Hi. My name is Harvey...and I'm a procrastinator.
Today I'd like to share with you a little aha moment about writing. When I have important writing to do, I find myself thinking about it...a lot. As in, need another stalk of string cheese...think, think, think...better run to the store, almost out of dental floss...listen to some music...watch some TV with the sound off. Oh yeah, that thing I have to write. Okay...let's see. Hmm, suddenly a great idea for a screen-play pops into my head:
Naïf ad copywriter, assigned to create a new for-profit religion for atheists, falls hard for the gorgeous woman contracted to kill him when he goes rogue trying to save the world. FARFA! Finally A Religion For Atheists.
Ahem...right...that thing I was supposed to write....
Well, as it turns out, you can waste a whole lot of your precious time, productively, and get yourself to a place where you actually look forward to the actual fingers-on-the-keyboard writing that's just lying there like a bear trap ready to snap your soul in two.
Here's how to make procrastination work for you and improve your writing (kind of like putting globs of whipped cream on your broccoli)....
Working on writing with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for the past 30+ years, I was introduced to an odd activity that some of its report writing teams go through BEFORE they start drafting a report.
You could call it planning, I suppose. But it's way more fun than that. If you do it with others, which I highly recommend, it's social...as in pizza, funny hats (if you want them), and all the stalks of string cheese you can handle. At GAO, they call it Writing on Walls, a name that conjures up loads of fun.
I just finished (about 12 years too late) Blake Snyder's TRULY AMAZING book Save the Cat, about writing screenplays and saw that this same technique is at work in the offices/dungeons of the most successful Hollywood screen-writers--he calls this technique THE BOARD. And he points out what a brilliant time-waster this activity can be (which sounded really good to me) and how totally crucial it is to building a great screenplay that sells!
At GAO, Writing on Walls (can we call it WOW?) is also indispensable to building a great report...or really any kind of document. So let me explain....
This activity involves a board...could be a whiteboard or a blackboard, could be a corkboard, could be just any old wall you don't mind sticking pushpins into. BUT IT CAN'T BE A COMPUTER SCREEN...so don't even think about it. This is an ANALOG-ONLY activity. Moving around in space, writing on index cards or post-it notes, white or colorful, and pining them to the wall/board and endlessly rearranging them is more than half the fun.
Blake Snyder points out that you can waste plenty of time getting that board, buying the pushpins and index cards or post-it notes (maybe colored ones) and maybe some colored pens. If you do this activity at the office with co-workers, you might also waste a bunch more time baking brownies or cookies the night before for the big WOW session, not to mention the trip to the Buy-Right to get all the stuff you need for that!
Then comes the big day...the WOW day!
You need to write something...anything really. So first, you come up with a title for that eventual piece of writing, write it on an index card, and stick the card on the WALL. The title must deliver the bottom-line message, of whatever it is you're writing, in a single sentence. Don't be afraid to go crazy here--even a thirty-word title will be just fine.
If you can't think of a perfect title, give it your best shot. Try to include both a subject and a verb. These index cards are meant to be exchangeable and movable. In fact, that's part of the fun...think of it as wasting precious nano bits of time while you're busy working.
Then decide who your ultimate reader is...you know, the one person in the world (okay, it can be a committee, but even committees have a chairbot) who has to read the "writage" (thanks, Blake) you're building the piece of writing for, the one who has to actually USE the information to make some decision or to decide on some course of action or to foretell future events.
Now comes one of the funnest parts. Brainstorm.
Don't brainstorm all the stuff YOU know...all the stuff YOU could tell, and maybe even pine to tell, this ultimate USER (reader). No. No. No.
You want to brainstorm a list of all your reader's possible questions about the ISSUE you'll be writing about.
Let me define ISSUE--it's an area of shared concern between you and your user. It's the reason you're writing and the reason the user will be reading. That's the ISSUE.
See if you can group them: big questions at the top of each column of questions: column A, column B, column C, etc., etc. Stick the big questions up on the board and stick all the little questions on the board under the big questions they belong to.
Here's where your colored pens or colored index cards/post-it notes come in. You could have all the BIG QUESTION A cards be blue. The BIG QUESTION B cards could be yellow. The BIG QUESTION C cards could be green.
