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Best Practices

Whether the subject is writing, business, or losing weight, chances are that somebody has a “best practice.” Bookstores and corporate websites describe them in exuberant prose. The authors of books about best practices make big money training others in their nuances. Gabriela Pereira, creator of the Do-It-Yourself Master of Fine Arts (DIY MFA) program (diymfa.com) and author of a new DIY MFA book due out in June (DIY MFA pre-order) says there’s no such thing.

Wait. What? No such thing as a best practice? Actually, I get her point. There are practices that work well for individuals or for particular types of groups. There are none that work for everyone in all circumstances. That would be the equivalent of a single pill that can cure all diseases.

Many writing best practices focus on doing something every day–writing 2000 words or 500 or some other number, always writing at the same time, writing for one hour a day. The problem is that real life tends to disrupt intentions and carefully laid plans. Most of us have other commitments that sometimes need to be our priority.

Some years ago I hit on a compromise that works for me. At that time I used it to maintain a diet so I could lose 30 pounds. I’ve found the same technique works for writing. What is it? I focus on progress over a week rather than a day. During the week I’m an engineer. Sometimes my days run long; sometimes they’re so frustrating or chaotic that I want nothing more than to watch a little television and go to sleep at their end. On those days I simply do not have the energy to write before I go to sleep, as is my usual practice. I may or may not have the energy in the morning before work. That’s OK because my “schedule” for writing is based on weeks, not days. The trick is to not let the writing lapse happen for more than a day or two in a row. I have more time to write on the weekends and I know I can catch up then. Making sure I do it is a matter of discipline. It only works because I want to write badly enough to make it a priority.

The tricky part of this plan is figuring out how much writing to schedule for each week. All the books about planning and self-motivation I’ve read say that you should set a goal that’s a little bit of a stretch but not so large you get discouraged. For instance, if you’re trying to diet you might set a goal of one pound of weight loss every two weeks and tracking that, rather than immediately worrying about the 30 pounds you really want to lose. The same thing applies to writing. You might have a long-term goal of writing a 90,000 word novel but that’s so much effort it paralyzes many people completely. Instead, you might focus on a number of chapters to write in a week. Or a number of scenes or of words. The words don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be written. You can edit and refine them later.

I’ve tried a few ways of tracking progress. When I do the National November Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) or its associated Camp NaNoWriMos I use word counts because that’s how those events are structured. I tend to prefer the Camps because I can set my own goal for the month rather than tackling 50,000 words every time. The NaNoWriMo tools give you a daily progress graph, which I make use of by putting in my additional words every day. Most of the time I’ve written between 30 and 50 thousand words in NaNo months. In April I planned and wrote only 10 thousand. Why? Because I knew I had an exceptionally busy month. I spent nearly a week in Norway on business, exhausted at the end of each day, and another four days in New York City on vacation. I nearly missed my conservative (for me) goal when I came down with the mother and father of all colds immediately after my return from New York but pulled it off in the last few days. Even without a special tool, I find it helpful to track my weekly progress in a table. That way I can see how much I’ve accomplished when I hit a low point (and that happens to us all from time to time).

Right now I’m trying a different form of progress tracking. I received feedback from a professional editor on my 92,000 word novel and promised her I’d have the rewrite done by early July–eight or so weeks from my start. The version she saw had 85 chapters so I set a goal of completing 10 chapters of edits per week. Some of those are new material, I will delete other chapters to make up for them. Now, at the end of the first week, I’ve completed rewrites of 12 chapters based on her notes and our discussion and have a plan for the next several. I created a table in Microsoft Word to keep track of my daily and weekly progress (yes, I track progress daily even though my goal is weekly). Writing this blog, my first in a very long time, is my “treat” for completing my planned work.

Is my technique a “best practice?” All I can say is that it works well for me. It may well be disastrous for people who prefer a less structured sort of writing.

The bottom line is that your “best practices” are whatever works best for you, whether your’re writing or involved in some other endeavor. Feel free to try the practices of others. But feel equally free to ditch them if they’re not working.

Posted May 13, 2016 by Leoma Retan in Best Practices, Writing

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