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Julie here! Today, Kat Zhang and I are co-posting on the topic of productivity. We both know (from personal experience!) that sometimes the hardest part of writing is staying consistent and getting the work done. After all, writing is usually a solo activity, with no one checking in on you to make sure you reached your word count goal or revised that chapter. So we decided we would team up to share tips for staying on track.
This is a two part post, so on Friday, we’re going to go more in depth about ways a community can help keep you on schedule. But today, here are some tricks you can use on your own!
Kat: One of my biggest hurdles while drafting is my perfectionism. I want my first draft to be as perfect as a final draft–which is, of course, impossible. I’m a very exploratory writer, and sometimes I just need to write 10,000 words for every 5,000 that end up in the final draft. However, sometimes when I’m sludging through that first draft, I get so bogged down by the “Oh my god, this is the worst scene I’ve ever written” feeling of drafting that I either end up in an endless cycle of editing and re-writing, or worse, I get so frustrated that the writing isn’t fun at all.
Both those things can be killer to any attempt at staying on schedule. So while I’m drafting, I hold myself to exactly zero “How good is this writing?” standards. Okay, that’s a lie. I keep certain standards in the back of my mind, but my number one goal for each drafting day is: Just Hit the Word Count.
Now, there are some things I wouldn’t do to Just Hit the Word Count–I do outline before writing, so I don’t throw random tangents in my story for the sake of words. (No “And then a man with a gun and a flamingo showed up!” just for the sake of something happening). No adding adverbs or writing in weird ways just to up word count. Personally, those things would really just be wasted words, for me–but maybe they wouldn’t be for you.
Making my main goal a word count lets me let go of my inner editor a little, while keeping my eyes on the finish line.
Julie: This is great advice, Kat! I also try to resist the urge to self-edit while I draft, but find it difficult to avoid the trap of judging every word before moving on. I could easily rewrite the same thousand words five times, when I really need to get five thousand words down on the page!
Like you, I make word count my main goal when drafting. To stay on track, I create a spreadsheet so I can watch my progress. I’m a fanatical list-maker! It’s helpful for me to be able to see myself moving toward a goal in some concrete way. So I choose a day to target for the completed draft, and then I work backwards. I set manageable goals for each week and each day, and I definitely build in some wiggle room. If I fall off the pace, I’m willing to cut myself a break, and will even re-calibrate the goals if my original pace turns out to be unrealistic.
This spreadsheet helps so much, because it allows me to see just how much I’m getting done on the days when it feels like the draft is a disaster. It also calms my fears that I’m not going to make my deadline, because as long as I’m making the small goals, I know I’ll get there. That validation helps a lot when the goal of a complete draft feels overwhelming.
Julie: I’ve never seen Victoria’s method before, but I definitely believe a calendar system can be an effective tool. I used to use a modified version of a technique popularized by Jerry Seinfeld. It’s so simple! All you need is a wall calendar and a red pen. (It also requires that you have a goal of writing every day. Not every writer wants to do that.)
In Seinfeld’s system, for every day that you write, you put a large red X on the calendar. The Xs should be from corner to corner, so that they begin to form a chain of Xs. Over time, you have a long chain, and you don’t want to let it break! This method helped me stay motivated, and it also helped me see myself as a writer. All those Xs on the calendar proved to me that I wasn’t just someone who wanted to write; I was someone who was really doing it! (It’s also a visual reminder to everyone else with access to the calendar–your family, your roommates–that you are a writer and you need to stay on track.)
Kat: Hopefully, one or more of these ideas will kickstart your own method for staying on track, and keeping yourself productive! Everyone is different, so what works for us might not work for you.
Julie: We’d love to hear from you! What do you think of these ideas? Do any of these seem like they would work for you? Do you use a productivity system of your own that you would like to share? Please join the discussion in the comments!
In I Know How She Does It, Laura interviewed and analyzed the time logs of over 140 women who have kids and earn at least 6 figures — women many consider as “having it all” — to offer advice on how we can fit a full, fun, busy life with work and kids into 168 hours per week. This is especially relevant to aspiring freelance writers who may have kids and a day job, and who are having trouble fitting writing and business-building in among all their other obligations.
By the way, if you’d like to keep your own time log, you can sign up for one free here.
Can you talk a bit about how you view the hours in our lives as a mosaic?
Laura: Many people look at their time log and just see these cells on a grid. I said, well, let’s change that. Let’s view it as a mosaic — and you are the artist, you are the mosaic maker, designing what your hours are going to look like and moving things around to
I think this mosaic image is also profound because we have a tendency to tell our lives in stories and to construct memories as stories — and probably your Renegade Writer readers do that, especially because we are storytellers. And the format of a story tends to be: Here are three points of evidence that lead us to an epiphany that we must make some change.
With life it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking: These stressful things happened — I had this horrible day at work, this bad night of sleep, this issue with my kid. Therefore, life is crazy and unsustainable and I must change.
But what if you view life more as a mosaic and say, well, we had those three stressful moments, but we had all these other moments too? Those moments count as well. We can choose to see those three stressful moments as this evidence leading toward our epiphany or we can say, well, life is stressful AND life is wonderful. There really is no contradiction here. We don’t have to construct a story out of it. We can simply view of the whole mosaic for what it is. So that’s why I like that image.
Can we talk about the 24-hour trap and how writers can avoid it?
Laura: The 24-hour trap is that we have a tendency to think that things need to happen daily in order to count in our lives.
Obviously, it is good to have daily habits — and when we want to add something into our lives, we first ask ourselves, where can I put this into my life every day? The problem is that if you have a busy life, often you can’t put something in at the same time every day — but that does not mean it can’t happen.
I see this especially with things like exercise. Many people will say, “Laura, I’d love to exercise, but I am just not the kind of person who can leave for an hour at lunch every day” or “I want to get home and see my kids so I can’t go to the gym after work every day” or “I recognize mornings might be a great time to exercise, but I just can’t stomach the thought of setting my alarm for 5:30 every day.”
And it’s like, “Okay, well, don’t set your alarm for 5:30 every day.” Here’s an idea: Maybe one day a week you could get up half an hour early and do something; maybe one night a week you and your partner trade off who has the kids and you can go exercise during that time; maybe you do something on weekend mornings before the family has gotten up; and maybe you run around the track by your kid’s soccer game on Sunday. Then you’ve already fit in four exercise stints per week.
That was not daily, but four times a week is pretty good.
I think the 24 hour trap keeps us from seeing the whole picture. If you look at the whole 168 hours of the week, often things will fit. You can’t hold to everything fitting into 24 hours.
And I think writers especially fall into that trap because they think, “I need a special writing time every single day.” But even if you got it in three times a week, that’s better than nothing.
Laura: Yeah, and the problem especially is when people don’t do it because they can’t do it daily. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Sometimes it’s really easy to hold onto these stories we tell ourselves, like “I have a full-time job and a family, and therefore I can’t write.” Instead you could say, “Okay, I can’t write for three hours daily, but I could wake up early twice during the week and do it then, or I could stop watching one television show and just get something down on paper, and maybe I’ll be so inspired by what I’m doing that I’ll keep going.”
We have a tendency not to try those things because then we have to actually confront what we are doing and what we are not, and we have to look at our output and judge it — and often it is just easier not to do it and tell ourselves the story that it is impossible.
I notice that you often recommend outsourcing so that you have more time to do the things that are more important to you — but how can writers do this, especially if they are new and aren’t making a lot of money, and they can’t afford to hire much help? Do you have any tips for them? Maybe they need to just relax their standards?
Laura: Yes. When you don’t think something is the best use of your time, you have three options: You can ignore it, you can minimize it, or you can outsource it.
And obviously the outsourcing part costs money, but it does not cost anything to lower your standards — so that is a first line of offense if you are trying to make more time in your life.
I was just reading a comment on somebody else’s blog from this woman who was all excited about how she would get the kids into bed at night, and then do three hours of housework. I think she wanted everyone to think about how diligent she was or some such. I don’t know what point she was trying to make, but my first thought was “Why on earth are you doing that? Why does it require three hours at night to do all this? If you really feel the need to clean, set a timer for half an hour and then be done with it — and if it did not happen, it did not happen.”
So that’s certainly an option for people: Just let it go. Borrow that theme song from Frozen and let it go. It really does not matter. You will never get that time back, so use it first for the things that are important to you and let other things fill in around the edges.
There are a lot of writers who think, “I have kids at home, so I can do freelance writing from home and it will all work out.” And then they realize it does not work out because the kid isn’t napping on their schedule, or they need things while you’re on an interview. So I was wondering what are some of the creative ways that women you interviewed handle childcare.
