11
Aug 17

How to Start a Big Writing Project

One of the questions I get all the time is how to start a big writing project. Admittedly, big is a relative term, and means something different to everyone. But whether you’re a middle school student working on a five-paragraph essay or a doctoral candidate trying to crank out that thesis, getting started can be a stumbling block.

Tackling a big writing project can be tough! But I've got 5 tips to help you get through your next big writing project right here.

Original photo by Kari Shea

I feel right here is a good time for me to make a disclaimer.

If you’ve seen me on Twitter, then you know how prone I am to procrastination. There isn’t a week that goes by that I’m not putting something off by looking at all the tweets. So, if you feel that I may need to heed my own advice that I’m about to give, you wouldn’t be wrong.

Do you struggle when it comes to starting a big writing project? Click To Tweet

And while I admit that there is a fair amount of procrastination to my process, there is even more getting down to business. After all, I’ve completed more than one big writing project in my day. Whether it was my master’s thesis or books for ghost writing clients or the syllabus I’m working on now (HOW IS IT AUGUST ALREADY?!), I have a tried-and-true process to get you started on that big writing project that you need to crank out.

001: Minimize distractions.
This is when we close that Twitter tab on our browser. In fact, we shut down the whole browser. We close out everything that isn’t the word processing software we happen to be using. And we put our phone in the other room. And make sure the notifications are off.

I’m not trying to be jerk here, but you can’t write if you’re distracted. There is literally no such thing as multitasking, and if you think you’re succeeding at doing two things at once, you’re really just half-assing those things. (If you’ve got three things going, you’re third-assing. I could go on forever with the fractions.) Multitasking is a great way to make minimal progress on multiple things at the same time. So do yourself a favor and focus in on writing. That will make you get through your task a lot faster, and it won’t seem as daunting.

002: Get in the right headspace.
I know exactly what I need to create the perfect environment for writing. It’s taken me so much time to figure this out, but I’m glad that I finally have. I know I need quiet. I know I need to minimize external stimuli. I know that I need to be as far away from people as possible.

For that reason, I NEVER post up in a coffee shop. In fact, I can barely read in those places. Maybe there is an ideal, quiet coffee shop in an alternate universe that would be perfect for me, but for now, I live in a college town, and every cafe is chock-full of loud-ass students.

When I picked a new place to live, I made sure I found a place that had a space I could use as an office. I know I need the dedicated space to catch all my paper clutter associated with teaching as well as a place where I could sit and do any big writing project that came my way.

I know not everyone can have a dedicated space to work on a big writing project, so you gotta work with what you got. I highly recommend Ambient Mixer to help you tune out the world and get shit done. Invest in some headphones that cancel out other noises. And let everyone around you know that you are not to be disturbed. Because every time you stop to acknowledge a distraction, it takes you that much longer to get back into that headspace, and even longer to get your writing done.

003: Create a road map.
You aren’t going to remember all those brilliant points that you thought about when you originally conceived this project. In fact, if you haven’t written any points down before you begin, congratulations on creating the hardest project of all time. I’m not saying you have to create a full-fledged outline (though, depending on the project, you probably should because it can only help), but you need to know where you’re going.

I used to work with a kitchen manager at this professional wrestling-themed barbecue restaurant in the parking lot of a Walmart (real long story for another time), and every day he’d grab an index card and write out what he needed to do. And with that card that he kept in his front shirt pocket, he never missed a food order or delivery. He kept his crew tight, and the kitchen ran like a well-oiled machine. We’d open the restaurant together, and he’d say, “You can’t get where you’re going if you don’t have a map.” Then he’d flick the corner of that to do list, and go about his day.

I still follow that advice. It’s not uncommon for the screen of my laptop to be surrounded by Post-Its with the nonsensical ramblings of a mad woman. But I need those because they have my ideas, and those ideas are the map.

004: Don’t overestimate your potential output.
If you wouldn’t go to the gym after a long period of inactivity and try to max out your squat, then don’t do it with writing. Sure, you’re probably not going to tear a muscle writing, but your brain and body aren’t used to it, and you’re going to do more damage than good.

Writing is like a muscle. You have to exercise it or lose it. And while I’m not one of those militant writers that believes in working on projects every single day, I do believe that you have to work most days. So, if you’re a student who has spent all summer doing nothing besides eating processed food and watching YouTube videos, you aren’t going to go back to school in the fall and suddenly be able to bash out a 10-page paper in one night.

