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How to beat the procrastination bug

Troy Nankervis

As thousands of writers attempt to finish a manuscript in November during Nanowrimo, procrastination will rear its ugly head.
How to beat the procrastination bug

Ditched the typewriter, kept the letters. Image courtesy Laineys Repertoire

Exactly one week ago writers across the globe began to breathe life into stories and characters for Nanowrimo – the international novel writing month, where the challenge is set to write 50,000 words by the end of November – or 1,667 words per day.

While some 310,095 participants signed up to the challenge in 2013, not all finished, with many laying blame on the bane of every wordsmith: procrastination.

A new independent survey of 1000 Australian writers commissioned by internet blocking and productivity product Stop Procrastinating has identified the most likely sources of procrastination, and everything from family arguments, sex, and chocolate makes the list.

As she worked on the first draft of Highway Bodies last year – an Australian zombie apocalypse thriller now being eyed off by publishers – Melbourne author Alison Evans told ArtsHub that the biggest diversion during her fifth run at Nanowrimo was the internet – and 48% of survey respondents agreed with her. ‘I am a huge Twitter addict and I can [also] get lost in TV Tropes' website for hours,’ she said.

Melbourne author Penelope Jones is taking part in Nanowrimo for the third time, and also blames the internet for her procrastinating habit. ‘It takes it away from your creative energies, your space, and thinking about your themes and characters. It’s a total disconnect from your project and plan, and it makes you feel guilty,’ she said.

‘It makes you feel bad so you don’t write any more.’

Rather than reading up on the literary greats for inspiration, writers killing time online were more likely to watch YouTube videos of comedy acts or entertaining animals, according to the Stop Procrastinating survey. Some 23% of those surveyed said watching a funny animal video helped to untangle their writer’s block, 9% accessed online dating, while 5% chose not to disclose what they were perusing online.

The survey also found 16% of respondents were distracted by their pets, 18% of people ate their ‘reward’ for finishing writing, such as chocolate or beer, before they’d reached their writing goal for the day, and 14% said their partner distracted them by suggesting watching the next episode of a box set for a ‘creative break’.

Rather than getting back to writing, 3% of respondents had sex with their partner, 35% were too tired to write either from work or partying too hard, and 24% said they often couldn’t write because they had stayed too late at work and didn’t have time.

After failing to reach the 50,000 word count in her first attempt several years ago, Jones learnt to use procrastination to her advantage. 

‘I did two or three thousand words in the month. I thought I could just put it into my daily life without really scheduling it. Writing just doesn’t magically occur as words on the page. You need to create space. I realised that procrastination is part of the creative journey. I think what happens is that you write a little bit, but you really need to marinate and think about what’s happening next,’ she said.

Jones argues that taking short breaks after dedicated blocks of writing, whether to make a cup of tea, or stare off into space, can give great depth to your writing. ‘Procrastination is good and bad, it’s not just bad. It’s bad when you get on things that allow it to become a writer’s block, as a preventative device that allows you to fail at your goals.

‘It’s a cerebral process that takes time. I’m then able to ask questions like “is this interesting?” “What’s the dialogue like?” “What happens next?” “Am I going off on tangents?” “Is this adding to the increasing writing tension of the novel?”

‘Without Nanowrimo, I wouldn’t have discovered what I was capable of producing or writing in a day. It’s taught me you need a schedule. Just like weight loss or getting fit, you need to have daily markers to help meet your ultimate goal.’

Evans stressed the importance of keeping to a rigid timeline. ‘You just have to keep putting down words. The thing I find most comforting about Nanowrimo is that they don't have to be good words.

‘There's no time for your inner editor to tell you what you're writing is awful. You just keep going and worry about the editing later, because you can always, always edit. And that comes later,’ she said.

‘Having an idea of the novel, the plot and where it’s going will also help you plan out what needs to be written each day, what scene or sequence needs to worked on, and that keeps you on track rather than just going “I don’t know what to write today so I just won’t do it”.

‘It’s really hard to be successful at Nanowrimo unless you’ve got time to write. You can’t write when you’ve extended all your energy with work, your social life, and then you get home at 10 o’clock at night and decide to write for an hour – you won’t want to write. It’s also about figuring out when is the best time for you to write, and reserving that time solely for your writing.’

About the author

Troy Nankervis is an ArtsHub journalist from Melbourne. Follow him on twitter @troynankervis