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Write it Early, Review it Late

Plan ahead to improve your writing

Plan ahead to improve your writing

I’ve talked a bit before about my blog-posted serial novel, Sleeping Kings. While my official posting schedule changed from time to time, the most common schedule over the course of that project was one 1,500-word scene every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

That project was my first foray into real-world fiction (everything I’d done before had been traditional fantasy). It juggled five POV-protagonists, and frequently forced me to guess at details I’d have to adhere to in future scenes (and sometimes retcon like a madman). In the end, it produced a 180,000-word manuscript, which is a big ol’ beast. Even with all of that, the biggest challenge of the entire project was midnight, Monday/Wednesday/Friday.

That’s the biggest challenge of any blogging project: keeping up with the blog’s posting schedule. Really, it’s just a regularly recurring version of what is the biggest challenge for every writer: writing to a deadline.

The Midnight Panic

Even though the Sleeping Kings blog is years in my past, that old midnight panic has been much on my mind lately, as I’ve committed myself once again to a blog with a regular posting schedule. I started strong, with Unstressed Syllables…but then, we always start strong. Recently I’ve started slipping a little, and last weekend’s holiday trip out of state was the final straw.

We drove all day Friday to get to Little Rock in time for a big dinner with family. After that I watched the kids while my wife got in some much-deserved scrapbooking time with my mom, and by the time I got the kids all in bed, finished up a conversation with my dad, and hauled out the laptop to get online, I realize it was already after 10:30. In that instant, I remembered. In the dark, quiet house, when I was the only one still awake and illuminated only by the glow from my laptop’s monitor, I remembered the frantic scramble to get a post written, to get it “good enough,” and to get it online before the clock rolled to tomorrow.

And as that memory hit me, I shook my head and asked myself the same thing I kept asking myself way back then, “Why do I do this to myself?”

After all, the deadline wasn’t a surprise. I’ve been doing a Creative Writing Exercise every Friday for six weeks now! It wasn’t that I was stuck for content, either. I knew two week ago that the exercise for Friday was going to be “The Big Event.” The problem was all on me. I’d just flat-out failed to make the time, to sit down and write my post.

Writing to a Deadline

That’s not just a problem for bloggers. It’s a problem for technical writers and engineers, too. I encounter it at work all the time, with closing time looming. It’s a problem for anyone who has to write for a deadline. Heck, for most college students, it’s a way of life.

There are techniques for handling that last minute writing, skills you can learn to make it as good as possible, but in the end that’s all just damage control.

You cannot write your best quality work unless you write it early.

This is coming from an English major who wrote all his papers at the last minute and got an A on pretty much every one of them. Maybe you had the same experience in college. I’ve now been writing and correcting documents in the real world for eight years, though, and I can tell you that what worked in college isn’t good enough in the real world.

A lot of the things your English professors obsessed over aren’t terribly important in the business world, but there’s also things they let you get away with that could end up costing you a lot of money. Or a job. When it comes to any sort of writing you’re doing that matters, you can take this rule for granted: If’ you’ve just written it, you’ve written it wrong.

Fresh Eyes

There’s several reasons for that. The biggest of them is your inability to catch the mistakes you’ve made. When you review your own document, it’s incredibly difficult to see what’s actually on the page, instead of what you meant to put on the page.

Giving yourself some time between writing and reviewing does make that a little easier. Editors refer to this effect as “fresh eyes,” saying that if you come back to a document after a day or a week, you’ll catch things with fresh eyes that you glossed right over before. Then again, editors also know the only truly fresh eyes are those that don’t belong to the writer.

That’s another matter altogether. I’ve talked several times about the value of getting good feedback, but getting feedback at all takes times. If you want to have any hope of getting and incorporating criticism before a deadline, you’re going to have to do your writing way in advance.

Brain Stew

Catching errors isn’t the only benefit of writing early, though. Giving yourself some extra time to think about the document doesn’t just make it “less bad,” it often makes it much better. That’s because of an effect I like to call “brain stew.”

When you’re cooking, you learn pretty quickly that one of the most important ingredients in any recipe is time. Not thyme, actual time. Every recipe calls for it in some specified amount, and getting it wrong will ruin an otherwise perfect dish. A lot of my favorite recipes aren’t really any good at all until they’ve been allowed to simmer, to stew, often for hours after all the kitchen work has been done.

