It’s 11pm on the day before my deadline on an article for a major broadsheet. What am I doing? I’m trying to watch a movie of course.
Why trying? Well it is a bit hard to focus on the story line when I’m convinced that I’m about to expire of anxiety because – despite several weeks of research, a dozen interviews and almost constant thought about the article – I have nothing written yet.
Nada. Niente. Nichts. Not a single solitary sausage of a thought has graced a page, despite the brilliance of those thoughts as they have come and gone in my mind. As the pressure builds and my gaskets move into the danger zone, I ask myself repeatedly ‘how did I get here, again?’
Fast-forward a decade, and I think I have some answers.
The above is a snapshot from a time when I was working out what I wanted to be when I grew up and was trying my hand at freelance journalism. In truth, it could be from any time in my life from the moment Miss Mitchell asked us to submit written work in Grade 3 (to my knowledge she never got any, apart from in classroom-based tests). Since then, I’ve learned a few things:
- I enjoy the feeling of having written way more than I like actually writing
- If I had to earn my crust as a writer there would be even odds on whether I would die of pain, stress and anxiety before I died of hunger.
- I am a much better editor than I am a writer
This last point I learned when asked to edit other peoples work before it went to publication, and – in contrast to my experience of writing things – I was always struck by how easy it was to spot errors, make value-adding changes, and generally pull the thing together quickly and easily.
It took me a few years to put two and two together and realize that was also the case for my own work.
The problem was my process of writing, which went something like this:
- Get assignment
- Think about assignment occasionally
- Do research about assignment
- Think about assignment more often
- Do more research/interviews/etc
(deadline approaching now)
Think obsessively about the piece and worry that the 1.2 million readers of the FT Weekend would finally – and very publicly – find out that I was a fraud
(11pm, deadline tomorrow)
Start writing, despair at how bad my first draft was, go watch tv and try to forget that I was about to be exposed as an incompetent fraudster
Go back to editing, writing, editing, writing, editing, writing, editing (you get the picture) until the deadline was several hours past
Send for publication convinced that it was not quite ready and worry about that until well after it was lining birdcages across the land.
Now, even in a world where pressure is a component of creativity – and I think, for me, it is – when anxiety arousal moves past its usefulness into paralysis and self-flagellation, it is no longer a good thing. And it is a hellish way to produce written work.
I needed a new process, and that has slowly fallen into place – more by accident than design – by using some of the simple tools that we propose in GTD.
Constantly be collecting random ideas for possible pieces of written work
Process ideas and organize onto a list called ‘blog ideas’, emptying head of all available scraps of inspiration on the topic
As new ideas come on that topic, collect, process and organize them to roughly the same place on the list of blog ideas
When it comes time to get writing, go to list and look for something that is ‘pregnant’ and ready to go
Then, get a very bad, unspeakably bad, draft out of the way as soon as possible
- Edit aforementioned into a very bad draft
- Edit aforementioned into a bad draft
- Edit aforementioned into a draft
- Edit aforementioned into a reasonable draft
- Edit aforementioned into a decent draft
- Edit aforementioned into a good draft
Run aforementioned by some people whose opinion in matters literary I trust
Accept edits without wanting to kill myself or them for their temerity at doing what I have asked them to do
Send for publication
Net result: much more written work, much less pain and stress.
The key? Getting into motion. By keeping the bar low at each stage of the process, I can keep my in-house critic asleep and keep moving forwards. By breaking the process down and lowering my standards at each stage of the process I make it easier to ‘succeed’ all along the way. For example, by allowing myself to simply collect things that might – one day – be useful, I have a bank of ideas that are ‘cooking’ in my subconscious. That tends to surface more ideas on those topics, that also get captured and thrown onto a list.
When it comes to doing some writing, and that unspeakably bad draft, well, just how bad can I make it? Let’s have some fun here!
Once anything is on the page I can become an editor, and I know that I’m pretty good at that. The problem was always down to trying to hold the entire piece in my head, obsessing over things that I never captured and then trying to remember the moments of inspiration once I sat down to write.
I can’t vouch for quality (you may or may not like the above), but I know that Miss Mitchell would be very, very pleased that you are reading anything at all.