When it comes to writing, are you a doer or a procrastinator? Do you write steadily and daily according to the BIC principle (Butt in Chair)? Or do you catch up on your tweets, play games on your phone, and allow yourself just five little minutes on Facebook before you get started?
And how often do those five little minutes suck up all the time you’ve allotted for your writing session?
One of my favorite films is THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1948), staring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. It features a subplot involving an elderly professor (played by Monty Woolley) who is friends with the protagonist Julia and her husband Henry. Professor Wutheridge is poor, retired, and without family. He has talked for years about the book on Roman history he’s writing. Everyone assumes that this is his life’s work and he’s been slaving away on it steadily.
In fact, he hasn’t written a word–as he finally confesses to Julia and the angel Dudley. When asked why, he blurts out, “Because I couldn’t think of anything to say!”
That’s as good a cause for procrastination as any.
Generally, I find myself putting things off for three basic reasons: fear, laziness, or dislike.
If I’m doubtful of my ability to perform a task or try a new experience, that’s letting fear hold me back.
It’s so much easier to delay, promising myself that tomorrow I won’t be so anxious about possible mistakes. Or the next day, or a week from now, or how about next month?
Another variation of fear-procrastination stems from perfectionism. It’s good to hold yourself to high standards in your written work (and elsewhere), but not to the point of paralyzing yourself lest you make a mistake.
I once tried to coach a woman who expected to write a bestselling masterpiece with her first writing effort. Having shackled herself to this very unrealistic expectation, she spent several weeks plotting and then delayed and delayed and delayed before she finally wrote a 12-page first chapter.
It featured beautifully couched sentences, good depiction of story action, and little else. It needed tweaking and stronger scenes, but she couldn’t accept constructive criticism. Nor could she embrace the concept that this effort of hers had not achieved perfection.
She abandoned the project and did not return.
I’m a perfectionist, too, and yet I know that writing is seldom–if ever–perfect. It’s not going to happen. Whatever lovely exchange of dialogue is playing in my mind, somehow it’s never quite as good once I convey it to paper. I give my work the best I’ve got at the time, within the deadline assigned to me, and that’s all I can do. Sometimes, what I produce pleases me and sometimes, later on, I find certain aspects of it embarrassing. (Why are my characters such dopes? Why, oh, why didn’t I catch that plot hole? Etc.)
The fear of making a mistake should never hold us back from trying.
Don’t know how to write the scene you envision? Try it anyway. Put words in your characters’ mouths and figure out how they can be opposed to each other. Then, go for it.
The result might be rotten, laughable, or halfway decent.
Procrastination due to fear simply requires scraping together enough gumption, determination, or willpower to push past it.
I frequently cause myself problems because I put off doing things I should.
I don’t want to clean off my desk each day. Result? A piled-up mess of papers, notebooks, Post-Its, and receipts that slithers onto the floor when I’m using the computer mouse or eats the scrap of paper where I’ve scribbled the KEY MOTIVATION OF MY VILLAIN, WITHOUT WHICH THE ENTIRE NOVEL WILL COLLAPSE.
I don’t want to bother shelving the novel I’ve just read, so I stack it beside my reading chair. Pretty soon another book is placed on top of it, then another, then another. Eventually I have a teetering, dusty tower of read books that are bound to be knocked over either by myself or the dogs. Down they slide under the sofa or into an awkward corner that I can’t reach without stooping, bending myself into a pretzel, or–much to the amusement of my dogs–crawling. The very best book of the group–the one I intended to keep forever–lands edge down, crumpling the pages.
A calamity that didn’t have to occur.
Laziness can also apply to writing. What if you have two scenes in mind. Scene 1 will be a confrontation between Pete Protagonist and his brother Amos. They’re fighting over … over … well, they’re fighting. You know they’re angry at each other, but you haven’t worked out why. Because you don’t know their motivations, you’re hazy on their positions in this argument.
Furthermore, you haven’t really thought through Pete’s goal for this scene. You don’t want to bother with all of that. It’ll come to me once I get going, you think. No need to waste time planning every detail.
So you type a few paragraphs. The brothers stand there–where? Oh, they’re just standing there … somewhere. You’ll fill that detail in later.
They’re standing there. They’re angry. They utter a few dialogue exchanges, but the conversation doesn’t get far. You force them through one page, and yet it’s like wading through sludge. Everything they’re saying seems trite or clichéd. The story just isn’t advancing.