Laura: Well, this is the thing: There are very few good ways to meet the needs of a client and a baby simultaneously. And, yes, there is inevitably the day you have a phone call with your biggest client at 1:30 p.m. that your child who naps religiously at 1:00 p.m. elects not to.
The only real way around this is to have childcare when you need it. When you’re doing something that you cannot do with kids’ noise or kids’ distractions, then you need somebody else to be responsible so you can focus on your work.
And there are many ways you can pull that off that might not be as expensive as hiring full-time childcare. For example, you can be efficient about pushing phone calls into a certain set of hours per day and have childcare for those hours, and then maybe do some more of the writing work after the kids go to bed. Or you could do the writing work when your partner can be with the kids, for instance, if you have a partner.
That’s a way you could pull it off without needing to pay for 40 hours of childcare. But it is very difficult to work without childcare. I had one woman in my study who was managing to run a small business without much childcare. But the way she was trading that off was by sleeping less, and it seemed to work for her because she did not need much sleep. But if you are not the kind of person who can function on six hours of sleep, and most of us aren’t, then you’re going to have to come up with something else.
A lot of writers think they are at the mercy of the client’s schedule. But what I realized is that if you actually tell people when you are available and suggest times, you can get them all into the one block of time where you have childcare.
Laura: Yes. Be very strategic about that and plan to have a few hours where you really attempt to push calls. I try to save mornings for writing and then do phone calls in either the late morning or the afternoon when I’m ready to interact with the world. You can express preferences. Sometimes you’re interviewing an A-list celebrity, and you’re going to have to do it when she needs to do it. But in other cases, people may have a bit more flexibility.
And people are actually happy for you to suggest a time. “Are you available at 10:00 or 10:30? If not, let me know.” They like not having to think about all the options.
Laura: Yes, it is actually not that helpful to send an e-mail to someone saying, “Can we do an interview in the next week?” Because then they’re looking at their whole schedule, and inevitably the first thing they suggest is not going to work for you. So it helps to just throw a few free times out there. If none of those work, then you can go from there, but the odds of at least one of those three working are decent.
You’re a successful writer — what are some of the things you think new freelance writers can drop to make time for what’s important? What are they doing that makes them feel productive that they don’t really need to be doing?
Laura: Well, the way I approach this question is that it’s not so much about dropping things. It’s about making sure that you first put in time in your life for the things that you need to be doing.
If you’re building a business there are certain things that are important for you to do. You need to have some of your work out there, so building your web site with examples of your work is a top priority. You need to be reaching out to potential clients. That is a top priority. You have actual assignments you need to get done. Those are top priorities.
Do those things first and then this magical thing happens where the other stuff that you don’t actually need to be doing starts taking less time. For example, generally people spend more time in their inboxes than they need to because they’re checking it too frequently, and they’re just working from the top down. Whatever happens to be on the top of your inbox is not necessarily your top work priority, so probably it does not need to be the first thing you tackle when you start approaching work.
But the beautiful thing about filling your time first with the things that you need to be doing is that then you figure out for yourself the other things that can give, and they will naturally give because there are only 24 hours in a day — so try that first.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned about balancing work, family, and everything else when you were analyzing these women’s time logs?
Laura: I think one of the best approaches — and I’m not saying this is done consciously, I think it was more just because these people had fuller lives — is that they did not watch as much TV as the average American.
It’s not that people didn’t watch any TV. There was certainly a reasonable amount of TV on logs, but the average per week was about 4.4 hours — if you think about it that’s like watching a handful of sitcoms and two or three longer shows, so it’s really not nothing. Four and a half hours a week is more than a half hour a day, so TV can be in your life — but it’s not 20 hours a week, it’s not 30 hours a week, which are some numbers that have come out of surveys of American life.
So I think that is an instructive difference because the women in my study were working longer hours than the average American works. They were spending time with their families, they were exercising for the most part, they were getting enough sleep. What had to give? Well, it was not really anything of that much importance. That, in and of itself, is a great way to balance your life in the sense of actually making time for things that matter.
You don’t have to cut TV out of your life, but make sure that you’re watching the shows that matter the most to you, the ones that really get you excited, that you’re taping, that you want to talk about with your friends. That’s great, it’s a fun thing to do, it’s a great way to blow off steam — but don’t just turn it on and leave it on. Don’t automatically turn the TV on after the kids go to bed and see what’s on. If you and your partner want to hang out, there are other things you can do than sit on the couch watching TV. There are other things that are much more exciting, for instance, than sitting on the couch watching TV that you can do together, so don’t automatically think TV first.
What’s the one piece of advice you picked up from your research that you think would resonate most with freelance writers who have kids and possibly a day job?
Laura: Daily rituals are great. There has been a lot written lately about the daily rituals of artists and how they make time to write or do whatever they do.
And again, that’s great if it works, but it doesn’t always work — and so what you need to do is look at your whole calendar and say, “Here are some blocks I have for writing. I am going to make sure those work one way or the other. If it’s asking my partner to take the kids for a certain amount of time. If it’s choosing to come into work half an hour late because I have that flexibility. If it’s that I just go sit in your car with my laptop during lunch once a week and write during that time.”
Do whatever it takes, but make sure that those blocks are in there — look at the whole of the week because probably you will be able to find the time.
The numbers I use for people is if you are working 40 hours a week and you’re sleeping eight hours a night for 56 hours a week, that leaves 72 hours for other things. 72 hours is a lot of time. You definitely have time to hang out with your family, to exercise, and to maybe spend 15 hours a week launching your business.
P.S. The Freelance Writers Den is opening its doors to members of the waitlist tomorrow (Thursday, June 11, 2015) ONLY. Carol Tice opens the Den only a few times per year, so if you want to take advantage of the goodies, now’s the time! Interested? Here’s where you can join the waitlist.
Those of you who have no trouble saying no can just skip the rest of this post.
Some of you, however, may be like me. I like making people happy and don't like disappointing them. I also dislike conflict. So when people ask me for things, I used to usually say yes....even when I knew I'd probably regret it later.
I'm gradually learning how to say no.
While it's true that saying yes to one "just have a quick favor to ask, would appreciate just a few minutes of your time" is no problem, saying yes to a LOT of these favors accumulates. And in my experience, "just a few minutes" inevitably turns into hours or sometimes days.
What's hardest: saying no to projects that DO sound like a lot of fun and that I want to do. One of my challenges (and I suspect some of you feel similarly): I want to do EVERYTHING.
By saying no more often, however, I'm able to focus and enjoy the projects I say "yes" to more fully AND have more flexibility about when I do take on a new project.
An article at Social Media Examiner discusses the habits of social media marketers that help boost productivity. The post is interesting and covers six tips - I’ll cover four of them here.
1. Number one is a give-in: you need to know your audience and cater to them.
This goes for any form of marketing – you need to know who your audience is and what they need or want.
It’s pointless to send
Here’s a phrase I hear from a lot of Internet/business/marketing guru-types:
“To be more productive, choose one hour per day where you’ll process your inbox.”
Or: “To process your inbox quickly, respond to every email in five sentences or less.”
These are very smart businesspeople, and many of them take pride in how accessible they are and how quickly they respond to emails — but the phrase “process your inbox” belies the truth of the situation: Many entrepreneurs think of emails as random widgets that pile up in their inbox that need to be removed as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Emails are a distraction from their “real” work.
But here’s the thing: Emails are not widgets. Emails are PEOPLE. Each email represents a real, live, breathing human who is trying to reach out to you.
If your business involves selling something to the public, then emails are not a distraction from your work — they are your work. Well, part of it, at least.
Sure, sometimes these people want something you don’t want to give, like a book’s worth of advice or to let them write a “totally original” post for your blog in exchange for a bio that mentions their Dubai dating service. At times, you get people who write you scathing emails because you dared to try to sell something. And sometimes you’re super busy and looking at the 500 emails in your inbox makes you want to cry. But you can’t deny that each email is in fact an actual person who needs you for something.
The New Rules of Email
I developed these rules to help writers and entrepreneurs remember the importance of their audience, while keeping them from becoming overwhelmed with all the people clamoring for their attention.
1. Emails Are People
Okay, we just talked about this: A full inbox is not a pile of detritus that needs to be shoveled out as quickly as possible. It’s a crowd of people who want to get in touch.
2. People Can Wait
Just because people can email you quickly doesn’t mean you have to respond quickly. You set your priorities for the day, and sometimes that means the people emailing you will have to wait.
A lot of emailers don’t consider that everyone has stuff in their life — but just like them, the people they’re emailing have a lot going on. For example, last week my husband was in Tokyo all week and my 6-year-old son had 3-hour ballet rehearsals almost every evening — and at the end of the week, we had a guest and then spent an entire Saturday at the theater for the two dance shows. And on top of that, Carol Tice and I are launching a new class, and we spent hours and hours last week working with our team on making the class a reality.
