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Pre-Writing Challenge Weekly Updates

I'm participating in the Conscious Me Pre-Writing Challenge. Learn more.

I'm participating in the Conscious Me Pre-Writing Challenge. Learn more.

It’s done! The final week of the Conscious Me Pre-Writing Challenge is done, and I finished it up with a bang! If you have no idea what I’m talking about, check out my detailed description of the challenge and its rules. If you’ve already read through this mighty, long-coursing document once, feel free to skip down to the section heading “Week 4” for just the new stuff.

Anyway, this challenge is all about Writing it Early, which I talked about a few weeks ago, just as I was getting started. I thought it might be beneficial to you guys, my readers, to hear about my experiences throughout the challenge, since this whole process is an amazing exercise in daily writing, and in taking your blog seriously — two things you should definitely be working on.

I first sat down and wrote this post mid-way through the second week of the four week challenge. I updated it at the end of week 3, and I’m throwing in some comments at the end of Week 4 now. For my final analysis, check out the (much shorter) rewrite and review I did here. It’ll have the same illustration, and maybe a similar opening, but it should be a mostly new read. It’s also the last of these posts you’ll see in your RSS Reader.

One note: this is going to be a long one. Even when it was only half-finished, it was already twice as long as my regular articles, and it doesn’t contain any direct writing advice. If you feel like skipping it, by all means skip it. If you’d like to see what it’s like keeping a blog like this running, though, read on.


Back on February 10th, Carlos published a guest post on Website-in-a-Weekend suggesting that every blogger should always keep some posts in reserve. Write ahead, he said, for all the reasons I spelled out in “Write it Early, Review it Late” and more.

Given the audience of Website-in-a-Weekend, everything he had to say struck a chord, and half a dozen commenters piped up to say they really needed to get in the habit of doing exactly as Carlos suggested. I didn’t say as much, but I felt the same way. I’d felt the same way ever since I reviewed his post a month earlier, but I’d never done anything about it. That last bit was a common theme, too. We all know we need to work ahead, we need to give ourselves time to review and revise, but as creative people, we’re all in the habit of procrastinating.

When the conversation turned that direction, Carlos offered an accountability agreement with one or two people and the response was so strong that he decided we needed to make a support group out of it. Within an hour, he turned that idea into the Pre-Writing Challenge, and by the next day he had some ground rules and a mailing list. He asked me for help coordinating that (mainly by providing space on my discussion board for us all to discuss the challenge and share notes), so I could hardly sit out of the challenge.

So I agreed. Problem was, all of this really started moving on Thursday (the 11th), and I had a four-day trip to Little Rock planned for the weekend, to visit with family. So while the rest of the contenders were gearing up, building landing pages, planning out their posting schedules, and chatting in the forums, I was on the road to Arkansas. I didn’t really even get started until Tuesday the 16th.

That was still early, though. The challenge officially began on Friday the 19th, but we were all supposed to have certain information prepared before then, including landing pages (as I mentioned before), site descriptions and author bios and profile photos for everyone else to host, and a detailed goal for the project. For me — for what I’m doing here — that last one was the most work. I needed to spend four weeks writing two extra weeks’ worth of material, but everything I write here builds on itself. I couldn’t come up with any distinct material to develop outside the regular posting schedule, so I knew I’d have to figure out my entire posting schedule, out to the end of the challenge and beyond, before I’d know what my personal goal was going to be.

So that’s what I did, all night Tuesday evening. I sat on the couch in the living room while my daughter danced and spun and my wife watched old episodes of Dead Zone, and I worked on a spreadsheet. I made it in Google Docs, using rows for weeks and columns for days, and made up a color key to track what I’d accomplished. By the end of the night, it looked like this:

Posting Schedule 0There’s no need to strain your eyes trying to read the small print — it’s the colors that matter. Orange indicated a post that had a title (and nothing else). Yellow meant I’d started writing on it, light green that I’d finished a full draft, and dark green that the post was completely finished, and ready to publish. In the chart above, you can see that only three posts were done, and that first week was the week of the 14th (so, when I filled it in on Tuesday the 16th, I had all of a 2-day lead to work with, since that Thursday’s post was already done).

Just coming up with the titles was a challenge, though. I needed to figure out how they fit together, how they would build on each other, and make up at least a guess as to the contents of each topic, to avoid too much overlap or too little content, day to day. It forced me to think about my weekly writing exercises, too — something I’d just been throwing together the night before, up until then.

It was a lot of work. It was energizing, though. By the time I was done, just making up a bunch of names, I really felt like I’d accomplished something. Everything I was doing with the blog suddenly felt more solid. More real. I could gaze into the future, and see the blog still there, still churning content and serving readers. For a two-month-old blog, that kind of confidence means a lot (even if it’s only a peek six weeks in the future).

