Figuring Out Where All That Writing Time Went

By Daphne Gray-Grant

A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of the popular book 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a brief and free weekly newsletter on her website. Subscribe by going to the Publication Coach.

After graduating from high school I went directly to university. My best friend, however, went to live in Greece for a year. She settled on a small island, met a boyfriend and, for a while, it looked as though she was going to marry him.

On her return, she regaled us with stories of his good looks, his broken English and his preternatural command of idiom.  I never met the man but I imagine he had an excellent memory and a very old English book. His favorite expression? Procrastination is the thief of time. (Trust me, this was screamingly hilarious to 18 year olds in the early 1980s.)

What sounded funny to me 30 years ago, however, seems eerily apt today. I know so many people who aspire to write, yet who never manage it. Procrastination is often indeed the thief of their time. If this descriptor fits you, read on for five helpful suggestions:

  1. Write as soon as you wake up in the morning. As a professional writer I spend most of my day at the keyboard. But if you’re new to writing or if it’s only part of your job, I suggest you treat your writing the same way I treat my back exercises. I get up at 6:30 every morning and start my day with 30 minutes of back exercises. Without fail. Before checking email or doing anything else. I’ve discovered the hard way that this is the only method I can use to ensure I get them done. Treat your writing with the same obsessive-compulsive respect.
  2. Don’t edit while you write. Writing and editing are entirely separate jobs. I always tell my clients they should write as quickly as they possibly can and edit as slowly as they can tolerate. If you’re accustomed to editing while you write you probably find writing to be an agonizingly slow process. It shouldn’t be! It should be quick, like getting a ‘flu shot!
  3. Give yourself a goal. Don’t just promise to write. Vow to write 300-500 words per day. Then chart your performance on an Excel spreadsheet – and give yourself a reward when you manage to achieve it. (Rewards don’t have to be calorie-laden like chocolate brownies – a book, a CD or a pound of really fine coffee or tea are all excellent incentives!)
  4. Write in dribs and drabs. I used to have a client who liked to reserve an entire afternoon for writing a report. “Stop it,” I told him. He was setting himself up for failure with that big clump of time staring him in the face. Write first thing in the morning, yes, but also write in spare moments during the day. Write while waiting for your lunch date. Scribble some notes while waiting for a meeting to start. Polish off a few sentences while on hold to your cell phone company.  Writing adds up over time. I often describe it as similar to  “snow” building up on your back deck. Before you know it, it’s time to shovel (edit) once again!
  5. Make an external commitment. If you really have trouble squeezing words out of yourself, then use the same trick that dieters do. Publicize your commitment and vow to do something painful if you don’t make it. My favorite trick is promising to make a donation to a political party you really dislike. Highly motivating!

Bottom line: You don’t have to move to Greece to know that you should never let procrastination be the thief of your time. And if you’re still unconvinced, remember the words of English poet and essayist Henry Austin Dobson: “Time goes, you say?  Ah no!
 Alas, Time stays, we go.”

Photo courtesy Toni Verdú Carbó, used under a Creative Commons license.

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