While I fully recognize that the emails in my inbox are people, do you think I responded to each person within minutes, or even hours last week? No — it was more like days, and is turning into weeks.
Hey, stuff happens. Your people understand that. If you’re feeling bad about delayed responses, you can always set an autoresponder letting your peeps know you’re underwater and will be slow in getting back to them. Or mention on your website’s Contact page that you can’t respond to every email, but here are some great resources that can answer your questions! (I’ve done both.)
3. Not Every Person Needs (or Deserves) a Response
You do need to recognize the fact that emails are people, but that doesn’t mean every person deserves a response. If you’re walking down the street and a gang of construction workers catcalls you — do you feel bad for giving them the side-eye as you walk on by?
If it’s clear that person is wasting your time — by, say, asking you to share their infographic that has nothing to do with your niche — or is just baiting you for a fight, then no response is needed.
For example, a member of my mailing list responded to my Monday Motivation for Writers email today with nothing but a single link. When I clicked on it, it took me to an Amazon page with all of his novels. Do ya think I responded to that?
Marketing emails and newsletters obviously don’t require a response, unless you really feel moved to say something.
And sometimes, a situation will resolve itself if you just wait. If it’s clear this is the case, then why respond?
4. If It’s Important, They’ll Come Back
As the News Editor at BoardGameGeek, my husband gets a ton of email. He’s had upwards of 1,300 emails in his inbox at one time. I keep trying to get him to simply delete all the emails that he is obviously never going to be able to get to.
Here’s why: If it’s important and absolutely requires a response or an action on his part, the people will follow up.
No one wants to declare email bankruptcy, but sometimes that’s the kindest thing you can do. Yes, emails represent people, but if it becomes clear you’ll never have the time to respond to everyone, you’re only stressing yourself out and creating a guilt complex every time you open your inbox.
When it gets to this point, delete them all, and you’ll discover that many of these people didn’t need you after all.
An Attitude Adjustment
This may seem like just semantics — what does it matter if you look at your emails as annoyances that need to be dealt with, or as people who are looking to connect with you?
I think the way you think about your emails says a lot about the kind of businessperson you are. Do you care about your audience, or are you just looking to make a quick sale?
Or maybe you’re just misguided and feel like everyone needs and deserves a quick response, and the only way to do that is to “process” your inbox. That says a lot about a businessperson, too.
And your people can tell. When you respond to every single email within two minutes with a super-short sentence or nothing but an emoticon, people sense you’re thinking, “I need to process this email as quickly as possible and get it off my plate.” No one wants to be “processed.”
You’ve probably heard some gurus say that to process your email as quickly as possible, you should respond to every email in five sentences or less. Personally, I’d rather have someone wait and get the response they deserve. Sometimes that’s a longer, more thought-out email, and yes, sometimes that’s a simple “Thanks!”
Emails are people. And people are your business.
P.S. Hey, are you a content mill writer, or a writer who is earning way less than you’re worth? You’ll want to come to Carol Tice’s and my FREE webinar on Tuesday, May 19 at 11 am PDT/2 pm EDT: 8 Ways Content Mill Writers Can Earn More — Fast. When you go to this page you’ll also get a copy of our 37-page case study report: Escape the Content Mills: 6 Writers’ True Stories of Breaking Out and Earning More. Here’s where you can go for those goodies!
Anyone who has been in my office knows that I’m a list maker. Post-It Notes wreath my monitor. Reading lists cover my bulletin board. My first thought is that I do this so that I can focus on my work. Once I write something down, I don’t have to put any energy into remembering it and can just write.
But when my to-do list gets too long, it saps my energy. It always starts out reasonable enough. I have my blog posts for the week, work for the courses I am teaching or taking, and my top two projects for the month.
Then I spot a market listing for a manuscript I haven’t quite finished. Add it to my list. Then I read an article that reveals the fix I need for my novel. There’s another item added. Before I realize what’s going on there’s also a group of essays and a series pitch.
When my list is too long, my productivity lags because I focus on what I’m not getting done. That’s when it’s time to refocus my list and, through it, my work. Use these five steps when you need to do the same:
Review larger goals. I begin with a review of my year-long goals. Maybe you have a five year plan or a list of resolutions for 2014. Whatever form your goals take, look at what you want to accomplish. Do these goals still make sense? If not, take a few moments to revise them.
Assess your to-do list. Once you have committed yourself once again to a list of larger goals, evaluate your to-do list. What items help you meet those goals? Things that don’t may need to go away.
Clean off your list. You don’t have to get rid of everything that won’t lead to your larger goals. For example, I keep my church blog and post on their Facebook page, neither of which helps me complete my dream book. But there important to me so they stay on the list. When numerous items don’t relate to your goals, something must go.
Put other things on hold. You also need to look at what can be accomplished in a month. Anything that can’t, needs to be removed – for now. I jot these items on the bottom corner of my dry erase board or put them on a Post-It on the back page of my calendar. They aren’t priorities, but I won’t forget them either.
Refocus your work area. Once I remove items from my to-do list, all related library books, files and articles need to come off my desk. I take things back to the library and refile a wide variety of material. It’s time to streamline so you can focus on your current projects.
The world is a distracting place. Help yourself focus on what you want to work on right now, and you’ll be surprised by how much you accomplish.
Find out more about author Sue Bradford Edwards and her newly refocused to-do list on her blog, One Writer's Journey.
Don't know about the rest of you, but I find my background noise preference depends heavily on what I'm working on. When I'm illustrating and am past the early sketch stages, I listen to audiobooks or have episodes of a previously-watched tv shows playing on my second monitor; the key for me is to have something interesting enough for variety but not TOO interesting to distract me from work.
For early creative stages and for writing, I used to prefer silence. These days, however, I like to have something going on in the background, especially if my work day has been especially long. Music with English lyrics is too distracting, so I listen to Italian progrock but even that can start driving me crazy after a while.
One of my favorite background sounds for intense creative work? Coffee shop noise: murmured conversations, movement, muted clatter of cups and cutlery. I also find having people around who are DOING things stimulating, and I'm less likely to start daydreaming or slack off. I used to go to real-life coffee shops to do my writing, but this has downsides. The expense, for one thing, plus sometimes the conversations taking place around me are a tad TOO interesting.
Looks as if I'm not the only one who finds coffee shops and coffee shop sounds motivating:
For others who like coffee shop sounds in the background while they work, here's one solution:
Coffitivity: Just opening up the website page will start up the sounds of a coffee shop, and you can also get free apps for iOS, Droid and Mac desktop. I prefer the latter because I don't like having my browser open while working because it's too tempting to "just check one more website."
There are choices of other sounds as well, like a campus cafe and lunchtime lounge. Coffitivity has also invited the community to submit sounds to share, so I expect we'll get more choices soon.
In March, I took a fascinating class with Gwen Hernandez on working with the software program, Scrivener . Scrivener, available from Literature and Latte, is widely touted as a totally wonderful program for writing, and while I had owned it for a while, I knew I needed guidance in fully taking advantage of its many features. The class was great. Hernandez laid out daily information in chunks that were just right to absorb and work with. The homework was easy and helpful. I end the month with a growing level of comfort with using Scrivener—in fact, this post is written in Scrivener. Overall, though, I still have questions about how useful it is when compared to regular word processors.
WYSIWYG: What You See Is What You Get
Scrivener is not a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get — pronounced Wizziwig) word processor. I am old enough to remember how exciting it was to actually get a WYSIWYG word processor, to have the ability to SEE what your document would look like. In that respect, Scrivener is a throw-back to a time when typewriters were the only way to get your story on paper and then you left it to a printer to actually typeset a page. Let me quickly say, Scrivener is anything but a throwback in any other respect; it’s a complex program with many features.
But let’s discuss the WYSIWYG question. Do you want to SEE what your words will look like when typeset/printed as you create the story?
Creating in WYSIWYG. I’ve done it both ways. Joel Friedlander sells book design templates, which allow authors to design and layout a book in MSWord. There are many arguments for and against using MSWord for this and I don’t want to get into that. Instead, I want to focus on my experience of writing in an exact WYSIWYG environment. I had a novel almost done when I put it into a template and worked with that environment as I revised. I found it fascinating and enjoyable. I found that it did affect how I wrote: the voice, the wording, chapter length and more. The choice of typeface mattered. The layout on the page mattered. The story demanded a certain voice, which was strengthened by the layout and design. In fact, I loved it.
The Compose Window of Scrivener isolates the writing in its own screen and helps you focus.