See…I’d spent most of those two months feeling excited about the project, but also constantly dangling over the edge of failure. I’ve started a lot of projects in my time, and I’ve never had a terrible dedication to hard work and intense effort. That’s what serious blogging is, though. So Unstressed Syllables felt fragile, even when friends and family told me it was valuable from the start. It felt like a trial run, even when I started getting visits (and praise, even) from strangers. I woke up every morning knowing I had to get a post finished today, and if I didn’t, the dream of the site probably wouldn’t survive to the weekend.

One silly color-coded spreadsheet changed all that. That Tuesday night, my bedtime came and went, and I sat moving cells around, tweaking titles, and second-guessing writing assignments until I felt like I really had something I could work toward. Then I shared the spreadsheet with Carlos, just because I was so proud, and I called it a night.

It took me the rest of the week to get my challenge page built and filled out, to get my site information to the other contestants, and I knew I had a busy weekend coming up, with family coming in from three states to celebrate my daughter’s birthday. I made the commitment anyway. I’m an old pro at NaNoWriMo, an event that takes place in a month that includes not only Thanksgiving, but also my own birthday, so I’ve long since learned that big projects have to coexist with life disturbances. I sighed about it some, but I went ahead.

And I’m glad I did.

Week 1

My goal for the challenge was just to change those bottom two rows on the chart to green. I couldn’t really do that without filling in most of the rows that came before, though — and those rows that came before would be coming due pretty rapidly. So I started at the front, at the top of the list, and worked my way across. I filled out the first week with rough drafts.

On Sunday night, after my family had all gone home and the festivities were over, I sat with my laptop while my wife watched Glee and I filled out the writing exercise for Monday, just as I had for weeks before. When I got done, I was all ready to put the work away and play a game, but before I did I spotted the Google Docs tab open in my browser. I clicked over to my posting schedule, and smiled as I changed Monday’s post from orange to dark green.

Tuesday’s post still smoldered next to it, though. It just said, “Finding a Topic,” but it was a post I’d been thinking a lot about for the last week. That was the one that translated “Write what you know” into useful advice, and I felt like it had a lot to offer everyone participating in the challenge. I nodded to myself, suddenly determined, and opened WordPress back up. Before I went to bed Sunday night, I was another day ahead.

On Monday, when I had some time to write, I went back to my posting schedule. That Thursday’s post, “RPGs and Character Profiles,” was just a rehash of some information I’d shared with a couple of writer friends back in November. I wanted to capture it in writing, but there weren’t any new ideas there. So I went to WordPress, and I wrote the post. Just like that, I was nearly a week ahead. Friday’s writing exercise flowed naturally out of the article, so I went ahead and scribbled that down, too.

The writing exercises were always going to be the easiest. I knew that from the start, and when I saw how little effort it took to finish off the week, I flowed right on into Monday of the next week. Another twenty minutes, and another writing exercise was done. Then I started skipping. I did rough drafts of writing exercises all the way out to the middle of March. At last, I had some green.

It was encouraging. Instead of stressing every night about my deadlines, I was half a week into the challenge and already a full week ahead on my schedule. I didn’t get to work much Tuesday, but that didn’t bother me. I was ahead. Then on Wednesday, when I did have some times, I didn’t really feel like writing the next consecutive post (the one that would go up the following Tuesday), so I skipped it. I went ahead to next Thursday’s which sounded like more fun, and flew through it.

On Thursday I tackled the one I’d skipped, “Audience Analysis,” but I needed some feedback from Dad to get it exactly right. No problem! I drafted what I could, then sent him an email, knowing I had four days still to get it sorted out. If I’d waited until the next Monday night to write it, I’d have had to go on instincts, and publish it with a list of questions that Dad ended up telling me was “exactly backwards.” Instead I had time to get it right, and I got in a couple extra revisions in the meantime.

By the start of the day on Friday, exactly one week into the challenge, I was having a lot more fun writing for my blog than I ever had before. It was easier, it was less stressful, and the quality was better. I wasn’t actually ahead anymore, though. I had some drafts done, but my only finished post was one writing exercise for late March. I recognized that, going into the weekend, and determined to come out of it with a lot more green.

Posting Schedule 1Week 2

I managed it, too. My wife took the kids to Kansas, for a big baby shower with her family, and left me home to get some work done. I made the most of my time alone, and by the end of the day Sunday I had two full weeks of dark green. It meant I had to skip goofing off with my best friend on Saturday afternoon — he did come over, but ended up spending a couple hours over on the other couch reading, while I tapped away on my laptop.

