On Creating Consistent Writerly Output
By Christine Carron
Imagine your favorite novel. Now imagine that same novel with no chapter indicators or chapter breaks, no indentations at the beginning of paragraphs, no line breaks at the end of paragraphs, no capitalization to begin sentences, and no punctuation to end them. Just one massive block of uninterrupted text from start to finish. Page after page after page.
It gives me the shivers just thinking about such a mind-numbing readerly slog.
But here’s the (exciting) deal. Chapter indicators and breaks, paragraph indentations and line breaks, all your humble periods, bold exclamation points, and inquisitive question marks, along with the ubiquitous capitalization of the first words of sentences are all doing very important work. They manage the flow and the rhythm of a reader’s interaction with the text.
And guess what that means? You are project managing the reader’s experience. Yes, managing the flow and rhythm of words follows the exact same principle that project managers use to manage the flow and rhythm of work to create more efficient and consistent output: strategic interruption.
Strategically interrupting work is a counter-intuitive aspect of project management, and one that can trip up junior project managers who might think their job has something to do with metaphorically flogging people to go faster, harder, now, now, now!
Work becomes easier, faster, more consistent (and fun!) when you have the discipline and chutzpah to strategically interrupt it. Just like you make reading your story easier, faster, more consistent (and fun!) for your readers by interrupting the text with punctuation, paragraphs, and chapters.
Who knew that being able to craft a sentence and format your text also trained you to be an ace project manager? Cool, right? Now we just have to apply that same principle of strategic interruption to your writing process so that you can more easily create consistent and efficient output. Oh, let’s go for more fun, too!
One of the best ways to do this is to use the concept of sprints.
Going Beyond the Granular
Your mind may have already jumped to sprints as they are often used in the writing arena: in the sense of short, timed writing sessions. These types of sprints are designed to help you hit your daily word and/or page count goals. Sprints like this are more like running sprints, where you get as many words down as you can in a specific amount of time, i.e., amp up your writing velocity and productivity.
Awesome, to be sure. Having a daily goal and using timed writing sprints absolutely instills rhythm to your writing output, but . . . only on a granular level. If we go back to our shiver-inducing, unformatted text example from the beginning of the post, page and word counts are like putting the periods and capitalization back in. Better, but still a fairly off-putting wall of prose.
So yes, we are certainly managing rhythm and flow better than we were without them, but if that is the only interruption technique we are using, we may still be leaving ourselves in a bit of an ongoing writing slog.
Instead, we need to be even savvier managers of our writing work and find the writing work equivalent of those higher order flow-through-interruption structures that we give to our readers: i.e., paragraphs and chapters.
For that kind of higher level perspective, we need a different kind of sprint. The kind of sprints that project managers use in the software development world.
Software Development Sprints
Building software, like writing a novel, is a long endeavor that requires focus and fortitude. There are different frameworks for managing projects, but one of the most effective (in my professional project manager opinion) uses time-boxed rounds of work lasting from a week to a month. Those time-boxed rounds are called sprints.
Time-boxed means that every round of work is a specific length of time. With the teams I lead, the set length is usually three weeks. When I am doing my own writing work, I usually work in two-week sprints. Whatever time frame you use, you keep that same time frame sprint after sprint. Like a heartbeat, that sets up the overall rhythm of the work.
The flow of work is managed, sprint after sprint, through the three key steps of a sprint (that include two strategic interruptions):
- Step #1: The Sprint Plan: This is a purposeful pause (i.e., a strategic interruption) where the team and stakeholders decide which tasks will be the focus of a particular sprint. By consciously saying this is what we will work on, the team is also stating this is what we will not work on. That creates focus. Whatever tasks make the cut during sprint planning is called the backlog of work for that particular sprint.
- Step #2: The Sprint: This is the bulk of the sprint. It is where the team completes the work in the sprint backlog.
- Step #3, The Sprint End: The end of a sprint is another strategic interruption to the work where traditionally there are two assessments. The first is a review of the work completed. This often means a checkpoint with stakeholders and a demo of work completed. The second assessment is called a retrospective, where the team evaluates what worked well (i.e., a celebration), what didn’t go so well (i.e., a reflection), and if any changes (i.e., adjustments) will be made in the upcoming sprint.
Planning Software-Style Writerly Sprints
Let’s make this real for writing work. Note: This framework can be applied to any style of writing a novel: from pantser to plotter to anything in between.
For this example, let’s assume you decide to work in two-week sprints. That means every two weeks (let’s say on Monday mornings) you are going to have your sprint planning session. Book that in your calendar. Then on the Friday at the end of the second week of the sprint, book your Sprint End session. Booking the sessions will help you keep your commitment to your sprint planning time.
Step #1: Sprint Plan
During your sprint planning session, based on your available time for writing activities, you decide what writing tasks you will get done during the upcoming two-week sprint (and what you won’t). This could be a specific number of chapters if you are in drafting mode, a specific number of chapters outlined, a specific number of character maps done, writing a query letter, whatever.