You stop and sigh. This is too hard. I’ll try again tomorrow.
Or, let’s say you’re vague about what’s going to happen in Scene 1. All you know is that the brothers will argue and part, feeling bitter.
Meanwhile, Scene 2 is clear and shining in your mind. It’s going to be straight action. No need for awkward character motivation here. You’ve planned every moment in detail. You know a storm is going to blow up while Pete is sailing. He’ll struggle alone with sails and rigging. Then the tiller will be jerked from his grasp. The jib will fall on him, knocking him unconscious … no! Better if he’s swept overboard. Now he’s swimming for his life in rough seas … and sharks are coming.
Excited about that story segment and unwilling to work out the knots in Scene 1, you skip over the bothersome Scene 1 and write Scene 2 first. Maybe you take the time to research how unlikely it is that sharks will be circling a swimmer during a ferocious ocean storm, but maybe you don’t because your laziness has made you procrastinate about researching, too.
As you continue writing your book, you keep skipping the tough sections and writing only the bits that you like. You tell yourself that it will be easier to fill in the skipped stuff later, when you know exactly where the book is going and why the characters are behaving as they do.
Trouble is, this kind of procrastinator may never realize why the draft is so bad, why his characters keep reaching dead ends, or how a revision will be so tangled an entire rewrite will probably be necessary.
If the motivations and goals in Scene 1 are skipped instead of being worked out plausibly, how can there be a connection between the events of Scene 1 and those that take place in Scene 2?
Or, if the argument between Pete and Amos in Scene 1 had spilled over to Scene 2, what if the brothers had gone sailing together and when the storm burst over them, sweeping Pete overboard … would Amos have still been so angry and resentful about what occurred in Scene 1 that he delayed helping Pete and hesitated at the moment that a quick grab of Pete’s arm would have saved him?
Amos may spend the next five chapters leading a search-and-rescue operation. He could be bitterly blaming himself and experiencing all kinds of agonized guilt for what he’s done.
And when Pete is finally found, soaked with brine, starved, and half-dead, he might believe Amos deliberately tried to kill him.
By working through each plot problem as it arises, by not skipping ahead or just writing the bits of story that are the most fun, you could end up with a draft that makes sense and is much richer in layers, nuance, and context than you originally planned.
Whenever we are faced with a task that we find distasteful, we’re likely to put it off for as long as possible.
Do you enjoy cleaning the bathroom? Some people do, but I don’t. Because my dislike of a dirty bathroom is even stronger, I perform the chore.
Do you enjoy working on your income tax? I loathe accounting work so much that I do it once a year. Although I know that prepping for my tax return would be quick and simple if I maintained the books weekly, or even monthly, I just won’t do it.
The result is that, yes, I only have to face the ledgers once a year, but it’s an awful experience. After twelve months of neglect, my accounts are in such a tangle that it takes weeks to straighten everything out and bring order to the mess.
By then, I’m behind on the new year’s accounts, and so I procrastinate again. It remains a vicious cycle that I never seem to break, year after year.
The only way to conquer this is through sheer discipline. Rather like being ordered by a dentist to floss daily, and having to create a new habit by forcing myself to perform the task at the same time every day until the habit is created.
In writing, perhaps you hate writing the first draft and enjoy the revision process. Or perhaps you love writing the rough draft and loathe revision. Either way, you need to create incentives for yourself and form the habits of discipline in order to get through the tasks you dislike.
Sometimes, people who are actually talented at writing never sit down and do it. They aren’t afraid of the task. They aren’t lazy. They want to write, but they just never do it.
Probe into their reasons, and sometimes the answer is, “I just don’t feel comfortable writing fiction. I can write essays fine. But putting stories together is hard and confusing.”
My response is always going to be, “So why aren’t you writing those articles or essays instead of pushing yourself toward the Great American Novel?”
Are you writing a story you just don’t like? Are you writing in a genre that’s not really your métier?
Do you secretly love true confession stories but fear that you’ll be laughed at by your friends if you wrote them? Do you struggle to write mainstream literature when your heart belongs to space opera? Are you stumped by your mystery plot that won’t gel when what you wish you could be writing are picture books for three-year-olds?
Snobbery and fear can push us in directions we truly don’t wish to go. Because we can’t write what we actually want, we don’t write at all.
Now, how is that going to get you anywhere?
Carrot or stick … or both … is the only way to get past this form of procrastination.