It also meant putting off video games and stupid movies on Sunday, spending my time instead crawling around Flickr looking for suitable illustrations. I got my feedback from Dad, though, and finished out Tuesday’s post. I figured out how to introduce Thursday’s, and how to finish off my “Reader Response Questions” post.

I went through all those articles one by one, filling them out up to my word count, and then flagging them as light green (finished first draft) over on my spreadsheet. Then I went back through them again, adding metadata, picking excerpts for my newsletter, assigning categories and tags, rereading in the preview window and fixing all my little typos. Then, one by one, I got to change them to dark green, and with each one done, I felt better about myself.

Then a funny thing happened. Last night, I was sitting on the couch with my wife, watching Glee with the laptop closed, watching Lost with my full attention, and then suddenly it hit me. I groaned aloud, and when my wife asked what was up, I said, “I’ve got a blog post due tomorrow, and I haven’t reviewed it yet.” It was already late, but the post was scheduled to publish before I was scheduled to wake up, so it was something I had to do.

Two weeks ago, I would have been saying, “I haven’t written it yet.” So already I was in better shape. It was still an awful feeling, knowing I was late, knowing I had to scramble to do something I should have given real time to.

So I pulled out my laptop while she went to bed. I opened up WordPress, clicked through to the next day’s post, and immediately recognized the photo I’d added on Sunday. I started scrolling through the text, but it was quite familiar. Courtney had reviewed it last Thursday, and I’d read it aloud to my wife Sunday night. It was done. I think I caught a typo, maybe fixed an agreement error, but it was done. Instead of staying up late to review my post, I clicked over to Twitter and posted a proud announcement.

Really excited about tomorrow’s post. I wrote it last week for the #Prewriting challenge, and just reviewed it. Awesome stuff.

Then I shut down for the night, and went to bed. I did get more writing done yesterday, too — another first draft finished, and another post started today, and that leaves me with not a single orange cell on the page. That’s a good place to be. It’ll only get better, too.
Posting Schedule 2

Week 3

A lot happened in week 3. I sped forward on the challenge. I finished off all the posts that would be published during the challenge, so for the first time I got to start engaging the ones I’d committed to as my goal.

On the chart I’ve shared, the goal posts are the ones to the right of the dates 3/21 and 3/28. In the image above (from the end of week 2), you can see that all but one of those is yellow. I’ll add my chart for week 3 below, but I’m prepared to give a little bit of a spoiler here: that’s changed.

In fact, during week 3, I completed half of my challenge posts. I tied the ribbon on two of my four articles, and two of my four exercises. They’re good, too. I could feel that when I was finally typing them up, because these were articles I’d come up nearly a month ago, titles I’d been glancing at every hour or so for week, so even though I was busy working on the earlier posts, these eight had been very much on my mind. When I finally sat down to write them, they just flowed.

It was magnificent.

It also forced me to confront one of the issues that was brought up back in those long-ago comment threads when the Pre-Writing Challenge was first born: I hate having to wait. Several commenters said as much. When I’ve got something good, something finished, something I’d like to share with my readers, I hate having to wait for it.

It’s good for me. Everything about this challenge has been a positive experience, and I know for a fact that my blog is healthier because of it. It’s still agony, though. The worst was week 3’s Thursday post, “Reader Response Questions,” which ended up being just a love letter to my adorable wife.

I wrote that three weeks ago! I wanted it to be a surprise, though, for our anniversary. So I kept it my little secret, and I waited, but every time I popped into WordPress to check up on my pending posts, I’d skim that one and just shake with nervous excitement. I wanted to see it up. I wanted to see Trish’s reaction!

There was also some nervousness there — how would my readers respond? — but that turned out pretty unfounded. It proved to be a popular post.

I did supplant one of my original challenge articles (and the writing exercise that went with it), pushing those two back to the end of April. Why? Because right at the end of week 2, Carlos introduced me to this awesome blog, a perfect resource for my readers, and I just had to share it with them.

I couldn’t wait two or three or four weeks to trickle through my current plans! I had to share it right away. I’ve got a schedule, though, and I stuck to it. It’s a creative writing article, which means it has to go up on Thursday. This Thursday was already taken with the anniversary post, so I slotted the new one in for next week (Thursday of week 4), and bumped everything else to make that happen.

It’s going to be a good one. Watch for it!

Anyway, as I stick to the challenge, as I cultivate and groom my posting schedule and casually pluck the ripest-looking post from the list whenever I find myself with some writing time…it’s getting better and better. Every day it gets easier.