Creating in Non-WYSIWYG. On the other hand, I am typing this in Scrivener, and it’s definitely NOT WYSIWYG. The environment here is more focused on productivity. I’m writing in the Compose window, which shuts out every other window on my computer and helps me focus on the writing at hand. It tends to increase the flow. However, after you finish a draft, you must Scrivener’s Compile function to export into a printable format. In Gwen Hernandez’s book, Scrivener for Dummies, compiling takes 70 pages because of its complexity. For this blog post, it’s a simple copy and paste into my blogging software. For a novel, an ebook and other common formats, there are presets for compiling that make it simpler. But it’s not WYSIWYG; it’s an extra step to format. You must learn to become an old-fashioned printer and control all sorts of things: fonts, margins, headers, footers, page numbers, and so on. Or at least tweak the presets. Some say the beauty of Scrivener is that you can output the same writing into multiple formats. For some that will be an advantage; for others, it will be a shrug.
The relationship between layout and design and content isn’t straightforward. Maybe I’ll never decide between WYSIWYG or Non-WYSIWYG environments. Maybe it will be on a case-by-case basis. But if you are considering Scrivener as your word processor of choice, you must deal with the WYSIWYG problem. Which environment do you want to write in?
One big advantage of Scrivener is the ability to track metadata, or data about the data. First, in the binder view, the hierarchical structure is always displayed. That’s not much different from a word processor that allows for an outline view. In Scrivener, however, each item is a separate file, and you can drag and drop these files to restructure. Nice—if you need that sort of thing. Of course, the question is this: do you need to restructure your writing often?
Second, you can mark any file (which can be a scene, a snippet of something like a description, or a full chapter—it’s up to you what goes in a file and how finely grained it is) by using one of three methods: labels, keywords, status.
Status. The default Status markings start with To Do and progresses to Finished. In other words, it marks your progress. But you can use status for anything you want. I liked using Status to indicate the setting of a fictional scene because the terms used here show up as watermarks in the cork board view. Making setting visual seemed a good use for metadata.
Labels, by default indicate Concepts or Chapters. You could expand that to terms like Idea, Rough Draft, and so on. Or you could switch and use Labels to indicate progress or some other story element. All the metadata can be customized.
Keywords have no default setting; the cool thing here is the ability to mark a folder with a colored tab. For example, if your keywords are characters, then in the cork board view you can see at-a-glance all the folders marked Orange for Villain. Of course—you must remember which color goes with which character to use this at-a-glance method. Otherwise, you must look up what color stands for what keyword. The more characters (or keywords) marked, the less useful and more confusing it becomes.
In other words, you have three major ways besides hierarchy to organize your writing. Some are color-coded, while others appear as watermarks in certain views. Some are more flexible and some are more comprehensive. One advantage is that you can search your project for files marked up in any way. For example, you can find all the “keyword: Villain POV” files and then print them separately for editing. You may want to search by status TO DO and keep that view up until all files have been worked on.
Flexible? Certainly. But overwhelming.
The metadata is flexible enough to accommodate cookbooks (keywords: chicken, beef, veal, etc.), fiction (keywords: character names), or nonfiction (keywords: fact, quote, indirect quote, opinion, analysis, etc.). But the metadata system of taming the chaos of writing doesn’t seem intuitive to me.
I went in search of what others have done with all this metadata. First, I asked Gwen Hernandez how she used the metadata. She said that it changes with each project and I shouldn’t worry about the metadata, but just write until I felt the need to separate out files and then decide what metadata made sense. In some ways, I understand that, and that method would work if I wrote by the seat-of-my-pants, a panster. I’m more middle ground, though. I like some structure to start and then I work a while and then adjust structure. And for the writer who loves structure so much they outline extensively, I doubt that answer would help.
Second, I looked at Scrivener templates to see how they used the metadata. Most just use the hierarchical structure and ignore the metadata. Labels, keywords and status were unused by all of the templates that I downloaded and installed.
That brings me to the question: What metadata do we NEED to know as we draft? As we revise? Is a hierarchy enough or do we truly need metadata?
Metadata and the Shrunken Manuscript
I am known for the Shrunken Manuscript, a revision technique that shrinks pages so small that you can’t read it. After shrinking, I ask writers to mark their manuscript in various ways so they can SEE what they have done. After this Scrivener class, I realized that the Shrunken Manuscript deals with metadata, but in a manual and visual way. This technique is now popular with authors who need to see the underlying narrative structure. So, I know the value of metadata and making it visual. One thing I’ll be trying out with Scrivener is how metadata can work for us, without taking on a level of complexity that makes it onerous.
Overall, then, one supposed advantage of Scrivener is it’s ability to keep your writing organized. It does this with a simple hierarchical view and the ability to add metadata in three ways. But I found few instances of people actually using the metadata or being able to explain when and where and why they use it. I’m undecided if this much-touted feature will help or just be too much complexity. I’ll report back after trying out some ideas and working with Scrivener for a while.
I LOVE that the default is backing up every 2 seconds. That’s so aggressive! I thought I was smart when I changed my MSWord to backup every 2 minutes; backing up every 2 seconds is brilliant–and Scrivener does this seamlessly in the background without any hesitations or hitches..
Scrivener has a built in way to track productivity: words per session, project goals, daily word counts, percentage of project completed, and so on. Some authors like this ability to tracking progress; they set and regularly meet productivity goals. Certainly, it’s possible to do this with word processors, but Scrivener makes it simple. I want to try this with my next major project.
Overall, I am still undecided about Scrivener. I do plan to use it for projects this year and Gwen Hernandez’s class was definitely helpful and worth the time. Ask me next year if I’m still using the program.
Productivity. How much you do, when you do it, how you measure it. Put a bunch of writers together, and you can guarantee it’ll come up at some point. We had a great post about the Productivity Pyramid here on Pub Crawl by our own Sooz Dennard.
Do you write in the morning? Are you more productive at night? Do you have a daily word count? Do you count pages when you’re editing? How do you balance the demands of email, social media, writing and (hopefully) the rest of your life?
She got a slew of answers, and author R. J. Anderson provided an epic reply, storified here – I recommend reading it.
I started writing my response, but it got so enormous that I’m going to break it up over three posts. Today, I’m going to talk about time management. Specifically, to-do lists and the Pomodoro Technique. This may not sound sexy, but trust me, it can be a game-changer. The second post will talk about task types, social media and your working day. The third will talk about attitudes and approaches to work.
I find productivity advice a really interesting area, because a lot of it is for people who work in offices, with jobs where you actually know when you’ve completed a task. That’s not always the case for writers. So the advice below is specifically for writers (and other creatives), and is based on years at a not-for-profit running a highly productive team, as well as my own experience studying, working full time, and writing two trilogies at once.
I’m not just talking about a regular to-do list here. Putting everything on one giant list is a guaranteed way to look at it, get overwhelmed, then voluntarily throw yourself down a Lizzie Bennet Diaries rabbit hole rather than doing any work. It’s too big a chunk of information to be absorbed at once and it looks like more than you can ever do. But a good to-do list can change your life, seriously. It can help ensure nothing is forgotten, avoid last-minute rushes and actually reduce your stress. Promise!
There are lots of different techniques, and you should pick one that works for you, but I’m going to show you what mine looks like. The keys are:
Clearly outline each task
Allocate an achievable amount to each day
Leave room for the unexpected
I keep my list in a draft email, so I can access it from my phone or laptop anytime to add an item. When I acquire a new to-do task, I don’t jump on it that day unless it’s urgent. I assign it to a future day and forget about it until it’s time to do it. I cannot say enough how much this reduces stress.
I list each day of the coming week and allocate tasks under it. I then have a heading for ‘Coming Dates’, a heading for ‘Next Week’ and a heading for ‘Future Actions’. And then each day I hand write a list of what I’m going to get done, and put the rest of the list away. That way I only have to look at my bite-sized tasks, not the road stretching out ahead. My rule: if I can’t fit my daily list on a post-it, there’s too much on it to do it all.
Here’s what goes under each each heading I use:
Daily heading: Only the tasks I will achieve that day. These should be clearly outlined, and there shouldn’t be too many.
Coming dates: Appointments or commitments that I can’t forget, that I’ll want to enter into next week’s list.
Next week: A list of things to do next week, but not yet sorted by day — I won’t do this until I know how the week’s shaping up, with any requests from my editors or personal commitments.
Future actions: Stuff that’s happening a while away, that I don’t want to forget.
And here’s an extract from my recent to-do lists. I’ve just listed two individual days for the week, since this is already turning into an epically long blog post.
MONDAY [These items will take up most of a day, but I've left an hour or two free in case of the unexpected. If I get ahead, I'll probably write.]