Example: You decide during your sprint planning session that you will draft chapters 5 - 7 for your work-in-progress; create chapter outlines for chapters 8 - 11 for the same book; revise a query letter for a completed book, and read pages/write up feedback for two critique group member submissions. That equals twelve discrete tasks:
Draft Chapter 5 (WIP)
Draft Chapter 6 (WIP)
Draft Chapter 7 (WIP)
Create Chapter Outline for Chapter 8 (WIP)
Create Chapter Outline for Chapter 9 (WIP)
Create Chapter Outline for Chapter 10 (WIP)
Create Chapter Outline for Chapter 11 (WIP)
Revise Query Letter (Completed Manuscript)
Read Critique Group Pages (Submission #1)
Write Critique Feedback (Submission #1)
Read Critique Group (Pages Submission #2)
Write Critique Feedback (Submission #2)
That is all there is to it. Sprint planning is officially done! And ideally did not take more than ten minutes. (It certainly takes longer with a team of six, but this is writing work you will be completing, so much easier to plan once you get the hang of it.)
By strategically interrupting your work to identify the specific work you will accomplish in a particular sprint, you are in effect adding paragraph indentations and paragraph breaks to your work. That means you have moved one level up in perspective. You no longer have a never-ending wall of work. You have added more rhythm. You will create more flow.
Possible objection: But Christine, I have no idea how long my chapters will be. How can I know how many I will finish in a two-week period?
First, is it really true that you have no idea? Will you write a 100-page chapter? A 50-page chapter? A 25-page chapter? Make a guesstimate of a reasonable average number of pages for the type of novel you are writing and use that to estimate how many chapters you can complete in a given sprint.
Sure, your first few sprint plans may grossly overestimate or underestimate your actual chapter output. That is fine. You are getting data about YOUR rhythm and flow–and your writing velocity. That data will help you plan better going forward.
In the end, ace project managers are not perfectionists; they are progressionists. Their goal is to progress the work forward again, and again, and again. Spring planning will help you do that.
Step #2: The Sprint
This part of the framework is pretty straightforward. Do what you said you were going to do. Put your ace project manager hat on and keep yourself focused on the work at hand. Do not allow fretting or moaning about all the work that might be left. Progress the work that is in front of you. Period. You can do this!
Step #3: The Sprint End
While a traditional software sprint usually has a review of the completed work with the key stakeholder(s), often with writerly work you are the main stakeholder, especially when you are churning out a first draft. So a big review is not needed. You know what you did.
Which means you can focus on the retrospective. A quick, clear-eyed assessment of what went well in the sprint, what could have been better, and what changes do you want to make for your next sprint.
Often a team will get caught up in what went wrong and what they could do better next time. You might do this, too. For example, maybe you see that you overestimated what you could get done. That could lead you to make a more conservative plan for the next sprint. Or it could mean you keep the same amount of writing tasks but try out a technique that would help you write more efficiently, i.e., faster.
Retrospectives allow you to pause, assess, and adjust. If you just keep going, going, going you do not get the benefit of savvy adjusting.
Savvy adjusting is a powerful move for sure. But I want to call out another power move of the retrospective. The celebration of what you did accomplish. This is the juice that brings our progress into clear focus; it breaks up the feeling that we are in a never-ending slog. Celebrations presence our progress.
When we celebrate, we joyfully acknowledge and recognize the presence of some person, thing, or achievement that delights us. The desire to celebrate is the longing to enter more deeply into the mystery of actuality. Longing is no longer directed away towards an anticipated future now, the present moment has blossomed. (John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes, p. 74)
When you want to be productive it is good to stay in the present. Celebration helps with that. It says, this is where I am, wahooo! Celebrating our progress (no matter how small) builds our motivation. Amps us up for the next round. We did this! Now, we can do more! Which leads us into . . .
Waltzing to Writerly Output
Daily writing goals and timed writing sprints give sentence-level interruptions to our work. Committing to specific tasks within particular software-style sprints gives our work paragraph-level interruptions. And it is the overall arc of software-style sprints, one after the other, that provides the highest level rhythm and perspective to our writerly output.
They are the chapters of our writerly work, and just like book chapters create bounded and motivating oomph when reading a story, so will sprint chapters create bounded and motivating oomph when we are working on our writing and writing-related tasks.
Instead of grinding out our writerly output, we will waltz through our writing work thanks to the sprints’ rhythmic steps of plan, flow, look at me go! And the best part of all of this is a point that I made early on: you already know how to do this.
You would never subject your reader to one big honking, endless block of text. And now you know that you never again have to subject yourself to one big honking, endless block of writerly work. Look at you go, indeed!
The Goodjelly Prompts of the Week
- Post-in-Action Prompt: Plan out your next two weeks of writing, using the software-style sprint framework.
- Scene Prompt: Write a scene where your character tries a new technique in their work or play. Let the character struggle, but also let their determination to succeed come through, too.
- Journaling Prompt: Do you buy that you already know the basics of project managing your writerly output? Does project managing your writerly output using software-style sprints bring up any charge (positive or negative) for you? If so, explore that further.
- Connection Prompt: Connect with your writerly peeps on the topics of generating consistent writerly output and techniques for staying motivated.
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