Making Friends With A Clock: Time Management for Writers
From 1972 to 1994, I was a newspaper reporter. Those two decades established patterns and work habits that often make it immensely difficult to control my writing life.
I persist in trying to gain control of my time, my stories, and myself. Of course, I recognize that this is a laughable notion. If there’s anything Sept. 11 proved, it’s that we can’t control anything.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. That desire to exercise control -- over gravity, the weather, people, our lives -- is one of the hallmarks of Homo sapiens. Writing, like any creative endeavor, is a desperate attempt to wrest control, to impose order on chaos, to stop time, to play God if you will.
Time management is one of the most important self-improvement techniques, but one least utilized by journalists. Reporters feel enslaved by the clock when, in reality, they can seize control of their time.
Complete this sentence:
If I managed my time, my stories, and myself better, I would be ______________________.
What did you write? “Less stressed,” “Getting better evaluations,” “Happier with my stories,” “Covering my beat more effectively”? How about “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize,” “Happier,” or as one participant at a National Writers Workshop shouted out, “Married”?
There’s no right answer, just the articulation of dreams all of us have, dreams that can be achieved if we can use time as an ally. Here are some practical approaches and a list of resources that can help.
Build a “mountain of stairs.”
Think of your next story, whether it’s a daily or a project, as a “mountain with stairs -- a set of smaller steps leading to the top,” advises Eviatar Zerubavel in "The Clockwork Muse."
Break down your next story into its components: A daily story consists of interviews, focusing, planning, drafting, revising. Assign time estimates to each step. Then keep track of the actual time for those steps. (Check out Time Tool, a computer program that allows you to create jobs and track the time you spend on those jobs.)
It will take you time and experience to be able to estimate accurately. Invariably, the jobs that we think take a long time can be accomplished more quickly, while the tasks that we think are a snap take more time than we thought. Develop a more accurate gauge of your time.
Reporters on deadline feel under the gun, but they don’t realize the power they have. After all, what can an editor do between the assignment and the delivery of the story except worry and pester? Talk about powerless!
Set your own internal deadlines. As a Washington reporter working under tight deadlines, I realized the chances of making a factual error were high, so I set my own deadline. If the editor wanted my story at 5 p.m., I hit the print button at 4:45 and spent the time double-checking names, titles, quotes, facts, and figures. When I hit the send button, I felt confident in the story’s accuracy, saving myself the middle-of-the-night realizations: “His middle initial was C!”
Work in brief daily sessions.
This is the key to productivity, says psychologist Robert Boice, who found that productive writers don’t chain themselves to their keyboards all day long. Instead, they follow the pattern of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon: “Keep a regular schedule, and write at the same time every day for the same amount of time.” Regularity, not overwork, is the key to productivity.
What most writers, especially journalists, do is binge. They procrastinate for hours, building up a steam of guilt, anger, and rage that ultimately leads to indifference: “I don’t care how bad it is, I’ve only got 15 minutes left.”
Then, once they’re writing, they are afraid to stop. They write in a fury until deadline or just after, irritating their editors and ensuring that their copy will be hastily edited. They think that they’re preserving their flawless prose. Unfortunately, they’ve robbed their readers of a fresh eye that might notice a confusing sentence or important information buried deep in the story. And when it’s all done, they’re exhausted, stressed out, and ready for a drink.
“Time is in the air you breathe,” says Peter Davison, poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. “The writer who fills many shelves does not breathe more eagerly than the crabbed sufferer from writer’s block, but the two differ in the ways they use their oxygen.”
Don’t leave all the writing until the end of the day. Write an early draft to find out what you already know and need to know. Take time to focus and plan. Try writing through the entire story, hit the print button, and mark up the printout. Input the changes. On daily stories, work in 15- to 30-minute drafting sessions, then edit and revise. For projects, write before all the reporting is done. Write in sections. The key is to avoid bingeing.
Make friends with a clock.
A timepiece is a way to control the procedure even if I can’t control the material. My preferred technology is a Radio Shack Talking Timer, which counts down, counts up, and signals time’s up with a series of beeps ranging from a car horn to a teakettle. I use it when I'm blocked because, while I can’t control how well I write, one thing I can do is write quickly. Invariably, within the first two minutes I leap whatever hurdle my psyche has erected. I think that’s because fear and doubt build a mountain that we think we have to climb over when, in reality, it’s just a threshold. Free writing creates a threshold between the state of paralysis and the state of grace.
People confuse time management with an anal-retentive obsession with the ticking clock. In reality, time management demands infinite patience.
“Writing is a craft that takes many years to develop,” Sue Grafton, the best-selling mystery author, said in a recent profile in The Writer. “The publishing world is full of talented, hardworking writers who’ve struggled for years to learn the necessary skills. I counsel any writer to focus on the job at hand -- learning to write well -- trusting that when the time comes, the Universe will step in and make the rest possible. Writing isn’t about the destination -- writing is the journey that transforms the soul and gives meaning to all else.”
None of us can guarantee that our stories will be brilliant. But we can control our time and when we do that we greatly improve our chances of achieving our dreams of success.
Note: This piece originally appeared in Fall 2002 issue of Poynter Report.