A couple of days ago there was something I wanted to write. I knew where I wanted to go and I could see in my head the finished piece and how happy I’d be when it was done.
‘Excellent!’ I thought, ‘time to write!’
But I found myself mysteriously reluctant to even sit at my desk, never mind open the notebook. Ever had that feeling? Yeah, I thought so.
That’s when MC Hammer came to the rescue. I was thinking about how I could use chunking (i.e. breaking a project into more manageable chunks) when the chorus of ‘U Can’t Touch This’ came into my head on repeat and I joined in with a little dance. ‘Break it down!’ he said, and I realised I hadn’t gone nearly far enough. The problem with breaking a project into chunks is that you tend to break them into logical chunks that should be small enough to manage – chapter 1, for example. But actually, ‘write chapter 1’ or even ‘write email’ is probably still far too big a task, particularly if you’re starting something new.
The trick is to break the work down much further into attention-span sized bits (i.e. pretty small, much smaller than you thought) but also, critically, to break it down into preparation and execution. If you don’t have a clear plan that you can actually look at to remind yourself of what you’re meant to be doing and pick just one task then it’s very easy to become overwhelmed by the thought of those 3,000 things you SHOULD do or write about or remember and do nothing instead.
So, what did I do? I did exactly as The Hammer told me. I pulled my notepad onto the floor where I was sprawled out procrastinating and drew two bubbles, one at the top of the page and one at the bottom, putting notional start and finish points in them.
Suddenly I had a path to follow and was able to sketch the major points I wanted to cover in the middle. You can do this in whatever way makes sense to you – you might put months down the side if your story covers the span of a year, or you might be outlining something like character development or even how you want your audience to feel as they read.
If you prefer not to plan, the outline that works for you might not be a linear one. It doesn’t matter, just note down a couple of things that spring to mind.
If this helps you see where you want to go, keep going and sketch in your outline until you can see a structure; if not, walk away from it for a few minutes then come back and write a couple more. You can break this task down as much as you need to and keep coming back!
Once you have this you can start adding more detail into your sections, creating a new page per section or aspect of work if this helps. Try adding 3 aspects, actions or events to each section – the amount per section you need might be different, so just play around a bit. Keep breaking your project down until things start to look clearer.
Do you have a piece of writing in mind? If you can, go and do a skeleton outline NOW. Don’t worry about the fact that you aren’t actually writing; the point of this is to do the hard work now so that when you come to write you’ve already worked the kinks out and know what you want to say, bypassing a large part of the mental friction that stops you actually writing.
Once you’re comfortable with the outline and you feel you’ve broken things down enough, go take a break. Then either start at the top or pick whichever small portion feels good to you, and write. Ignore all of the other sections or tasks until you’re done. If you get distracted by new ideas or things you should include elsewhere, just note them in the right place on your outline then carry on with what you were doing. Had enough? Then just take a break or leave it for the day. Coming back will be far less intimidating because you know what you need to write (your subconscious will keep working on this while you’re away too) and can pick any tiny section to work on, so starting again will be easier. If you find yourself resisting you can always pick one section and break it down further until you feel able to write.
I’d love to know if this works for you or any variations you use – you can share and see how other people are doing here.
PPS: You totally want to experience the joy of MC Hammer and his trousers in action now, don’t you? And who am I to deny you? Just click here.