The Fine Art of Procrastination (And How To Live With It)

Writing is like starting the engine of a car. Sometimes, without trying, it just fires up, and you find yourself putting words together easily. Just as often, it can be like a cold car on a snowy morning. You sit down, try to get your thoughts in order, try to get into focus...

and nothing happens.

You stare at your fingers, as they sit on the keyboard. You might look out the window, take a sip of coffee, check your e-mail.

Radio silence.

You force out a couple of paragraphs. As you write, you notice how hard it is, and how slow it's going. Even as you type, you're not happy with the results.

Unless you HAVE to write to meet a deadline, don't torment yourself. Save the file and step away from the computer. You aren't ready to put down words.

A great deal of my writing work happens away from the keyboard. Ideas gestate, wax and wane, and (if I'm so blessed) mature into eloquence while I do what, to most of world, seems like "goofing off."

Beneath what seems to be lethargy is a silent engine. It runs key points and turns of phrase, shuffles the order of ideas, and develops a strong thesis that will result in rapid, clean writing when all is ready.

All creative minds need these periods of reflection. Writing, painting, drawing, composing music--they're all inverted behaviors. Unless one's ego is super-sized, the thought of anyone, aside from a trusted collaborator, present when work is birthed is unbearable.

I learned to write as a staffer for several newspapers and magazines in the 1980s. Some pieces I wrote at home, in ideal seclusion. I had to learn to write quickly amidst chaos. Journalism is rarely polished prose. A writer learns, through trial and error, shortcuts and techniques to cope with the pressure of a ticking clock.

I've had the experience of seeing a play at 8:00 PM, returning to the newsroom at 10:30, and writing 15-20 inches of copy while the pressman waited for me. Every other element of that newspaper was put to bed. My review of a local theater production was not great news, and would be buried in the paper's Arts or Living section. But it was budgeted, and it had to be written.

Under these circumstances, a writer can be forgiven for a clumsy sentence or hasty thoughts. I have never enjoyed writing in this mode. My best work is the result of a lot of thinking, living silently with ideas, and being ready to write as they coalesce.

When a writer is in this groove, he or she is not writing so much as channeling. It is a joy to have ideas and phrases flow with authority and calm. One has the sensation that the writing is done by some unseen presence. In truth, this writer has done the hard work. They have thought their topic out thoroughly.

In this example, procrastination--waiting to write until it's TIME to write--is a powerful, positive tool for the author.

There are those times when a writer simply doesn't want to write. He or she may feel indolent, unfocused or fatigued. It is a challenge to summon clarity and concision in this state of mind. Again, unless you MUST write, step back. Take a walk. Go to the gym. Take a quick nap. Talk to a friend. Buy groceries. Get distance from the vicious circle of  a foggy or unwilling mind. Come back when you're ready to roll.

Seasoned writers develop a bridge between procrastination and productivity. It's vital to develop a discipline towards writing. Every type of writing has a different discipline. Journalism is governed by the five Ws, and by the necessity to make clear what has happened.

Fiction asks the writer to know their characters, settings, emotions and themes, and to be sure enough of them all to make words, sentences and paragraphs that are worth reading--and writing.

Non-fiction asks us to synthesize both disciplines. A non-fiction piece longer than a typical news story must convey the facts, and explain why this information matters. It typically requires more research, thinking and organization than a news report. The writer still delivers those five Ws, but he or she has the breathing room to elaborate, and to draw deeper connections and more fruitful conclusions.

Some writers use warm-up exercises to get their engine running. I lack the patience to do such exercises, but if they work for you, use them.

I often warm up by copy-editing the previous day's work, or piecing together preliminary ideas for a future project. I can trick myself--before I realize it, I'm in the groove. What might have been a muddle of misery, had I started cold, has become smooth, productive writing.

The copy isn't perfect, but it contains the essence of the information. Editing and revision will polish the prose, but the ideas are rock-solid.

Don't punish yourself by starting cold. Warm up to the work, and you'll be in that sweet spot where the words flow and ideas coalesce. Writing does not have to a chore--it can be a joy.