There was a time when this challenge seemed impossible, but as I’ve done it, as I’ve made room in my life for the work that needed doing it has become, instead of an obligation, a liberation. The forethought, the planning, the extra effort all combine to create efficiency and effectiveness and elegance out of what would otherwise have been frantic and sloppy.

That takes me back to some of my earliest writing advice, Building with Words. It’s all about deliberate structure, and making something that can stand strong. Week 3 sees me within four posts of completing the challenge, and those should be easy ones all. Check back next week to see how they go.

Posting Schedule 3

Week 4

By week 4, I only had four new posts to write. I hit my writing exercises first, and knocked them right out. Maybe half an hour total to get both done. Then I got one article done over the weekend (scribbled in a scribblebook), and the other one cleaned up Wednesday afternoon.

I hit Publish on that one, then dove right back into my list of Posts to see what else I needed to do…and it took me a while to realize I was finished. I clicked over to my Posting Schedule, updated the post I’d just finished, and then everything was dark green, top to bottom.

Posting Schedule 4

I posted a jubilant Tweet and sent a notification off to Carlos. Then I closed my web browser, and moved my attention on to another project.

Over the weekend, I wrote up a brief update for Carlos, and then did a complete rewrite of this post so Carlos could include it on his blog as a guest post. Consequently, that rewrite (much trimmed down, and more to the point) has gained the official title (and link) “My Experience with the Conscious Me Pre-Writing Challenge.” To facilitate that, this one is now “Weekly Updates.” I hope that doesn’t mess up anybody’s links.

Thanks for all your comments, and your support throughout the experience. It’s been an incredibly good one, and you can find my final thoughts by clicking on that link above. Now that my blog is rolling smoothly along, I’m looking forward to some big new projects, including the upcoming Blog Maintenance Challenge (by Dave Doolin), and even putting together an e-Book Challenge of my own. I’ll keep you posted as that comes around.

9 Responses to “Pre-Writing Challenge Weekly Updates”

  1. Ralph says:

    Very nice summary of your work on the challenge. Much more detailed than mine but I hope to get better organized over time.

  2. Trish Pogue says:

    Ok, I’m impressed. Can you help me get a spreadsheet for my blog? I want to work harder on my blog and enjoy it too. This sounds promising.

    Oh, contrary to this blog post, I don’t watch that much tv.

  3. Aaron Pogue says:

    Thanks, Ralph! I appreciate you stopping by to comment. I started blogging a long time ago (long before Unstressed Syllables) as a way to supplement my pretty flaky memory, so I do tend to lay on the detail pretty thick. I know a year from now I’ll be glad I did….

    And yes, Trish! Of course I’ll help you get your spreadsheet set up. Mine has made my life easier, mainly by giving me concrete, visual targets to aim for.

    You’re right, too. I kinda oversold your TV viewing habits. I was trying to show how much I was sacrificing, for the sake of the blog, because otherwise I’d’ve been watching it all with you.

  4. Dave Doolin says:

    Whoa… this is a long one!

    I’m working PWC into my schedule now. I’ve written ~1000 words on my current experience, and will have plenty more to write in the near future.

  5. Aaron Pogue says:

    Indeed it is, Dave. I’m nothing if not verbose.

    Then again, on something like this, it will be nice to have the detailed account down on paper, so I can hack and trim to produce a more elegant chapter for Carlos’s e-Book. I’m looking forward to that.

  6. Aaron,
    I am seriously impressed. I have a table set up in a word document but haven’t gone as far as colour coding it for fear of scaring myself with so much orange 😉

    Starting this challenge a week later that most everyone else, I can’t afford the time to go back and set it right now but it’s a learning curve and there is so much from this challenge that will help in the future.

    Great job. Can’t say more than that, I’ve still got another 23 posts to write before next Sunday 😉


  7. Aaron Pogue says:

    Thanks, Eleanor! I’ve got to admit, the wall of “not even started yet” posts was pretty intimidating when I first got to it, but at this point (only three weeks later), I don’t think I could function as a blogger without that simple little spreadsheet.

    I definitely understand the pressure of starting late, but I’m confident you’ll get amazing things out of it. It’s a lot of work, but it pays dividends. Good luck!

  8. Courtney Cantrell says:

    “…the post was scheduled to publish before I was scheduled to wake up…”

    I love it. Congrats, Aaron–you have done and are doing amazing and inspiring work! I’m miles behind you…but my first pre-written WILAWriTWe post will be going up less than two days hence. I’m excited about it. It’s a nice feeling to know it was done a week early, with plenty of time left for review!

  9. Aaron Pogue says:

    That means the world to me, Courtney. It’s so hard to find the time and energy to get started (I really know), but it’s amazing the benefits you can get from doing it right. I’m so glad I did!