I’m not one of those people who has a tried-and-true writing process, one that works every time. That said, today I want to talk about two strategies I use regularly to help me keep my writing process on track: setting deadlines and setting hourly limits. These strategies can be used independently or in conjunction with one another.
A general note about both of these strategies: I use them because I’m a perfectionist who, given free reign, would never finish any piece of writing ever because I’m constantly changing – my personality, my writing skill level, my sense of aesthetic – and could rewrite and edit anything to death several times over.
The assumption I’m currently working under is that nothing is ever done, but at some point I have to stop working on it. At least for a while. I can always go back and revise again if I really, really want to and I have nothing better to do. Even my published stories. But I’m beginning to expect that the key to becoming the writer I want to be is to write things, “finish” them, move on to the next thing and never look back.
I got used to the idea of deadlines while in college. Knowing that there’s a set point when I must stop working on something can not only encourage me to give it all I’ve got in the time I have (in college that looked like two weeks of procrastinating followed by an all-nighter) but also assures me that there’s an end date to my misery. “No matter how painful it is to wrestle with this story, I only have to do it for x more days.” You get the idea.
Sometimes setting a deadline for myself isn’t as effective as I’d like it to be, despite the massive amounts of guilt and self-loathing I heap upon myself when I fail. In cases like these, I find it helps to promise someone else – like an editor or a group of beta readers – that I’m going to have my story done by a certain date. Knowing someone else is waiting for it and has scheduled time to read it motivates me to get my poop in a group.
Setting a limit for the maximum number of hours I’m going to work on something is one of those accidentally smart ideas I hit upon last year. At some point I need to decide how much of my time and attention a particular story is worth. Do I really want to spend 100 hours on the same short story that just is not, for whatever reason, working right now? Or do I want to say, “I’m giving it 25 hours, max” and then free up my creative energies to work on something else, something that might flow much more easily? (And might, in the long run, lead to discovering why the story I was working on before wasn’t working.)
So I’ve started thinking about setting upper limits on my writing projects in terms of total number of hours I want to devote to a draft. Going on the general rule that I can write 1,000 words in an hour, if I’m working on a novel and aiming for 80,000 words, then I want to devote no more than 100 hours to the first draft, including background development time.
This may seem a little crazy-cakes, but the purpose of setting this upper limit is so that I don’t spin out of control on any one project and give it way more time and attention than it merits. It’s too easy for me to work something to death, to fail to let it go when it’s time. But if I set an upper limit and stop when I’ve hit it, then I’m guaranteed to still have time to work on other projects.
When this strategy is used on its own, it has the added benefit of being flexible around the other parts of my life. It doesn’t matter when I do the 100 hours, so when the water pipe bursts or there’s a family wedding or someone needs my help, I can pare down the number of writing hours in those times and increase my weekly writing hour allotment in more stable times.
Deadlines + hourly limits
I often use both of these concepts together. What that looks like is saying that I’ll spend x hours on my WIP by such-and-such a date. For example, for the novel I’m working, I want to give the first draft another 30 hours by the end of January. My next step is to decide when these hours can happen, given my schedule and workload.
I reserve the right to break any of my rules. If I get to 100 hours and I’m not done yet and am still feeling really inspired and motivated, then heck yes I’m going to keep working on it. Why waste the momentum? In this case, I might set myself another hourly limit or another deadline as a built-in point to check in with myself.
And now over to the ROW80 community. How do you think about your time investment in your projects? Do you work on things until they feel done? Until you don’t know what else to do? Until someone else says you have to stop?