Loyal readers know that I update my blog on Wednesday, yet this article is being posted on a Thursday. Why is that?
Uh-oh. I’ve been procrastinating! That most deadly of writerly vices has stiffened my fingers. Even as I type this, I reach for my Blackberry, checking my Twitter stream for some bit of amusement to distract me from the task at hand.
I’m staring out the window watching the chipping sparrows wrestle for a place at the bird feeder. I’m taking another sip of my coffee, certain that the shape of my next sentence lies in the grounds at the bottom like some sort of tea leaf divination.
But those are all part of the writing process. Writers and our longsuffering families understand that gazing into space is half our job.
True procrastination – the type when we put a report on the back burner for weeks at a time, telling ourselves that we’ll get to it when the moment is ripe, that we just need to “get started” and the ideas will flow, or that we haven’t got a real handle on it yet – procrastination of that sort is killer. It’s that type of procrastination that keeps us up at night, that gives us ulcers, that makes us hate our jobs, fear our inbox, avoid our supervisors, and dread the writing process entirely.
Good news, folks! That type of procrastination stems from one of three clear, distinct, and entirely manageable situations. Even better, with the right tools, you can resolve two of the three. (Yes, you caught me, but two out of three ain’t bad.)
1) Writers procrastinate because they’re juggling too many tasks simultaneously.
Your supervisor needs a briefing paper. She’s a busy woman and has requested no more than 2 pages on what you know to be a complex topic. You have compiled 50 pages of research. You finally sit down to write the document. You start the introduction, and you realize that you need to provide some historical context, which you don’t have.
So you return to the internet and, because you enjoy researching and learning about this topic, you spend 2 hours you don’t have clicking links, reading articles, not taking notes, and then realize that you still don’t have the data you require. So you review your internet history, pull a few bits out and insert them into the introduction.
Then you realize that your introductory paragraph is half a page, and since the entire briefing paper can only be 2 pages, you start to trim. As you do so, you keep returning to the last sentence because you don’t like the way it sounds.
You have now combined invention, arrangement, selection, writing, and revision – 5 discrete tasks with different cognitive components – into one. And you wonder why you’re confused.
Solution: Use the Writing Cycle to divide and conquer. Perform one task at a time, in order. And if you see the need to move backwards or forwards, make a note of it, but do it later. Keep working at the current task and capitalize on the present energy.
2) Writers procrastinate because they don’t understand the elements of the Writer’s Triangle.
Your boss asks you to write a memo that will be circulated among the Executive Committee members at the next Board meeting about your ongoing project for improved employee efficiency. Great! You’re on tap.
Who is the Executive Committee, and what do they do? Are they supportive of your project, or not? Do they have budgetary authority? Will they be giving you advice, input, suggestions for going forward, or just rubber-stamping what you’re currently doing? Is this an opportunity for promotion or an opening for criticism and rebuke?
Will the report become part of the Board meeting minutes, published on the company’s website and disseminated to the employees? How will that affect what you say about employee efficiency?
Will it be understood that you are the author of the memo, or is your boss taking credit for it?
Solution: Discuss the elements of the Writer’s Triangle with all those involved in the writing project. Research your context. Explore your purpose. Get to know your audience. Be true to yourself.
3) Writers procrastinate because they fundamentally disagree with the purpose of the document.
Ever wonder why bureaucratic, government, and legal documents are so hard to read? Many times it is because a decision reached by committee after much compromise and the document is delegated to a single author who doesn’t necessarily agree.
For example, a government biologist might be instructed to issue a take permit, allowing an endangered species to have its habitat damaged by a construction project. Or a teacher may be told by her principal to write a report finding that a special education student does not meet the minimum standard for special education provisions. That year’s budget is too restricted for everyone to receive their share. A defense attorney might be issued an order by a judge to find for the plaintiff.
In those cases, it becomes incredibly difficult to write the document because the author fundamentally disagrees with the conclusion. It’s a context outside of the author’s control.
Solution: How does an author handle this? I don’t know. Perhaps the person has enough experience with the system to see that on the whole, the balance leans toward the good. But I can see where an individual would experience heart-wrenching frustration, and how procrastination would become a refuge of sorts.
Remember, if you’re putting a writing project off, I have tools that can help! My course, 8 Weeks to Writing with Clarity, starts April 18th. Be sure to sign up for more information. And if you’re frustrated because of your context, share your experiences. Let’s see what we can learn from each other.