Writing is like a muscle. You have to exercise it or lose it. Click To Tweet

(You might be able to. But, it’s going to hurt like hell. And you’re setting yourself up for failure. Even if you pass this one paper, know that some professors won’t put up with shitty writing, and at some point, it will come back to bite you in the ass.)

So if you haven’t written in a while, maybe set yourself a small goal. Maybe on the first day, all you do is create that road map for the paper. Then, on the second day, you organize your research and pull the quotes you want to use and create your reference list. Then, you’re already familiar with the topic, and you’re ready to go. Sure, it will require hours of work and revision, but you aren’t overextending yourself in the beginning.

005: Stop tongue kissing boys.
One of the biggest mistakes my students run into is not managing time. No one writes all day long. (I mean, maybe on occasion, but not all day every day.) There’s a lot to life that’s way more fun than drumming your fingers on a keyboard while your eyes stare blankly at a screen. And that stuff will always come before writing if you let it.

When I was an undergrad, a particularly folksy professor of mine asked the class of junior-level creative writers what we were reading for fun. As creative writing majors, we had to take so many writing classes in addition to literature classes, and our nights and weekends were spent catching up on Tolstoy and Milton and Brontë. Surely none of us had time to read for fun too!

Wrong.

As my professor so eloquently put it, “If you got time to be tongue kissin’ boys, you got time to be readin’.”

(I feel I should state for the record that at that time in my life, I couldn’t figure out how to get a boy to tongue kiss me. Also, I had never heard the phrase “tongue kissing” in my life.)

Here's the thing about writing: It's a lot more fun to do other stuff like tongue kissing boys. Click To Tweet

Here’s the thing about a big writing project: It’s a lot more fun to do other stuff like tongue kissing boys. But the writing will still need to be done. So, if you’ve got time to gallivant around town with any ol’ fella who will kiss you, you’ve got time to write. Be honest about how you’re time is spent, and plan out how you will be using your time when you’re in the midst of the big writing project. It will save you so much hurt at the end.

Now let’s say you’ve followed these five tips.

And then what? Well. Okay. Here’s the thing.

You still have to write.

That’s the thing about a big writing project. It’s still a lot of work. But, if you follow these five tips, I promise you that it will become easier for you to complete. That’s not to say that it will be easy. But you’ll learn how to approach a big writing project, and honestly, knowing how to do that is half the writing battle.

 

What about you, fellow writers? How do you attack a big writing project? What are your keys to success? On average, how many hours a week do you spend tongue kissin’ boys?


13
Dec 16

Setting Your Own Agenda

One of the most frustrating things is the feeling that you aren’t setting your own agenda. The day gets away from you. You feel obligated to do things for others. The line between your day job and your home life blurs. It’s all well and good to intend to set your own agenda, but how do you keep it?

Setting Your Own Agenda

The Problem

Logically we know that there are 24 usable hours in every day. We know that we have to sleep for about 8 hours, and that we probably have to work roughly 8-10 hours. Then, that leaves anywhere from 6-8 hours for our own pursuits.

So how is it that days pass and it feels like we’ve got nothing done?

I used to find myself in that weird time warp all the time. See, I’m a procrastinator by nature. (Or maybe it’s nurture. I think I started doing it in high school as a way to take control of my personal agenda and rebel against how my parents thought I should be using my time.) I can take any little thing and turn it into a full-blown project if it means that I’m not working on the task I should be working on.

Example 1: Once, in grad school, when I needed to be writing a novel for my novel writing class, I completely arranged my bookshelves by subject, and then alphabetized them by author. (It is worth noting here that when I was in library school, I didn’t engage in that sort of behavior at all. Again, I can’t be made to do the thing I ought to be doing.)

Example 2: Remember the perfect storm? Yeah. I totally wrote a blog post instead of writing my course schedule.

Anyway, I have this tendency to put off what needs to be done. I like to do that by taking up other activities. And since I’m a first-world consumer with access to functionally everything I need, plus like 98% of the things I want, that means I have all the distractions I could want.

So, how do you get away from reading the internet for hours or scrolling through your phone when you should be working?

The Key to Setting Your Own Agenda

I wish I could say there was a way to cut out distractions easily so you could focus on work. There isn’t. But there are some good workarounds.

