How to Write a Book Without Losing Your Mind
By Olga Khazan│The Atlantic│4 min
Expert advice on ending procrastination and finishing that manuscript, dissertation, or other big project.
A few months before writing this piece, I promised some nice people in New York that I would, sometime very soon, write a book.
Since then, I have:
Called my mom rejoicing.
Called my mom crying.
Considered changing my Twitter bio, then thought better of it.
Considered emailing all my ex-boyfriends and mentors to let them know I’m an impostor, then thought better of it.
Extensively researched three different long-form writing softwares, only to find that I prefer the first one I ever tried.
Researched and bought several different types of special German pens, only to find that I prefer good old Paper Mates.
Now just one task remains: Write the thing.
To that end, I recently consulted with some productivity experts to figure out how it is that people—such as, hopefully, myself—are able to accomplish big, long-term projects, within the time allotted, and ideally with minimal psychiatric help.
I reached out to Laura Vanderkam, who has written several books, most of them about the art of getting things done. (She sees your Lean In and raises you I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time.) She has a book come out every 18 months to two years, but most of the writing gets done in six months, she told me. After that, she’s editing and promoting the book. And between everything, she’s blogging, podcasting, speaking, and traveling. Oh, and she has four children, ages 11, 8, 6, and 3.
She says her home life actually helps her stay productive. She only has child care during certain hours, so “my creativity needs to strike during those hours,” she said.
For writing projects specifically, her advice was to “write fast, edit slow.” She aims to write a chapter every week, and within that week, to write the bulk of the chapter on Monday and Tuesday. That means she’s often pumping out as many as 4,000 words a day. Then, Wednesday and Thursday are for editing, and Friday is a “catch-up” day, a net in case you fall off your productivity high wire earlier. The key is to write a really crappy first draft, then take extra care in rewriting it.
“When you write a lot … you know that the first thing you write is not going to be perfect,” she said. “You’re going to be writing all sorts of stuff that won’t be in the final draft, including writing ‘insert this thing here’ in brackets. You will make it better, but it’s so much easier to turn something into something better than to turn nothing into something.”
Phew, that’s reassuring. The ugly sentences I see on my screen aren’t really my writing, they’re my little book embryos, with flipper hands and a tail. My beautiful word baby won’t emerge till months from now.
What not to do? Wait till the last minute, Vanderkam says. Besides, if you get done early, you can take a break from your work and come back to it with fresh(er) eyes.
Not that you would ever put things off, anyway. Joseph R. Ferrari, a psychologist at DePaul University, told me that most people are just occasional dawdlers. “Chronic procrastinators,” Ferrari said, make up only about 20 percent of the population, and the only way to help them is therapy. I don’t know if I’m in that 20 percent, but getting special anti-procrastination therapy seems like exactly the kind of thing I would do to procrastinate. I might also clean up my desk—which, it turns out, might actually work. In one study Ferrari recently did with colleagues, people’s level of clutter predicted their tendency to procrastinate.
Sometimes, though, I clean because I feel like I’m not in the right “mood” to write. But mood is meaningless when it comes to getting things done, as Timothy Pychyl, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, told The Washington Post in 2016. “I have to recognize that I’m rarely going to feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t feel like it,” he said. It’s also a myth that you need a “good chunk of time” to really get going on something. The famously productive business writer and Wharton professor Adam Grant says he’ll even use the eight minutes between meetings to get started on a project.
Getting started—and other small victories—might be all it takes. Linda Houser-Marko, a research psychologist at the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, once did a study in which she found that it’s better to measure your progress toward large projects in terms of smaller, incremental “subgoals”—whether it be a chapter of the book or a small portion of your dissertation—rather than the larger objective. This is especially helpful when you struggle, she found. “The higher-level goal might give you more meaning, but the lower-level goal is better when you have setbacks or when you’re not making as much progress,” she told me.
Vanderkam also preached the value of reaching small goals. “Lower the unit of what you need to accomplish so much that it’s hard to believe you’d feel much resistance to writing,” she advised me. You can even tell yourself that all you have to do is write 100 words. (Our emails with each other to set up our call were about 100 words, she pointed out.) It’s just that you’ll end up having to do that 800 times.
Talking to Vanderkam—best-selling author, empress of time—I suddenly felt smart, capable, and not like someone who would open Instagram on her web browser just because she’s too lazy to get her phone out.
“If you’ve written 800-word articles in a day,” Vanderkam assured me, “you’ve already written a book in six months anyway. You just have to do a little, then do a little bit more.”
At least, that’s how she does it.