In doing this part of the activity, you will find yourself rearranging and rewriting the big questions and moving the littler questions from column to column...adding some, taking away others, combining a couple. It's a very fluid situation. Sometime green questions leap over into the blue column. What's up with that...you should ask?
What you're going for is a group of questions that will best get at the ISSUE for your reader. Careful not to make too many BIG QUESTIONS. If you have more than 5, you may be in trouble. Think of these BIG QUESTIONS as your writing objectives. They will point you exactly to the place you need to be when your writing is all done.
Be sure to check back to see if your single-sentence title still makes sense as the bottom line. Maybe you can't tell for sure yet, but, if you can, change it now if necessary.
Here's where you need to roll up your sleeves and get to work.
But do remember, you can call BREAK...LUNCH...RECESS...QUITTIN' TIME at any point. You can also go out for more refreshments. Maybe put on some music and dance for 5 or 10 minutes. It's a fact that your brain drains its energy fairly quickly. After 60-90 minutes on-task your brain-energy bars are flatlining.
When you go off task, 98% of your intelligence, which is the part you're not conscious of, can go to work solving your problems, dreaming up solutions, recalibrating and pointing you in a better direction. They say we are conscious of about 2% of our overall intelligence. But that 2% gets recharged when we procrastinate...I mean, take a quick break...or a nap...a vacation...whatever.
So the PHASE 4 activity is: write answers to all those big questions. I'm talking about a single-sentence answer for each of the BIG QUESTIONS. And the answer better be a spot-on, direct answer to the question. If I ask you, "Is there a 4 Seasons restaurant nearby where I can have dinner?" You can't say, "There are lots of great places to eat around here." THAT"S NOT WHAT I ASKED YOU. Answer the damn question, please. And, by the way, if you find that the question you wrote is too broad, specific, vague, or just aiming in the wrong direction, rewrite the question until the BIG QUESTION and the BIG ANSWER match and are clearly useful.
Then you do this with all the little questions and answers.
In the process, you'll find you need to rewrite questions, change big categories, switch answers from one column to another. But, at some point (at GAO I've heard of this taking a whole week) you'll settle the wall. All the BIG QUESTIONS will be the right big questions, and all the little questions will be the right little questions. And all the BIG answers will be exactly the right big answers. And all the little answers will be exactly the right little answers.
Now you can make an OUTLINE. We call this your MESSAGE-DRIVEN OUTLINE.
It should use complete sentences, not just spindly little topic words/phrases. And, when you're done with the outline, you can show it to whatever group hovers above you waiting to give its consent to your "writing." Just explain nicely to them that you'd like their input on the outline before you commit to an actual draft.
Yeah, I know. They may balk at this and tell you they want a whole draft either because they're too busy or they know how much the actual document in question changes from outline to finished product. There's so much wordsmithing that must be done by all the reviewers. It's kind of like showing a dog a fire hydrant, right?
But assure them that "cussing" and "discussing" the outline will save everyone tons of time and ensure a better (more useful for the reader) product at the end of the day.
Look at all that. Here you thought you were procrastinating...and with friends no less...but all the time you were actually setting yourself to succeed. As I've said on this blog before, the very most productive editing that ever gets done is the editing done before any words are written.
And admit it, please...at this point you're kind of hot to write the stupid thing up.
Here are a few more tips:
When you write, write fast. Polish later.
Get somebody you trust to read your first draft just for CONTENT and ORGANIZATION--forget style for a bit.
When you think you have a finished draft, send it off for comments. When you get the comments back, highlight them in three colors: PINK for comments about the content; YELLOW for comments about the organization; GREEN for comments about style (sentences/word choice/mechanics).
When you address all the comments, fix the pink comments first, then the yellow ones, and finally the green ones. DO NOT FIX THE COMMENTS IN A LINEAR WAY. Don't start with the first comment and fix it, then move to the second comment and fix it, etc., etc.
Once the piece of writing is approved...send it out to the world and say good riddance. Now you can finish FARFA...remember, your crazy screenplay???
Actually, that's what I need to do right now. As it turns out, this whole blog post was one big procrastination. LOL.
Hi. My name is Harvey...and I'm a procrastinator....
(Please BUY my FREE 200-page ebook on everyday writing, MINDFUL WRITING AT WORK. It has lots of pictures. Great advice. Life lessons. You might learn something worthwhile. And, hey, there's no better way to procrastinate about writing than reading a great book on how to write good...I know from experience.)