Friday, January 14, 2011

Mistaking Activity for Progress (in Writing)

An article linked by Justin Achilli gave me pause today. Here's the link:

The rundown for those that didn't read it (you know who you are) is that by focusing on results rather than metrics, you can achieve more than simply filling up time with useless activity. Really, go give it a read. It's not long at all.

So, this got me thinking about writing. Getting that initial draft into the computer is one of the larger hurdles, and it's very easy to mistake marginally useful activity for progress.

Do you find yourself:

1- Revising previous scenes before the work is finished?
2- Worldbuilding far beyond the needs of the next couple of scenes?
3- Hunting down facts and figures that can be researched some other time?

Any of those sound familiar? Yeah, I do it too. In each case, this is all work that can be done later, or should have been done before the work even began. If I find myself doing these things, I have to remember that I'm not advancing my final goal. It may seem like I'm working, but:

1- Revisions are meaningless until the draft is complete.
2- Worldbuilding beyond the day's writing goals is largely irrelevant.
3- Specific facts and figures that are not vital to a story's integrity are unimportant until the story is in revision.

Your focus should remain on the outcome: a finished first draft. It doesn't have to be perfect by any means. It just has to be done so that you can get to polishing. I can hear the question now: "But what if I finish and find that it's terrible?" Well, you just might. But you never would have known it was terrible until you finished. You could be making horrible mistakes every step of the way, but, until you have that draft onscreen, you'll never know. Also, as every professional writer will tell you, writing daily is the only way to improve. Thus, again, it is very important to focus on the outcome of your efforts rather than the activity surrounding it.

A few tricks to avoiding each trap:

1- Looking over previous pages is sometimes useful for flow, but make no corrections (beyond egregious grammar errors, of course). Let it all stand as-is. Even if you'd rather a character said something in a different way, avoid the temptation to change it. After all, you'll know your characters better by the end of the story. You might end up changing it yet again.

2- The contents of the Emperor's sock drawer are probably irrelevant. It's good that you can extrapolate those from your setting, but it doesn't need to be codified until someone intends to open that sock drawer. If you have the settings built two to three scenes in advance, further construction is unnecessary, and highly subject to change. Finish your daily goal, then build the next couple of scenes. Stories tend to evolve. Keeping some fluidity is a plus. Extraneous worldbuilding that detracts from writing time is just paving roads that may never be followed. Save it for after your daily goal is complete.

3- The trickiest one of them all. Some facts are vital to your story. If you're writing a fantasy piece and you need a character to fall off his horse thanks to a sabotaged saddle, then you need to know how the saddle failed. That's positive research. However, if you're landing on Ganymede, and a character states the surface gravity, you probably don't need that exact number at the time of composition. Think of it like this: If the fact is vital to plot, you should look it up. If the fact is simply a number or a process or a bit of dialog to make the character sound plausible, you can leave it out for the moment. Finish your daily goal, then go research. Just mark it with a &&& and do a find for those at the end of the scene (or at the end of the book).

The thing to take away from this is to focus on the outcome. You want a finished draft. It's very easy to convince ourselves that time spent not writing is just as valuable as time spent hammering keys. Only you can really determine if what you're doing is activity or progress. Does the next sentence revolve around what you're researching? Will a character's reaction depend entirely on a certain fact? Does the distance from the City of Night to the Dawning Bulwark really matter to the outcome of the scene?

Each time you set aside the keyboard, ask yourself why you're doing it. If you're honest with yourself, you'll soon learn to distinguish between activity and progress. This is essential to consistent writing.


  1. Oh I do this too. I have to say that I don't tend to worldbuild out much once I've started to writing - mostly I do that before I start, and after I've finished.

    But I do nitpick at previous pages. I always end up revising dialogue many, many times before I finish a story. It's a nasty habit, but I do always feel, at least, like I'm getting somewhere...

  2. If you're someone who uses metrics (which I do), trying shooting for a set number of words *of new stuff*. Either don't count words used for development / editing, or count them separately. I personally try for 2,000 words a day of new stuff, unless I'm in the middle of a big edit (in which case I have a different system that encourages either editing up or down, not just moving words around on the page). This encourages me to finish new text when I need to, and edit when I need to do that instead.

  3. Ha! The Emperor's sock drawer! Love it :)

    You are completely right, of course. No one cares what his socks look like.