Writing’s the same way. When you throw together a draft of a novel, even if you’re self-editing along the way and working to make the best possible first draft, you’ve still only got a bunch of raw materials in the pot. It’s only then that they really start cooking. Any writer can tell you that putting “The End” on paper doesn’t do a thing to stop you thinking about the document. It’s still stewing in the back of your mind.

The supporting ideas break down and mix together, the argument distills, the structure comes to a rolling boil, all while you’re driving home from work or sleeping soundly or watching a rerun of House. Then at some point, hours or days later, some really fantastic ideas come out of all that consideration. For most of my college career, those ideas were just coming together around the time my professor was reading my paper, days after the dish had been served. In other words, way too late.

As I said before, that’s not a huge problem in school. Professors are used to grading last-minute papers. It matters in the real world, though, when the things you’re writing start shaping your life. When your boss is reading your self-evaluation, or when the bank’s loan officer is reading your business proposal, you want them sampling the very best version of your work. That’s reason enough, right there, to get it done early, and give your brain stew some time to get it perfect.

The Special Challenges of Blogging

Of course, blogging has its own challenges. It’s hard to make every post as good as it can be, when you’re still stewing on the last three posts you wrote and you’ve got two more to do before the weekend. All too often, we take that as an excuse to cut it down. When you’ve got to get four articles done a week, it just makes sense to get accustomed to the midnight panic, and do everything at the last minute.

The real solution, though, is to write completely outside your posting schedule. Write every post so far in advance that you’ve finished stewing on it, you’ve looked at it with fresh eyes more than once, and you’ve finished getting reviews on it. I learned that with Sleeping Kings, and when I finally got into a rhythm and finished that project, I was writing my scenes a full month in advance. It was agonizing at times listening to my readers’ questions and concerns and knowing the answers were coming, knowing they were already down on paper (and often really cool), but that my readers wouldn’t know that for two weeks.

That was better than the frustration of slipping, though. That was better than the midnight panic, and the compromise (when Monday/Wednesday/Friday became Tuesday/Thursday, and even those were usually a day or two late), and way better than the frustration of going months at a time without writing.

I found again and again that writing to a deadline, on the deadline, was too stressful to keep up at all. When I got ahead, though, it was easy. It was fun. It was the project I’d wanted to do in the first place.

The Conscious Me Pre-Writing Challenge

The sad thing is, I learned that lesson and then I lost it. I’m right back there, all over again, with Unstressed Syllables. I spent the weekend overwhelmed, wrestling with my posting schedule, thinking about compromising (and putting posts up late), and then Carlos saved the day.

My friend Carlos is working on a personal development blog that he started around the same time as Unstressed Syllables. Last week he wrote a guest post on some of the same principles in this article, and in the excited discussion that followed, he proposed a plan for a big pre-writing challenge. His goal is to get two full weeks’ worth of posts stockpiled, and he’s determined to get all the bloggers he knows to participate. It’s an ambitious goal, with a big group dedicated to support and advice and accountability — really, in a lot of ways, it’s like National Novel Writing Month, and you know I’ve got nothing but good things to say about that program.

So I’m in. If you’re a blogger (and, if you’ve been around for more than a week, you should be), consider joining in. You can find details here, and watch this page for updates on how I’m doing.

4 Responses to “Write it Early, Review it Late”

  1. jmatthews says:

    hey Aaron Carlos keeps telling me to check your stuff out especially the novel stuff. I am posting some of my short stories in 500 (or so) word bursts on Saturday’s.
    I will see you more in the challenge!

  2. Aaron Pogue says:

    Hey Justin, thanks for stopping by. Carlos has told me about your Saturday fiction, too, and I’ve got to check it out.

    I’m doing Creative Writing advice on Thursdays, and general writing on Tuesdays, if that helps you track down the novel stuff. Let me know if it helps, or if you’d like me to talk about anything special.

    Oh, and good luck in the challenge. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be super helpful for all of us.

  3. Carlos Velez says:

    Dang. That was beautiful. You said all that incredibly well. Please tell me you let that “stew” for quite a while and didn’t just pencil-whip it last night around midnight.

  4. Aaron Pogue says:

    Aww, Carlos, you’re making me blush.

    When it comes down to it, everything I’m posting on here has been stewing for at least seven years, and it’s been at a rapid boil ever since I started teaching creative writing to my first two students (my dad and sister) back in 2007. This is my whole life, after all.