Write Pub Crawl blog post
Send email to (author friend)
Fill out author questionnaire [for Aussie publisher]
Crit read (CP’s novel) – 100 pages
Crit Meg’s chapter [of our WIP]
Email Jay [to make a time next week to catch up and plot for our WIP]
TUESDAY [This day is going to see me write at least 3,000 words, so I'm not counting on myself to have brain to do too much else -- I've allocated myself easy tasks aside from drafting.]
Write chapter [of WIP with Meg]
Send invoice [for a guest speaking gig at a local university]
Email agent [re a foreign rights offer]
Email editor [with a question about a timeframe]
Email (friend) [this person is a doctor and checking a few medical aspects of my WIP]
13th May – This Shattered World cover reveal
15 May – brainstorming with Jay
31 May – 1 June – Emerging Writers Festival (panel on Sunday)
Tweet for release of (book that’s coming out)
Email (name), (name) and (name)
Finish crit read for (author)
Provide bio/headshot/interview answers to (conference name)
Email accountant [this one is there eeevery week, finances are confusing, yo]
[Note here about a story seed I want to work on.]
[Note here about a place I want to visit for research when I have time]
[Note here to buy and read some books in a particular genre that focuses on a skill I'd like to improve]
And that’s how my to-do list works! Though it looks complex, it takes about sixty seconds to set up. For me, its main strengths are that it’s easily accessible, easy to maintain, allows me to allocate a task to when I need to do it and then forget it, and means that each day I wake up knowing what I need to get done that day! Whether you decide to go with this format, an app or a more technical system, having a way to track all the balls you have in the air is vital. Your system should be flexible while still making sure you know what to do each day, and allow you to focus on a day at a time as well as seeing the big picture.
When it comes time to tackle the list above, I swear by the Pomodoro Technique. There are variations in the way different people use it, but I’m going to give you a brief description of mine — I’ve shared this with other writers, many of whom have reported it really helps them as well. You can grab a free Pomodoro app for your phone, or do this with a regular kitchen timer.
The technique requires that you work for 25 minutes, followed by a five minute break. You do this four times in a row, then take a half hour break. The key for me is that I start my working time with a list of things to do, whether that’s writing or admin or marketing. I jump on the first one, work until it’s done, then pick up the second one. Under NO circumstances while I’m in my 25 minute period do I do aaaaaaanything other than the tasks I’ve set. Absolutely no social media, making cups of tea, daydreaming, etc. What I find is that the 25 minutes never seems insurmountable, so I jump on in, and the ban on other activities means I skate past that danger time five minutes in, when my fingers start to creep toward opening a new tab for Twitter. By pushing past that ‘distraction point’, I get a heap done.
Equally key is taking the five minute breaks — the idea here is to rest up before you get tired, so you’re ready to keep going for your next 25 minute run. In my five minute breaks I usually stretch, grab a drink, make a bathroom run or throw a three minute dance party with the dog, which has the added benefit of loosening up my back before I get sore from too long at the keyboard. When I hit my 30 minute break, I usually go for a walk — it’s important to leave the keyboard during that break.
I get a heap done when I use this approach — if you’re interested, try it!
What tools and techniques do you recommend for improving productivity? I’ll be back next month to talk about task types, social media and your working day. I’d love to hear your suggestions (and I’m happy to answer any questions) in the comments.
Amie Kaufman is the co-author of THESE BROKEN STARS, a YA sci-fi novel out now from Disney-Hyperion (US) and Allen & Unwin (Australia). Book two, THIS SHATTERED WORLD, is coming in November 2014, and her new trilogy will start with ILLUMINAE, coming from Random House/Knopf in 2015. She is represented by Tracey Adams of Adams Literary. You can find her on Twitter or on Facebook, or visit the These Broken Stars website for exclusive sneak-peeks and contests. Amie lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband and rescue dog.
China has all but overtaken the United States based on GDP at newly-computed purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates, twenty years after Paul Krugman predicted: “Although China is still a very poor country, its population is so huge that it will become a major economic power if it achieves even a fraction of Western productivity levels.” But will it eclipse the United States, as Arvind Subramanian has claimed, with the yuan eventually vying with the dollar for international reserve currency status?
Not unless China battles three economic foes. One is well-known: diminishing marginal returns to capital. Two others have received less attention. The first is Carlos Diaz-Alejandro. Not the man, but the results uncovered by his research on the Southern Cone following the opening up of its capital account that culminated in a sovereign debt crisis and contributed to Latin America’s lost 1980s. If the capital account is liberalized before the domestic financial system is ready, the country sets itself up for a fall: goodbye financial repression, hello financial crash. The second is the “reality of transition”: rejuvenating growth requires hard budgets and competition to improve resource allocation and stimulate innovation, counterbalanced with a more competitive real exchange rate. This is the principal insight from the transition in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), which was far simpler than anything China faces.
China was able to raise total factor productivity (TFP) growth as an offset to diminishing marginal returns to capital, especially after joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, and faster growth was accompanied by a rising savings rate. But TFP growth is hard to sustain. Any developing country targeting growth above the steady state level given by the sum of human capital growth, TFP growth and population growth (the latter two falling rapidly in China) will find that its investment rates need to continually increase unless it can rejuvenate TFP growth. China’s investment rates have risen from around 42% of GDP over 2005-7 (prior to the global crisis) to 48% in recent years even as growth has dropped from the 12% to the 7.5% range. Savings rates have hovered around 50%, reducing current account surpluses (numbers drawn from IMF 2010 and 2014 Article IV reports).
This configuration has forced China to choose between either investing even more, or lowering growth targets. It has chosen the latter, with its leaders espousing anti-corruption, deleveraging, environmental improvement and structural reform to achieve higher quality growth. The central bank, People’s Bank of China (PBoC), has reaffirmed its goal of internationalizing the yuan and liberalizing the capital account.
China’s proposed antidote is to “rebalance” from investment and exports to domestic consumption. But growth arithmetic would require consumption to grow at unrealistic rates, given the relative shares of investment and private consumption in GDP, even to meet scaled-down growth targets. Besides, households need better social benefits and market interest rates on bank deposits to save less and consume more. Hukou reform alone, or placing social benefits received by rural migrants on a par with their urban counterparts, could easily cost 3% of GDP a year for the next seven years as some 150 million additional people gain access to such benefits—quite apart from the public investment needed to upgrade urban infrastructure, according to calculations shared by Xinxin Li of the Observatory Group. And the failure to liberalize bank deposit rates has led to the rise of “wealth management products” in the shadow banking system. These “WMPs” offer higher returns but are poorly regulated and more risky.
Indeed, total social financing, a broad measure of credit, has soared from 125% to 200% of GDP over the five years 2009-2013 (Figure 2 in the July 2014 IMF Article IV report, with Box 5 warning that such a rapid trajectory usually ends in tears). Local government debt was estimated at 32% of GDP in mid-2013, much of it short-term and used to fund infrastructure projects and social housing with long paybacks. Housing prices show the signs of a bubble, especially away from the four major cities. Corporate credit is 115% of GDP, about half of it collateralized by land or property. While the focus recently has been on risks from shadow banking, it is hard to separate the shadow from the core. Besides, WMPs have become intertwined with the booming real estate market, a major engine of growth yet the centre of a “web of vulnerabilities” (to quote the IMF) encompassing banks, shadow banks, and local government finances. A real estate shock would ripple through the system, lowering growth and forcing bailouts. The gross cost of the bank workout at the end of the 1990s was 15% of GDP in a much simpler world!
2014 began with fears of a hard landing and an impending default by a bankrupt coal mine on a $500 million WMP-funded loan intermediated by a mega-bank. The government eventually intervened rather than let investors take a hit and risk a confidence crisis. And starting in April, stimulus packages were launched to meet the 7.5% growth target, a tacit admission that rebalancing is not working. But concerns persist around real estate. Besides, stimulus will help only temporarily and China is likely to be facing the same questions about growth and financial vulnerability by the end of the year.
With rebalancing infeasible, and investing even more prohibitively costly, virtually the only remaining option is to spur total factor productivity growth: China is still far from the global technological frontier. This calls for a package that cleans up the financial sector and implements hard budgets and genuine competition, especially for the state-owned enterprises (SOEs), while keeping real exchange rates competitive. The real appreciation of the past few years may have been offset by rising productivity, but continued appreciation will make it harder for the domestic economy to restructure and create 12 million jobs a year to absorb new graduates and displaced SOE workers.
In sum, China must heed Diaz-Alejandro. No one knows what the non-performing loans ratio is in China and few believe the official rate of 1%. If the cornerstone of a financial system is confidence and transparency, China is severely deficient. This must first be fixed and market-determined interest rates adopted before entertaining hopes of internationalizing the currency. China must also accept the reality of transition; the formidable remaining agenda in the fiscal, financial, social, and SOE sectors reminds us that China is still in transition to a full-fledged market economy.