If you find that your phone sucks you in when you only intend to like a couple of Instagram posts, then may I recommend this super simple phone hack? This won’t stop you from reaching for your phone when you’re bored, but it will stop you from always feeling like you need to reach for it. Cutting out notifications was key for me, because it allowed me to focus on my own agenda, rather than letting my phone set it for me.

It’s been about 8 months since I first posted about that phone hack, and it’s definitely changed my relationship with my phone. I no longer feel obligated to respond to notifications simply because I don’t get them. And when I do stop to check my phone, I can do it on my terms and at a time when I have a moment to do so.

Oddly enough, the sun still rises and sets just as it always has if you aren’t constantly checking on who liked your tweets.

But maybe your problem is the internet in general. Maybe you find yourself sitting down at the computer to get to work, only to lose the first hour to nonsense. I totally get it. The struggle is real.

But here’s how I tackle that. I have a three-tiered approach.

Firstly, I only check email after I’ve completed at least three things on my to do list. If it’s a day I’m teaching, that means I may enter grades, scan student papers, and lesson plan before I check any emails. I also try to only check my email two to three times a day. That way I’m not babysitting my inbox all day, hearing notifications and adjusting my schedule to meet that of those who happened to send me an email.

Secondly, if I know I really have something to get done, I use the Strict Workflow Chrome Extension. When I click that little tomato in the upper righthand corner of my browser window, it gives me 25 minutes of focused time by not letting me access social media. Then, once that 25 minutes is complete, I get five minutes of break. And I repeat that as many times as necessary. It’s really good for grading and editing sessions.

Thirdly, I try to drown out all distractions. I used to exclusively use Stereo Mood for all my ambient music needs. They had some great channels with instrumental music that were ideal for writing. Now, I either find an instrumental station on Google Play, or I find a fantastically rainy soundscape on Ambient Mixer. (Check out my favorite Ambient Mixer atmospheres!) When something is playing, it’s much easier for me to ignore all the other sounds that usually become distractions.

Setting Your Own Agenda Is an Uphill Battle

Now, here’s the thing. You have to make yourself set your own agenda. My three-tiered approach and phone hack won’t do anything if you aren’t fiercely trying to control your time. You have to have the willpower of a saint, and you will have days where you fail miserably.

But remember, everything is a process. Don’t be hard on yourself if you lose an hour to creating the perfect Snapchat story. (I have been known to do that.) Take the yoga approach, here. You’re growing. And each new day is a new day to put some of this into play.

 

What about you? How do you go about setting your own agenda?


06
Dec 16

The 10 Best Ambient Mixer Atmospheres for Getting Work Done

If you haven’t experienced Ambient Mixer atmospheres yet, you’re in for a treat. You’re also about to get a lot more productive.

The 10 best Ambient Mixer Atmospheres for Getting Work Done

I wish I were the type of person who could just put my headphones on, blast music, and get work done. Unfortunately, I’m not. I’m a rather persnickety person, in fact. It’s hard for me to write or grade papers if the music I’m listening to has any lyrics. I pick up on the voices and find myself focusing on those instead of the work at hand.

While I don’t have a problem with instrumental music, sometimes it’s not the vibe I’m going for. Enter Ambient Mixer. It’s a site that let’s you choose an “atmosphere” to listen to. Ambient Mixer atmospheres are anything from fictional locations to everyday places to completely unreal soundscapes. But the best thing about Ambient Mixer atmospheres is there’s one for functionally any mood you’re in or want to capture. And the kicker? You can amplify or diminish any particular element of the atmosphere by cranking them up or turning them down. Basically, you can customize these atmospheres to your liking.

Here are the 10 best @ambientmixer atmospheres for getting work done! Click To Tweet

So, in the spirit of getting things done and setting yourself up for success in 2017 (the countdown to 2017 is upon us, after all), here are the 10 best Ambient Mixer atmospheres for getting work done.

001: Stormy Front Porch

I love the sound of rain when I’m working, especially when I’m writing. And I love the idea of having a big, covered porch that I can sit on with my laptop while I finish up a short story. This atmosphere is great if you’re trying to douse loud sounds, like music playing in another room, or if someone is talking right outside your office.

