Procrastination: declaration of war

Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Lee Kofman

headshot of Lee Kofman
Lee Kofman

Last month I promised that the next post would contain strategies to defeat the writers’ greatest enemy – procrastination. So let’s get armed to win this battle.

Firstly, please don’t beat yourself up if, like me, you are a fidgety writer, happy for any excuse to put off your writing. Most writers experience variations of this. Personally, I came to see this quality not as a vice but rather an aspect of myself I need to learn to live with and to work around.

For some writers, myself included, beginning a new project – be it a poem, essay or novel – can be particularly torturous and therefore generates the worst procrastination. In these cases, my experience suggests it is better not to push yourself too hard at first. I usually let myself brood for some days before I start. I may not write a single word, but the brooding seems to set my subconscious in motion, working subliminally on my budding project. Here I am in agreement with Sigmund Freud and also Siri Hustvedt, the American novelist and essayist deeply interested in neuroscience, both of whom believe in the crucial role of the subconscious in the creation of works of art.

Having said this, brooding alone usually doesn’t suffice to prepare us for writing. During this pre-writing period I also use some tricks to stimulate my conscious appetite for the new project (this appetite usually gets dulled at this stage by my fear of failure). Doing some research around the topic often helps me to get going. For example, to kick-start myself into writing this post I reread Freud’s seminal essay Creative Writers and Daydreaming. Another way I trick myself into starting a new piece is by composing disparate sentences, lines and ideas, and noting them down in one file. Once I have accumulated a certain amount of such notes, as I discussed in my post Excursions into the Writing Wilderness it becomes easier to make a proper start on the new work by structuring these into coherent paragraphs.

Sadly it’s not just beginning a new project that is difficult. Many writers wage a daily battle to begin – and persevere with – writing. This is how John McPhee, one of the pioneers of creative nonfiction, described his typical working day in the interview for The Art of Nonfiction:

"OK, it’s nine in the morning. All I’ve got to do is write. But I go hours before I’m able to write a word. I make tea… And exercise… It’s four-thirty and I’m beginning to panic. It’s like a coiling spring. I’m really unhappy… Five: I start to write. Seven: I go home. That happens over and over and over again. So why don’t I work at a bank and then come in at five and start writing? Because I need those seven hours of gonging around."

If this description sounds familiar to you, but you don’t have as many hours as McPhee does at your disposal, then hopefully some of the following suggestions will help you to cut your procrastination time to the minimum.

  1. Beautify your writing environment. Surround it with candles, flowers, art books or anything else that makes you feel good and comfortable. Personally, I prefer writing in a tidy space and to be surrounded by books I love.
  2. As I wrote in the post Writing from the Body it’s important to remember that writing is a physical activity and we must be comfortable when we write. Ensure your chair/bed/couch is comfortable, and so is the height of your writing desk, if you’re using one, and your bodily posture. Get up and be physically active several times during your writing sessions.
  3. Develop a ritualistic association with the start of your writing session. Gay Talese and Louis Nowra, for example, dress up in suits, even though they write at home. I associate the end of procrastination with making a cup of tea – the writing begins with the first sip.
  4. At least during first drafts, don’t force the writing. Don’t write those parts you think you ought to write. Write only what you enjoy to amass material and sustain your desire for the book. You can always fill in the gaps later, when you feel more confident about your project.
  5. Break your writing sessions into 30–60 minute segments and in the intervals reward yourself (for example listen to a song you like, or eat).
  6. Give your writing the best time of the day, when you are most alert.
  7. Artworks by others can often inspire. Open randomly a favourite book and read a few paragraphs to immerse yourself in a writing voice you love. If you are a visual person, as many writers are, look at art books, photographs or any other images that are meaningful to you.
  8. Read biographies of, and memoirs by, successful writers to remind yourself what hard labour writing is for most writers.
  9. Create deadlines and stick to them. These can be self-imposed, or dictated by a literary grant, competition or residency application. You can also ask friends or a mentor to give you deadlines and to hold you accountable.
  10. If, like me, you particularly struggle with writing first drafts, set an achievable word target for each writing session. The quicker you get over the first-draft stage the sooner you’ll be able to enjoy your writing, and keeping a routine will be easier. If you dislike revisions, then during the redrafting stage set yourself a revised page target.
  11. Invite another writer to work with you side-by-side. Then discuss your work and perhaps even read to each other.
  12. Hemingway suggests stopping your writing sessions by putting down what he calls a ‘true sentence’, which will entice you to continue in the following session. You can adapt his guidelines by stopping at a point where you know how to go on – to ease the start of the next day.
  13. If you feel particularly stuck, try an unusual-for-you writing location. Go to the beach, a café, a friend’s house. Or even embark on a ‘writing adventure’ – take a long train or tram ride and write.
  14. Finally, try to remind yourself regularly that the main difference between writers who succeed and those who don’t – given the talent is present, of course – is perseverance. Or masochism, if you prefer!

About Lee Kofman

Lee Kofman is an Israeli-Australian author of three fiction books (in Hebrew). Her short works in English have been widely published in Australia, the UK, Scotland, Canada and the US. Her first book in English, the memoir ‘The Dangerous Bride’ is due to appear in October 2014 through MUP. More information is available at Lee’s website.