you need.  And knowing how much time you need can strengthen your ability to say ‘no’ when asked to take on interesting but non-goal work.

It helps to make your writing goal specific. Is your aim to become a famous writer? Great, but can you be more specific?  I will write a successful history novel.
How about being even more specific? I will write a  successful YA adventure novel about an English soldier-spy in the First Crusade.

After you set your writing goal, reinforce it by placing it where you look at it—often. Write it on a card that you keep on your desk. Make it your screensaver. Put it by your phone.

If it suits your way of working, break up this big goal into smaller sub-goals, i.e.., what you’d like  to achieve in a shorter period of time. Again, be specific. Do you think you can achieve your big goal in two years? If so, what do you think you can do this year? In the next six months? This month? This week?

Sub-goals help you identify what to focus on for a shorter time period. They provide a ‘baby-steps’ approach to to reach your major goal. The big goal of writing a novel may seem scary, but a sub-goal—working out some characters, mapping out a setting— may seem doable and fun.

Sub-goals help you establish the amount of writing time needed in certain period. If you designate a couple of weeks to establish your characters and develop character sketches for each, you can now work out when to make time to do this.  Knowing roughly how much writing time you  need enables you to work out the amount of time you have available for other commitments.

2. Use your optimal writing time

If pushed, you can write anytime. But look for the optimal writing time in a normal day or week, when you are most alert, productive, and creative.

When you’ve pinpointed your optimal time, keep it free from interruptions.  Don’t let other people and events muscle in on it. You can postpone writing at this time, saying you’ll make it up later, but more often than not, you won’t.

Dorothea Brande, an early analyst of the writing process, wrote about the benefit of setting a writing date (day, time) with yourself and treating it as inviolable,  ‘a debt of honor’. This writing date works only if you learn to plan your day or week so that you actually write when you’ve scheduled it.

3. Remove time-wasters

Time-wasting activities can easily sabotage your writing goals. The biggest culprits?

  • Email: Do you interrupt your writing time by reading and answering emails as soon as they come in?  Remove the audio notification that you have new mail.
  • Computer games: Does your writing time slip past because you’re playing computer games to ‘relax’? If you can’t break the habit, store them separately, off your hard drive so that you have to make a conscious decision to run them. Set a timer and finish when your time’s up.
  • Research: Do you spend too much time researching information during your writing time? It helps to map out exactly what information you need so that you don’t get sidetracked or end up pursuing IBN items, i.e. ‘Interesting But Non-essential’.
  • Socialising: Do you end up letting social commitments gouge into your writing time? Here’s where it’s important to learn to say ‘not’.
    As in , ‘Sorry, not this afternoon–I’m writing.’ Or, ‘I’m only available in the afternoons because I write in the mornings’. Or, ‘This week isnt’ good for me because I’m in the midst of a difficult chapter.’
    Sometimes unpublished writers don’t feel confident about showing this kind of commitment. But if it’s not done, the chances of becoming published lessen.

4. Assess requests from others

People who write are often asked to undertake writerly tasks, e.g., putting together a club’s newsletter, creating a publicity brochure, proofreading a friend’s report. When you’re invited to take on extra work, don’t agree immediately  just  because you’ve been asked (how flattering) or because you’re good at writing  (piece of cake).

Consider these questions before agreeing to undertake a task. For example:

  • How much of my time and energy will I need to complete the work? If I don’t know this, what do I need to know so that I can realistically assess the time needed?
  • What positives are likely to flow from this work? Positives include getting paid, gaining experience, making important links with others, and increasing the chance of gaining future work.
    Set against my major writing goal, are these positives worth it at this point?
  • How much stress will the work involve? How will this stress impact on my ability to progress toward my major writing goal?
    Remember that stress can result from the nature of the work, the timing involved, or from other people involved with the project. Assess all stress possibilities before agreeing to do something.

5. Choose a devil’s advocate

Your devil’s advocate reminds you of your writing goals and helps you analyse which activities are worthwhile and which are time-wasters. Advocates ask the hard questions, e.g. What will  you get from taking up this activity? How will it affect your writing time?

Don’t try to be your own devil’s advocate. It is hard to ask yourself the tough questions, especially concerning  work that appeals but may not be in your best interests. Choose someone who genuinely wants you to succeed at your writing goal. Who could it be?

  • A relative or loved one? Possibly. A potential issue is the close emotional distance. And sadly, not all relatives and loved ones genuinely support one’s writing interests. But if they are supportive, they can make great devil’s advocates because they know you so well in terms of your strengths and your weaknesses. They can help you stay on track over a long period.
  • A trusted writing buddy can be helpful, or someone from your writing group if you are in one.  Ensure you select someone who models the kind of writing life you want, e.g., who has clear writing goals and writes regularly.
  • Some people hire a writing mentor/coach to keep them on track. It’s similar to grad students being assigned a supervisor when they start their thesis. Writing mentors can  help you with the what (your story) and  with  the how (your writing process).

If it’s impossible to find someone you know, you could research the writing habits of your favourite author and try applying  them, emulating a successful writer.

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