The combination of a financial clean up and the policy trio of hard budgets, competition, and a competitive real exchange rate will improve resource allocation and force innovation, boosting total factor productivity growth. But doing this is hard—that’s the essence of the “middle-income trap”. Huge vested interests will be encountered, evoking Raghuram Rajan’s description of the middle-income trap as one “where crony capitalism creates oligarchies that slow down growth”. Dealing with this agenda is the Chinese leadership’s biggest challenge.
The era of cheap China is ending, while the ability of the government to virtually decree the growth rate has fallen victim to diminishing returns to capital. Diaz-Alejandro and the reality of transition are no less important as China seeks a way forward.
Headline image credit: The Great Wall in fall, by Canary Wu. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Famous time-wasters tend to fall into two camps: There’s the hedonistic band of enthusiastic lollygaggers, and there’s the anti-dillydallying brigade of outputters. The logic follows that non-famous writers follow the same pattern. For both sides, here are some thoughts and advice from the greats on the art and craft of wasting time—or not.
Mark Twain: “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”
Marthe Troly-Curtain: “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”
Rita Mae Brown: “If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done.”
Herodotus: “Some men give up their designs when they have almost reached the goal, while others, on the contrary, obtain a victory by exerting, at the last moment, more vigorous efforts than ever before.”
Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. Especially the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”
Ellen Degeneres: “Procrastination isn’t the problem. It’s the solution. It’s the universe’s way of saying stop, slow down, you move too fast.”
Dorothy Parker: “Live, drink, be merry, love the reeling midnight through, For tomorrow ye may die, but alas we never do.”
Jerome K. Jerome: “Why, some of the work that I have by me now has been in my possession for years and years, and there isn’t a finger-mark on it. I take great pride in my work; I take it down now and then and dust it. No man keeps his work in a better state of preservation than I do.”
Susan Orlean: I think of myself as something of a connoisseur of procrastination, creative and dogged in my approach to not getting things done.”
Auguste Rodin: “Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.”
The Writer’s Digest Retreat on the Water is your chance to escape the demands of everyday life and immerse yourself in your craft for a few purposeful and peaceful days. Enrollment at this Retreat is limited—you’ll enjoy the close mentorship of the instructors and the attention to your individual manuscript that only an event this small and exclusive can provide.
Pablo Picasso: “Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”
Benjamin Franklin: “You may delay, but time will not.”
Charles Dickens: “Procrastination is the thief of time; collar him.”
Abraham Lincoln: “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
George Bernard Shaw: “If you take too long in deciding what to do with your life, you’ll find you’ve done it.”
Oscar Wilde: “Hesitation of any kind is a sign of mental decay in the young, of physical weakness in the old.”
Victor Hugo: “Short as life is, we make it still shorter by the careless waste of time.”
J.R.R. Tolkien: “It’s a job that’s never started that takes the longest to finish.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.: “How soon ‘not now’ become ‘never.’”
Henry Ford: “It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that others waste.”
Which camp do you fall into? For myself, I’ll only say that this post was supposed to run yesterday.
Whether I'm working on my own writing (including the 250, 500 and 1000 Words/Day Challenge) or an illustration project, I find I'm able to better focus and be more productive if I can create a mental space in which I feel safe enough to do my best work.
Sean's advice: Set up a safe space in which you feel positive about yourself and your work, and in which you know that you WILL do great work. Surround yourself with positive, encouraging people. Try to avoid negativity as much as possible. Sean says he steers clear of reading reviews of his work, for example.
Part of the way I do this is trying very hard to STAY OFFLINE when I'm doing creative work. Even dropping in on Twitter or FB for a few minutes can end up being an energy-sucking black hole, often making me question whether I'm doing enough (especially in terms of promotion, networking, working on my craft, etc.) or doing it -whatever "it" is- the Right Way.
What do YOU do to create your own Bubble Of Happy Delusion?
Freelancing pretty much defines lack of control: We don’t directly control when we get assignments, how much money we make, and even when we get paid. It certainly gets frustrating at times, and can lead to a lack of motivation and, ultimately, burnout.
Since writing that post — which is one of the most popular ones I’ve ever written — I’ve come to realize that even if our freelancing life is objectively going well, if we feel out of control in other areas of our life, it will leak over into our work life.
The “broken window” theory says that when a neighborhood has a house with a broken window that the owners neglect to fix, it starts to attract vandalism and other crime; people assume no one cares, so they treat it that way. The same thing happens in our lives: We let bills and laundry pile up, we skip out on exercise and binge on mint chocolate chip ice cream, we put off getting the car inspected — and suddenly, our freelance writing work becomes out of control too. (Or, really, it just feels out of control, because our perspective has shifted that way.)
So…I’ve come up with 7 more ways to gain control over your freelancing life — most of which don’t actually have anything to do with work!
1. Clean something — anything!
Recently I had several (too many!) article deadlines, and I started freaking out. Sources weren’t getting back to me, one article required me to reference a book I couldn’t find, and tasks on my to-do list were mounting. So what did I do?
I cleaned out the pantry.
Even if I can’t control when sources get back to me, I can at least control my own pantry. Out went the expired Annie’s Bunny Pasta with Cheese. Out went all meat products, since we’re now vegetarians. What was left, I organized nicely.
Suddenly, my workload seemed a lot more manageable. Just knowing that one area of my life was unarguably under control helped me feel more in control of my work. Remember, a lot of feeling out of control is just that — a feeling. If you can shift your perspective with some quick cleaning, the problem is solved.
So pick one small thing and clean, organize, or polish it. Clean out your junk drawer, organize your clothes closet, go through your stack of mail and toss the junk, scrub the coffee stains from your mugs, or even clean up your computer desktop.
2. Don’t check e-mail first thing in the morning.
Checking e-mail as soon as your eyes open in the morning is a good recipe for a frazzled day. You wake up, and instantly you’re on call and responding to other people’s emergencies.
I’ve found that when I hold off on checking e-mail in the morning, even for only an hour, it sets a calm, controlled tone for the rest of my workday. In that first hour I may have breakfast, enjoy a cup of tea, read a book, or play with my son before he goes off with my husband or my mom.
Afraid you’ll miss something important? Me too. But when I hold off on e-mails, I find that when I finally do check, none of the e-mails waiting for me are all that urgent.
Does this happen to you? You’ve got an article assignment, and you’re all excited.
You get your research organized, and interviews if needed. You feel like you’re making good progress.
Then it comes time to write it up.
And you freeze.
That blank page is just mocking you.
And that deadline is looming in your face. Soon, you’ll have to face your editor and tell her your piece isn’t going to be ready on time.
What’s happened here?
You’ve got a complex.
You know your topic…and yet you can’t seem to organize all the bits and pieces of information into a coherent whole.
You can’t find the starting point.
You’re dead in the water.
How do I know about this? Well, I am the queen of this non-starter complex.
Especially if it’s my first article for a brand-new client. Massive, massive complex.
Much woe and teeth-gnashing ensues, and/or compulsive inhaling of entire bag of dark-chocolate Lindt truffles.
Fortunately, I know how to snap out of it and get the article done — even if the piece has a ton of different interviews and research I need to weave in.
Here are seven strategies for cracking the blank-page problem and getting your article written, and written well:
Re-read the publication. You probably looked it over when you researched this market, but crack it open (or read it online) again now. Study their articles — how do they start? What’s the tone? How do they use quotes? Subheads? How do they end? Now, close your eyes and imagine the piece you’re writing in this publication. Often, you can envision the opening immediately by doing this.
Start anywhere. Don’t get hung up on the first line or sentence. If you know the end, write that. Got a section of bullet-points in the middle that are easy? Knock them out. Now, you’ve beat the blank page and are well begun.
Read and highlight notes. If you’re nervous about whether the material you need is all there, read and highlight all your notes. By the time you’re done, you’ll know whether you have all the information you need — or if you’re stumped because you need to find an expert to interview because you don’t know enough about your topic yet.
Create an “idiot’s outline.” Making a real outline, where you graph what points will go where, has always seemed like a time-waster to me, especially for a 500-word or shorter article. Instead, create a source outline — simply list each source you have and the most important points they make, in any order. List any important stats you want to use, too. Now, you have a pithy list of the most important things to say in your article. Put them in order of priority, and you’re ready to write.
Set the quotes. Sometimes, it helps to pull out the few great quotes you know you want to use and write them out. Then, start writing the lead-up and follow-on paragraphs that go around it…and by then, you’re well on your way.
Write without notes, exact quotes or attribution. One of the biggest writing problems comes when we stop and start all the time to look up facts and name spellings and the precise wording of quotes we want to use, and other trivia. Instead, let all the fine details go and simply begin to tell the story. Let i
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oddly, this accidental screenshot was taken when my screen was actually busted and looked totally nothing like this. iphone magic, i guess.
