Monday, February 4, 2013

Writing Steps and Lists

I doubt I've ever met a list I didn't like. Because really, is there any greater small pleasure in a busy, often frustrating day than crossing things off a list? (Aside from dark chocolate, that is.)

I'll even admit that sometimes – on the most challenging days, or the ones when it feels like I'm getting nothing done – that I have even, after completing something I didn't think I had the time for, put it ON the list just so I could cross it off. (Please, if you are a therapist, refrain from analyzing that behavior!).

You get the idea.

Lists are, I think, a huge help to a writer. And so is breaking big writing projects down into steps that can be individually slotted onto a to-do list. Because what good is a list that only reminds you of the big project, the one with a far-off deadline, the project that may seem overwhelming?

Among other projects, I am working on a essay which I would like to finish in time for a journal's themed submission deadline of March 30, and I know I need to make steady progress on it week by week. But if on my list for this week (and next and the next) it said: Finish X essay, or even Work on X essay, I know I'd look at that item on the list and groan.

In the parlance of Boot Camp, it's too big, too formless, too long-range an action item without any interim goals that are specific and measurable.

However, if I break the project down into steps AND I portion out those steps in sensible increments on the to-do list for today, this week, this month, then I can get my head around it. Now, the steps and the lists are helpful, not intimidating or guilt-inducing.

So, I might write, in relation to that essay: -Revise pages 2-5. -Rewrite the first hospital scene. -Check spelling of medical terms.-Read entire essay aloud. -Re-read my journals from the time period. -Do some research on X disease. -Ask B (a doctor friend) to read/critique next draft. -Play with titles. -Try the middle section in present tense.

By doing this, I break the work down into steps (less daunting), give myself more an idea of how much work needs to be done (important because I've been known to underestimate), and lets me cross (more!) things off my list.

I have a master long-range list on a computer doc, and then use a combination of a whiteboard (monthly, noting big projects), a legal pad (weekly, noting rough break-out steps), and oversize sticky notes (daily, listing specific incremental steps).

Others I know use different systems to create, interact with, and cross things off lists -- bulletin board, whiteboard, sticky note, legal pad, smartphone app, computer doc, back of junk mail, digital calendar, email reminder program – you name it.

The only rule I can think of is, once you make a list – use it.

Write blog post.


kario said...

Thank you for this. I have been struggling with how to put form to a submission for exactly that reason - all I can think of is "write the essay." I needed to see the example of breaking it down this morning so I can actually start something.

Bless you.

Andrea said...

"...I have even, after completing something I didn't think I had the time for, put it ON the list just so I could cross it off."--I totally do that, too! (Although, it makes me feel a little guilty, like I'm cheating or something).

Thanks for this suggestion. I have a pile of short stories that need revising, but like you said it's a daunting task. Breaking it down into smaller chunks might help (if I can only figure out what those chunks are...)

Lauri Meyers said...

I exhibit all the same list behaviors. When I get REALLY stressed out, sometimes I will even break mundane tasks down - like laundry: washer. dryer. fold. put away. Checking things off the to do list is the grown up version of getting gold stars on a chart!