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How to start (and finish) a writing project

by | Feb 22, 2018 | academic writing, time management

The two obstacles to writing more that I often hear in the I Should Be Writing Facebook group are:

“I don’t know how to start”

And, ironically:

“I have a bunch of projects lying around that I can’t get finished.”

Starting and finishing. The good news is, these are two symptoms of one root problem: you haven’t mastered writing project management. That’s OK! Most of us never learn project management, even though SO much of what we do as academics requires it.

In this blog post, I’m going to walk you through what it means to think about writing as a project manager, and tell you some concrete steps to start implementing project management skills applied to your writing.

You’ve already done project management, you just probably haven’t thought about it as such. When you planned, researched, and wrote your dissertation, you did writing project management. Maybe you got some dissertation tips along the way from your advisor (maybe you didn’t), but you figured it out.

One of the reasons I run this blog is that I truly believe we need to change the culture of “you’ll figure it out” in academia. In other words, this blog is about teaching you how to do things that otherwise you are just expected to learn how to do, baptism-by-fire style. So let’s dig in!


The 3 pillars of academic writing project management

You’ll need 30 minutes to 1 hour to do the work of the three pillars (if you don’t have a writing system in place, it might take a bit more time). You’ll also need whatever system you’re using for your to-do list and calendar.


1) Break down writing projects into tasks

The first project management skill that you need to develop is the ability to break projects up into tasks. Here’s why that skill is important: You can’t put projects on your calendar, nor on your to-do list. If you are putting “write article” or “finish book chapter” on your to do list, that’s your first big mistake. Doing this leaves you wondering what part of the writing project to work on first, messes with your mindset as it seems like you can never check off the project as done, and just generally decreases the chance you’ll actually work on the thing.

Instead, you first need to break down your writing project into management tasks. You want to think of a “task” as something that you can get done in one or two writing sessions—not more. For example, writing the abstract is something that you could probably do in an hour. Writing the results section might have to be broken down further.

Your goal is to get your writing project into bite-sized pieces that you can put on your calendar or to-do list.


2) Schedule out the tasks

Once you’ve broken your project down into tasks, it’s time to schedule them out. There are a few ways to do this, and I encourage you to choose the way that suits your work habits the best.

Both ways require that you have a writing system in place, and that you have that system mapped onto your calendar. I recommend finding your Tiger Time, or your most high-energy, focused time of day to work, and then blocking at least an hour per week during that time (get the details of how to find and block your Tiger Time in the video below).



Method 1: Map the tasks onto your calendar

Take your writing project task breakdown and map it on to the writing times on your calendar. If you have trouble getting started, I suggest finding your low-hanging fruit (the task that is “easiest” for you to complete—whatever “easy” means for you) and doing that FIRST so that you set yourself up for a quick win.


Method 2: Keep your task list as a “bank,” then pull things on to your to-do list for the day.

Another method of getting your tasks done is to work with a very simple system of getting three things done per day. This helps mitigate overwhelm and gives a sense of accomplishment.

So the way this works is that at the end of each day, you plan out the three essential tasks that need to get done on the following day. So, you keep your writing project task list as a “bank” of tasks that could get pulled onto your “Three Essential Things” list. You can do this in your bullet journal, in a paper planner, have three post-it notes stuck where you can see them, or use an online tool like Trello. Regardless, the idea is to have a “bank” of writing tasks and pull them onto your to-do list one by one.


3) Do the tasks

Yes, this is the hardest part. I love to break things down and make a plan, but then you also have to stick to the plan! Sticking to the plan will be easier if you create a positive feedback loop between you and your writing.

Here are some tips on doing that:

— Write during your Tiger Time so that you feel like writing flows

— Set up a reward system for when you check something off your task list

— Figure out what your BIG reward will be for finishing your project

In the end, you need to commit to doing the work and revel in the feeling of getting your writing out into the world.


Writing Project Management Support

If you’d like support for your writing project management, there are a few ways that I can help you:

— Join the FREE Mini Virtual Writer’s Retreat on March 2 to kick-start your project with focused writing time alternated with writing blocks. It’s fun because we do it together!

— Sign up for The Virtual Writer’s Retreat, taking place March 11-24. It’s a two-week guided sprint to get your writing project from almost-done to SUBMITTED.

— Want me just to tell you what to do, and then (with lots of love) make sure you do it? Looking to get a sustainable, done-for-you, writing project management system in place? Register for one-on-one Writing Strategy Sessions with me. We’ll break down ALL your projects, set them up in Trello, and you’ll be off to the races.


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