My iphone died today. I dropped it on a tile floor. I drop it all the time, but today I guess I dropped it in some extra-special way. All the stars aligned, and the screen totally went. I watched in horror as it happened—I actually felt like I was in a movie. I think that all speaks volumes to my iphone attachment, for better or for worse, and how, maybe (and I'm looking for the silver lining here, but justmaybe) it's not a bad thing for me to view this whole debacle as an opportunity for a little self-examination.
For one thing, I do not NEED to use my phone as much as I do. Yes, it is an indispensable tool. Yes, it is the biggest technological revolution since the computer and the internet. Yes, I do need it—there is no getting around that— it's the swiss army knife of productivity for me.... BUT (you knew this was coming!) the iphone does not have a conscience. It does not have an opinion. It can't tell me what it thinks I should or shouldn't spend my time doing. (Kazoo, anyone? Flinstones?) It can only go where I tell it to go, do what I tell it to do. That, unfortunately, can sometimes add up to a fair amount of time goofing off. Time that would be much better spent with my sketchbook, or my notebook... or even just hanging out with my dog more. I'm certain of this. Sure, I mostly use it for productivity-laced activities.I read helpful e-books on it. I have so many tools on it that help me communicate with others, deliver files to people, and generally keep things running well. The phone itself even assists me with off-line creative work in several ways. And when I do play a game, it's often Draw Something, which I consider a casual but engaging creative exercise, not a waste of time.
But... my iphone can't tell me to knock it off when I take the off-ramp into junkdom (Hello, Us Weekly!). It can't coach me to curb my Instagramming. (Hey I love Instagram, but I also love pie, and if I ate pie the way I Instagram..) It doesn't set a timer when I'm making photo collages in PicFrame, my latest obsession. (Think they should make an app for that?)
So, I'm coming clean: On some level, my iphone addiction actually bothers me! Yes, It is an uber-productivity tool, but it's also an uber- time-suck-and-goof-off tool if one is not really careful about it. This is something I've been aware of. It's not a secret. But here I am, now, in this situation. And it's really a great, gifty opportunity to investigate my phone habits and take steps to revise them where needed. I'm not saying it's great that I dropped and accidentally killed my phone. But I am glad that I'm self-aware enough to see this as a chance to make some small changes that I think will add up, and eventually improve— ironically—my productivity. Definitely, when it comes to sketchi
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I was recently asked this question: How do you get so much work done?
What have you found to be the single most important element to boost your writing productivity?
Office hours. About 8 years ago, my husband and I bought a 3-story Victorian house in downtown Little Rock. The bottom two floors are my husband’s real estate appraisal office, but I got the attic. I go to work. When I still had kids in school, it was 9-3 office hours; however, if the family needed something, well, I am self-employed and could take off. Just not too often. Now, my office hours are more like 8-4. If you’re at home with small kids, though, you can do office hours, too. 1-3 pm while the kids sleep and 9-10:30 at night. Just DVR that great 9 pm program and keep your office hours.
What are your three greatest productivity challenges and what ways have you found to counteract them?
Being self-employed is the biggest challenge, how to stay motivated when no one much cares what you do, except you. This Fiction Notes blog, gives me an audience, readers who expect me to post on a regular basis, at least 2x/week. I get regular feedback on the blog, so it’s not just shooting things out into space. In other words, I’ve found a real audience (YOU!) for something small, yet useful. If I am productive here, it carries over to the bigger fiction projects. Find a real audience, doesn’t matter where. It might be reading your fiction to your child’s class once a week, or writing the newsletter for your church. Real audiences motivate.
The second challenge is that as a freelance writer, I must juggle many different projects at once. I’ve tried without success things like calendars, online project management software, and finally went low-tech. I have a yellow legal pad that I turn landscape (sideways). Across the top, I hand write categories of things to do: speaking, writing, blog, PR, friends, publishing, other. Then, each week, I jot down tasks in each category. When I finish a task, I cross it off and look over the tasks written there to see what to tackle next. In other words, I am not saying to myself that I must do this first, then that. Instead, I list the range of tasks to be done that week and over the course of the week, try to make sure it all gets done. What doesn’t get done is carried over to a clean sheet for the next week and mentally, I prioritize those tasks. Notice that I have a category for Friends: It’s just as important for me to critique my friend’s manuscript as it is to write my 750 words. Or to meet a friend for coffee. I try to stay balanced, yet get things done.
Third, the challenge is that as writers, we work alone, with only our own thoughts for company. On days when I’ve gotten a rejection, or I have a cold, it’s hard to stay upbeat and productive. For those days, I talk to friends both on and off line. They keep me sane and working. Thanks, gals!
How do you organize your writing day?
Organized? Me? I just go with the flow of the day. My yellow legal pad is my only organization.
What does a productive writing day look like to you?
I usually start by answering emails, because that gets me writing. Next, I try to do some rough draft writing. Since January, I have been using 750words.com to make sure
The most common question I get during the summer deals with productivity–or the lack thereof.
If that’s your struggle this summer, I found some things you might want to try!
Help is On the Way
Do you need to put the “prod” into your productivity? Then I’ve got the little tool for you! It’s called Write or Die, and there is an online version or a downloadable version. Write or Die is a web application that encourages writing by punishing the tendency to avoid writing. Start typing in the box. As long as you keep typing, you’re fine, but once you stop typing, you have a grace period of a certain number of seconds and then there are consequences.
Focus Booster is a free download that helps you focus! You can also use it online if you don’t want to download anything. “Focus booster is a simple and elegant application designed to help you eliminate the anxiety of time and enhance your focus and concentration.”
And if those don’t work for you, there are half a dozen MORE apps to help you focus on your writing in an article called “Quit Wasting Time Now”. Some are free, and some cost a small fee.
If you try any of these focusing helps, please report back to us on the pros and cons. I’m willing to give almost anything a try, if it will help me focus on my writing better!
Well, we’re officially two-thirds into 2012. My daughter has gone back to school and as she starts classes, for me that marks a new beginning as well. Plus the busiest time of the year is upon us. Halloween…Thanksgiving…Christmas….New Year. Today I sat down with my calendar and looked back at what I accomplished and looked forward to what I need to do. It all boils down to this:
Where in the heck did all that time go and why aren’t there more hours in a day?
As a writer, I spend so much more time researching, calling, writing, editing, posting than it appears I do. All the reader sees is the final product, and I suppose that’s true with all types of work. I often challenge the time consuming process of writing and search for ways to improve my productivity. I recently came across this fantastic article on NerdFitness.com with tips on being more productive. You’ve got to read it! It really gets to the heart of what causes us to slow down and forces us to take a look at how we waste time and how to change it. Now I must begin to implement the article’s tactics. The author of that article insists that after implementing productivity tactics and staying focused, he now has more time than ever to enjoy his life.
A while back I reviewed Seth Godin’s Book “Linchpin,” (note that mine remains the top read review on Amazon!) and what I learned from that book is that we all have a “lizard brain” at times that slows us down and makes us lose focus. It’s a constant battle not to repeatedly check for new emails, log into social networking sites and just get sidetracked on the internet.
So now my goal for the next 4 months is to step up the productivity and reduce the time I have this Apple computer on my lap. Now that I’ve made a public promise, I’ve got to follow through with it.
A book published in 2008 made the claim that, in order to be great in any field, you needed to put in about 10,000 hours of practice. It applied to musicians and writers and doctors–anyone wanting to get better in their chosen field.
However, in a recent newsletter by Scott Young, he pointed out that the author’s research has been misinterpreted. (The book was Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell.)
Young makes a very good point, one I had suspected for a long time. It isn’t just about putting in the hours working. It is about practicing our craft.
Aren’t They the Same Thing?
Working and practicing are NOT the same thing. That’s why 10,000 hours of writing might turn one writer into a mega seller, and the other writer might still be unknown.
What you do with those 10,000 hours (or however many you spend writing) makes a lot of difference.
Work vs. Practice
What is the difference between work and practice? According to Young,
Many professionals confuse the two, and as a result their skills stagnate even though they’re investing considerable time.
Elite athletes don’t get better at their sport just by playing a lot of games. They do drills. Drills are highly focused activities designed to rapidly build proficiency in one minor detail of their sport.
Violinists don’t play every song start to finish to practice. Instead they identify the hardest sections and practice them endlessly until they’ve mastered them.
Yet, when we want to be a better programmer, writer or designer, what do we do? We just work. We don’t practice the highly specific, immediate-feedback oriented tasks necessary to cultivate mastery.
