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Want to Be a Productive Writer? Three Clues


Heads up, WU’ers: Longtime WU contributor Julianna Baggott [2] has created a new audio series for writers: Efficient Creativity: The Six-Week Audio Series. You can listen to the first episode for free, on SoundCloud.  [3]

A friend and fellow writer recently asked me how I keep multiple projects going at the same time. The answer didn’t come to me right away. In fact, I was stumped. But a few days later, I had three possible answers. For better or for worse, here they are.

1. Use frustration and burn-out to your advantage.

Over the last few years, I’ve become obsessed with creative process. At the height of that obsession, I ran a survey of over a hundred writers – self-identifying as high and low producers. One thing that the survey showed is that high producers – not stoned, by the way, just very productive producers – worked on multiple projects at once.

By this point, I’d already started working on multiple projects for a number of reasons. One of which, oddly enough, is that I realized I couldn’t push a project that wasn’t working; I had to have patience. Now patience doesn’t seem like the right answer in this case, but it was. Or another way to think of it: My frustration fueled other work. I wanted to leave the project alone – give it space – and I wanted to keep writing. So, I’d start something else.

At certain times in my career – not often – I’ve had whole days to write. When I do, I burn out after about two hours of work. But I learned that the burn-out was project-related. If I left it and went to something else, I could refuel.

Another hint – it helps if the projects are very different – different audiences, genres, tones… or, at least, that’s been the case for me.

I don’t know if frustration and project-related burn-out are why other high-producers work on more than one project at once or not, but I do know that working on multiple projects adds to their productivity.

2. Create physical manifestations of the projects.

One thing that novelists suffer is the lack of physical manifestations of their work-in-progress. Architects have blueprints – we have … spaces in our heads. People who map their projects ahead of time have an advantage here – their novel’s cartography is a kind of short hand.

But you don’t have to be a plotter to create physical manifestations of your work-in-progress. Create drawings, lists, maps of what you’ve done, not necessarily where you’re going. Try it. This will allow you to enter and exit your projects faster and help you move between projects more cleanly.

3. Rituals.

Each project of mine has different touchstone works that help me get into it. I keep novels that are helping my current work-in-progress on my desk. If working on more than one project, there are more stacks. I’ve used music too and movie compilations – a blur of things that help me fall into a project, the blurring is best – while erasing the previous project.

Call them palette cleansers or sorbets.

I always work in the same spot, but changing writing places for different works seems like it would be helpful too.

Rituals can slow down your process. They can become elaborate and overly prissy. But when they’re lean and hand-tailored to you and your projects, they can be incredibly efficient ways to cue different parts of your brain.

Overall, there are some other emotional benefits to the multiple projects model. But there are also downsides. A focuser should never, ever feel bad about not being a juggler. Likewise a juggler shouldn’t feel guilty for not being a focuser.

Know your process. Know what works for you. Experiment with your process, yes, absolutely. But mainly know how to work with your process, not against it.

Are you a productive writer? Do you work on multiple projects at the same time? What works for you?

About Julianna Baggott [4]

Julianna Baggott [5] is the bestselling, critically acclaimed author of over twenty books. Her novels Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders and Pure were New York Times Notable Books. She writes under her own name and pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode — most notably, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, and on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now. She’s the creator of a six-week Jumpstart program to get writers generating new material [6] and Efficient Creativity: The Six-Week Audio Series; listen to the first episode is available, for free, on SoundCloud. [3] Learn more about Julianna and her books on her website [5].