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. Desperately trying, and often blowing deadlines made me a captive of the ticking clock.
I persist in trying to gain control of my time, my stories, and myself. Of course, I recognize that this is a laughable notion.
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. Writers too often feel enslaved by the clock, and the calendar, 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 workshop cried 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 that can help.
Build a “mountain of stairs.”
Think of your next story, whether it’s a daily, project, short story or book, as a “mountain with stairs — a set of smaller steps leading to the top,” advises Eviatar Zerubavel in his inspiring and practical guide, “The Clockwork Muse.”
Break it down into its components: A story consists of reporting and research, focusing, planning, drafting, revising, editing. Assign time estimates to each step. Then keep track of the actual time for those steps.
It will take you time and experience to be able to estimate accurately. Invariably, the tasks that we think take a long time can be accomplished more quickly, while those that we think are a snap take more time than we thought. Develop a more accurate gauge of your time.
Writers 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 correspondent working under often insanely 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 those middle-of-the-night horrors: “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, many 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 30 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,” said Peter Davison, the late 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 you can’t control the material. For a long time, my preferred technology was a now vintage, I believe, Radio Shack Talking Timer, which counted down, up, and signaled time’s up with a series of beeps ranging from a car horn to a teakettle. These days I just set my alarms with my Amazon Alexa when 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 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.