The fix is simple: if you want to get better you need to adopt the mentality of an elite athlete or musician and actually practice (as opposed to just work).
Get the Most from Your Writing Time
None of us have much time to waste. We want to make the precious hours we save for writing really count. How do we do that?
First, much of your writing time will be working time (planning and writing rough drafts and revising).
However, you’d be wise, if you want to be published and build an audience and sell lots of books, to set aside a portion (the bigger, the better) of your time for honest-to-goodness practice. Like the pianist and violinist who practice the hard parts over and over, we writers need to do the same thing.
Tasks to Master
We probably all could name several writing areas where we are weak. If we don’t know, we can ask our critique people. These are the areas to practice.
For example, one of my weak areas is writing figurative language. If I think of one original figure of speech per book, I’m doing well. So what’s my plan?
I’m going to take regular time to practice, using Cindy Rogers’ excellent book, Word Magic for Writers, which is chock full of exercises in every chapter. For feedback, I’ll probably ask a writer friend to look at my exercises (a writer who is especially good at figurative language).
Target Your Practice Time
If we spend our writing time doing the same kind of writing in the same kind of way, we can’t expect to improve very quickly. But if our practice time is intentional–if we target specific weak skill areas–we’ll make observable progress.
How about you? Is there one specific area you could study that would make a big difference in your writing? Or two or three areas that could become goals for 2013? Please share!
I used to set ambitious New Year's goals every year ("I'm going to write 2000 words a day, every day!") but then get discouraged when I inevitably realized that, once again, I had set a goal or goals that were unrealistic. Or that had originally realistic but then got put on the back burner because of circumstances out of my control that had to take higher priority.
This year, I'm taking a different approach. While I am going to set some realistic work-related goals (to be posted on the MiG Writers blog) which I have tried hard to make realistic, I'm also going to work toward an overall goal:
Make more time to read and create books.
It's so easy to say, "I wish I had more time to xxxx" but the truth is that it's up to me to MAKE more time for what's important to me.
One of my tendencies is to want to do everything. I want to write (and illustrate!) more picture books. I want to work on my new MG and YA novel projects, because I know my writing and knowledge of the industry has improved over the years and I'm much confident about getting these newer book projects published. I have some fun nonfiction book ideas for grown-ups that I want to turn into book proposals so I can start pitching them. I'm thinking of self-publishing a compilation of my writing comics, but I also know that self-publishing requires a lot more admin/promo/marketing time. I want to keep all my webcomics updated but know I have way too many webcomics to keep updated. I want to improve my German language skills before Jeff and I attend Essen in late 2013. I want to improve my French language skills before Jeff and I visit French-speaking friends in late 2013. I want to write a new song for my music group to perform in our concert at FilKONtario. I want to reorg my home office. I want to learn more about non-digital art techniques like ink and watercolour, acrylics and multimedia textural art. I want to turn some of my cartoons and daily doodles into greeting cards. I want to help beef up content in my various collab group blogs. I want to improve my Photoshop skills and also go through Lynda.com tutorials on various creative software packages I've purchased in the last year. I want to write more songs.
I could go on and on and on. Clearly, I can't do all the above. I need to let go of many of these goals, else I know I'm going to end up not attempting any of them very well. So again, I've decided to focus on the following:
Make more time to read and create books.
Throughout this coming year, in addition to my regular Inkygirl.com posts, I'm going to be sharing my experience in trying to make more time to read and create books.
My first steps:
1. Managing my email more efficiently.
2. Being more aware of how much time I'm spending on social media.
I'll report back on both of these first steps in upcoming Inkygirl posts, so stay tuned. :-)
WordPressers, day in and day out, you entertain us, you make us think, you make us laugh, and you make us grateful to be exposed to so many voices all over the world. It’s a pleasure to read what you’re writing. Like everyone in the community, we value that feeling of connection that comes from reading something that speaks to you, that resonates, that makes you feel not so alone.
For this edition of Freshly Pressed Faves, we’re looking at three posts that do just that, all around the idea of “busy-ness.” Modern society seems to embrace the idea that unless you’re “swamped” or “super busy,” you just aren’t being productive enough. Free time? Fill it up, preferably with something that pays! This attitude permeates children’s lives, too, with scheduled after-school dance classes and soccer practices and violin lessons and foreign language tutors. The idle hours that once allowed kids to daydream seem to be no more. When’s enough enough, though?
Author Tim Kreider believes ‘Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness.’ We feel we are nothing, not worthy, unimportant or left out if we have nothing to do.
But there is another aspect to it. Perfectionism – that shadow from our childhoods. We want to be excellent – because if we are, we will be worthy of love. So we take on anything and everything that is thrown us. Even when we are aware we are overwhelmed, we find it hard to say ‘NO’. Because we fear that if we do – people will think less of us. So we end up doing more than our fair share.
Sofagirl at Campari & Sofa writes eloquently about her own fight with the “busy” beast and the scary personal episode that drove her to question it all. Weaving in others’ research on the topic, she presents a compelling argument for taking a step back — and a deep breath — and for refusing to participate in the tyranny of “busy” any longer. Bet you’ll find it difficult to disagree.
As kids we could come up with 16 ways to put our lives on the line using the jungle gym in ways no designer ever intended. They were days when we simply looked at clouds and imagined animals (or teachers or, for the juvenile delinquents, body parts) hiding in the puffy expanse of the heavens. … We were bored, but no one was ever bored enough to learn something.
Except it appears, according to recent research, that boredom is good for the brain. Evidently, boredom switches our brain’s little buttons and the synapses and neurons start firing on more cylinders, pushing us to creativity and intellectual growth.
John Wegner of Consistently Contradictory harkens back to a time when “boredom” and free time were acceptable and even encouraged, when we didn’t rely on technology and scheduling quite so much, and when we allowed our brains to wander. Are we losing the benefits of this today? Should we re-introduce some “slack” into schools? Read John’s convincing and thought-provoking post and you’ll probably be answering “yes.”
When I was a kid, Dad made it clear that ‘mere play’ was being idle—something lazy people did. And boy, you couldn’t get lazier than me.
Michael Maupin from Completely in the Dark takes us back to his childhood and the lasting effects of not being encouraged to “play.” He explains, “As a shadow, it darkened the room, filling me with anxiety and self-doubt: ‘What am I doing now? Is it practical? Is it useful? Shouldn’t I be ashamed?’ … For years that sound, that shadow, was all around. It blocked up my writing, my artwork, my self-esteem — everything. I was psychologically held at gunpoint by an ethic that carries little currency in my world.”
Not one to be bullied, however, Michael has found ways to protect and embrace his natural tendencies towards “play and reverie.” Read his post, and you’ll be inspired to do the same.
Did you read something in the Reader that you think is Freshly Pressed material? Feel free to leave us a link, or tweet us @freshly_pressed.
If you want a career in writing, you must keep the stories coming. In the midst of life, with all its ups and downs, words need find their way onto paper. Here’s how to keep the characters talking to you.
Create an office. Even if you don’t have a separate room, create some sort of office space. You need a consistent place to keep your computer, your drafts and supplies. Even if it’s a box that sits under your bed until you need it, don’t waste your precious time collecting supplies.
Instant Success. Do something small that will give you success. Perhaps just a character description or a description of a setting. A bit of dialogue. Start and end each day with something that you know you can complete.
Use psychology. Tell yourself that you only need to write for five minutes. Quickly get into the flow and when you finally stop, you’ve likely done twenty minutes. The key is to keep writing no matter what. If you don’t’ know what to type, try this: I don’t know what to write next. Repeat that 100 times if you have to until it turns into something else. Believe me, you’ll get so bored with that phrase that you’ll write something else.
Plan marathons. Kids are spending the night with someone and the hubby is going hunting? Bingo. It’s time for a writer’s marathon. Star as soon as the house clears out and write until late into the night. Get up early and repeat as long as you can. Marathons like this can jump start a big project, or get you through those rough spots.
Plan a writing marathon to jump start a project or to finish your novel.
Turn off the internal editor. Write, do not revise. Keep the flow of writing going and ignore the internal editor when s/he wants to stop and look up facts or check a dictionary for spelling. This isn’t the time for that. Instead, let the story flow.
Stop early. Some writers swear by this technique: stop writing in the middle of a sentence and pick up right there on the next day. It makes sense. Just competing the thought gets your head back into the story and it’s easy to move on from there.
Don’t wait. Are you waiting until you get answers to a bit of research or until you figure out a plot point? Instead, write and trust the process. Trust that there will be tidbits to save out of whatever you write.
Trust your instinct. Don’t worry so much! And certainly don’t think about what a reader or an editor will say at this point. Just write. Trust your storytelling ability and write. Trust your sense of story. Trust your choice of words. Write, write, write.