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Stop Procrastinating, Write!

Writers are among the world's best procrastinators. Sometimes you need to understand why you procrastinate so you can write more.

I've spent much of the morning today doing something I dislike: going over notes on a manuscript I've written. It's a gradual process, examining many small changes, corrections, and suggestions, and it involves integrating the thoughts of someone else - the editor - into mine. In most cases, the editor is right; the suggested changes clarify things. I don't have to accept them all, but each change makes me re-examine what I've written to decide whether I was right, or whether someone else knows better.

So I tried putting this off a bit. I checked my email, scrolled through Twitter, visited a couple of Facebook groups, made tea, fed the cat, and more. I knew that, eventually, this needed to be done, so I got to work.

I used to be much more of a procrastinator, but this changed when I started working as a freelance translator, about 25 years ago. Each translation job I was given had a strict deadline. In some cases, I had to turn around 1,000 words by the end of the day; in others, I had 10,000 words to translate in a week. Over time, I got to know my rhythm, and learned how to estimate the time it would take to complete a given translation, so I didn't need to work evenings or weekends to meet deadlines. After a while, much of my procrastination had gone, but it still creeps into my life from time to time.

Why are writers the best procrastinators?

Writes are notorious for procrastinating, and there are many reasons why. It could be a fear of being judged for your writing, or worries that what you write isn't good enough. It could even be a fear of being successful. As Megan McArdle pointed out in an article in The Atlantic, "Most writers manage to get by because, as the deadline creeps closer, their fears of turning in nothing eventually surpasses their fears of turning in something terrible."

The writing process is complex. You may need to do research, you may outline, and you might spend time drawing up character sketches. All of these are necessary to write fiction. For non-fiction, research is key, and can take up many days, even weeks, for a single article, and more for a book. But some writers get stuck in these phases, before sitting down in front of the blank page, and find it hard to shift from preparatory phases to the creative phase.

Some writers get stuck as they write, wanting to get everything just exactly right, or wanting to switch their mind back to research mode because they just can't go on until they know the exact price of a 1938 Bugatti. One way to defeat this sort of stumbling block is to use the journalistic shorthand TK, which means "to come," or something to fill in later. When I'm writing, and I get to a point where I need to look something up, or even find a better word, I just type TK, and, when I'm finished, I search for all the instances of TK in my text, and look them up then. It saves time, and it doesn't break the rhythm you get into when writing.

Sometimes, however, procrastination is just your subconscious getting prepared to write. There are times when you are not ready, when your mind needs a break. This may seem like procrastination, but sometimes you simply need to do something else. This could be taking a walk, doing some gardening, or even taking a nap. When you're finished, you may be refreshed and ready to dive into your writing project.

Some tips to avoid procrastinating

One of the first things to do to prevent procrastination is to avoid distractions. It's tempting to get a dopamine hit from Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, or to do the day's Wordle or Spelling Bee. There are lots of ways to avoid distractions when writing, notably using Scrivener's Composition Mode. (See How to Write Without Distractions with Scrivener for tips.)

Pay attention to how you procrastinate; if it involves watching videos on YouTube, quit your web browser. If other internet temptations grab you, shut off your wi-fi.

You could try setting a schedule. Decide that for, say, one hour you are going to write, then for twenty minutes, you can do anything you want. You can use shorter intervals, such as thirty minutes and ten minutes, or whatever works for you. Just commit to writing during the on periods, and resting during the off periods.

It's also useful to set small goals. Perhaps you are writing a chapter which has several elements: a scene in the present, a flashback, and some description. You can focus on each of these elements separately, as specific writing tasks, and, as you finish them, you'll feel satisfied. Being satisfied three times a chapter is a lot better than waiting until the end.

Some writers procrastinate, but work well when deadlines approach or when they have targets to meet. If that's the case, set a target for yourself, such as writing 1,000 words a day or 10,000 words a week. If you meet your target, treat yourself to something. This works well if you have a writing buddy to work with and share motivation. You can use Scrivener to keep track of your targets. (By the way, if you consistently don't meet your target, lower your expectations.)

If you're not able to write that much, commit to writing something every day, even if it's just a few paragraphs. What counts is getting words on the page; you can edit later. Don't try to attain perfection; that's what editing is for. Just get into the habit of writing.

Ultimately, every writer is different, and every writer procrastinates differently. Find your triggers, and figure out how to get past them. Write.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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