002: Hogwarts Library

Real talk: I went to library school, and I’m still pissed that Madame Pince hasn’t retired from Hogwarts because that’s the library job of my dreams. The best part of this Ambient Mixer atmosphere is the scritch-scritch-scritching of the quills on parchment. I recommend this atmosphere if you’re in a quiet space, but need a little sound so your allergy-induced tinnitus doesn’t become unbearable. (What? That’s just me. Oh. Listen to this anyway.)

003: Scottish Rain

What? I like rain. I stumbled onto this one by just clicking through to see what Ambient Mixer had to offer. I love the way the rain sounds in this one, but heed this warning. There’s a church bell in this one that really freaked my dog out. It’s set to ring every 10 minutes or so. Every time it would ring, Rosie would bark in the living room and then sprint back to my office to make sure I wasn’t being attacked. By a bell. So, if your dog is also a chucklehead, you may want to turn down the bell.

004: In Rivendell

I spent an absurd amount of my teen years imagining what it would be like to visit the last homely house east of the sea. I also spent a lot of years imagining that I was dating Tom Bombadil. (He’d be an amazing boyfriend, guys.) And, hell, I even spent a lot of time dressing like Frodo. This atmosphere is everything you could hope for when it comes to ethereal harping and the perfect bird sounds. Also that waterfall…swoon. I think this may be the perfect atmosphere for practicing yoga too. (I bet elves are hellagood at yoga — all handstands and impossible balance asanas.)

005: Victorian London

What, you want more rain? YOU GOT IT. While I think it would be absolutely terrible to live in the Victorian Era, I do like cobblestone streets. And, well, if I can hear the sound of horse-drawn carriages making their way over those cobblestones, I’m a happy camper. This is the perfect atmosphere to listen to while you’re reading, especially if you’re reading some Dickens.

006: Haunted Castle

Okay. So, lately, I’ve been way into ghost stories. I’ve spent way too much time in r/nosleep, and I’m kind of obsessed with creepy things. This Ambient Mixer atmosphere is exactly what it would sound like if you happened to find yourself inside a haunted castle. There’s a choir droning sound in this one that reminds me of the music in one of the first Tomb Raider games right when you’d turn a corner and be onto something. However, if you’re sensitive to squeaky sounds, you may want to fiddle with this one. I didn’t mind it, but Chris could only hear the squeak and nothing else when he was in the other room, and he found that pretty annoying.

007: Quiet Jazz Bar

If you’re the type that needs a little noise to get to work, you may enjoy this Ambient Mixer atmosphere. The tinkle of glasses and the quiet music balance really well with the general murmur of voices. I don’t think this one would be great for writing, but it’s definitely good for when you’re doing data entry, or formatting documents. And an added bonus is that when you listen to it, you can imagine yourself walking into a private eye’s office at the beginning of a noir film.

008: The Year 1612

This is another creepy one, and it’s ideal for writing scary stories. (Trust me on this one. I’ve been doing it a lot lately.) You definitely get the “misty woods at night” vibe from this one, so I don’t recommend listening to it while you’re home alone. This would also be a great one to play in the background at your next Halloween party.

009: Monastery at Night

I have a very elaborate fantasy where I go up into the mountains and live as a silent member of an artist’s colony for a year. This Monastery at Night Ambient Mixer atmosphere totally gives me that vibe. If you need to reset your brain a little and calm your anxieties, I think this is a great one. It’s something I like to use in the evenings when I’m transitioning from working on teacher stuff to writer stuff. I could also see this being a great atmosphere for shavasana, or just falling asleep.

010: Scottish Coffee House

I swear I don’t have a thing for Scotland. Well, okay. I do. But I wasn’t giving it preferential treatment or anything with this list. This is just the best coffee shop of all the Ambient Mixer atmospheres. It has rain against the window, a fireplace, and Autumn Leaves. Fair warning though: There’s a little not-so-seamless cut in the audio loop on this one, so it sounds like either a record scratch, or the sound of Slender Man coming near. (Did I mention that I’ve been reading a lot of r/nosleep?) If you aren’t a jumpy scaredy cat, this probably won’t bother you a lot. If you are a jumpy scaredy cat, you may have a heart attack each time it loops through.

Do you have a favorite Ambient Mixer atmosphere? Click To Tweet

So, what do you think? Do you have a favorite Ambient Mixer atmosphere? Any atmospheres I didn’t mention that you think need some attention? What do you listen to when you need to get work done?