By Christine Carron
A favorite book of mine is How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. It was first published in 1940. The back cover copy describes the book as “the definitive guide to reading comprehension and retention for students of literature, scholars across disciplines—and anyone who simply loves to read.”
In the preface to the 1972 edition, Mortimer explains that a key motivation for writing the book was that back then (as now) most reading instruction stops in grade school. That early instruction is designed to teach students the core reading skills needed to be able to read on their own. A hugely important outcome, yet one that only gets students to the first of four levels of reading that Mortimer and Adler outline.
Not having reading skills beyond that level results in students struggling unnecessarily when more advanced levels of reading are required. Mortimer is quick to note that this is not due to an inherent lack of capacity to read with more adeptness, but rather because “little formal training is provided to carry students to higher . . . levels of skill.”
I can make the same argument about writers and writerly work. Most writers are not trained in how to design their writerly work—i.e., set it (and them) up for success—beyond the basics of organizing and planning, such as setting goals, making to-do lists, using writing sprints, etc.
Those absolutely are great tools for writers to have in their work-management toolkit. Fairly quickly, however, even with writers at the very beginning of their adventure, the scope and complexity of their writerly work increases beyond the management capacity of those tools.
As a result, writers struggle to get their writerly work done, not because they are “bad” at writing or the writing process, but simply because their writerly work isn’t set up in a way that helps them get it done. That is totally unnecessary struggle in my opinion.
Like with reading, the problem has nothing to do with a capacity to learn more advanced writerly-work design techniques. The problem is that little formal training exists to teach writers those techniques.
That reality was one of my key motivations for founding Goodjelly. It was my primary motivation for creating The Jam Experience, Goodjelly’s signature course where the whole focus is on helping writers rock their writerly work using smart writerly work design.
Of course, with design, comes design principles, and at the foundation of The Jam Experience are the five guiding principles I created for smart writerly-work design:
If you want to be a writer, you have to write. No question. But there is a lot more involved in writerly work than just writing, such as craft learning, craft practice, critique group participation, learning new technology, research, querying, marketing, networking, creating your author website, etc.
If we do not acknowledge the breadth of the work we are actually doing, it is harder to manage and prioritize that work. It is also easier to fall into a cycle of inner criticism about the progress we are making, if the bulk of the work remains hidden and/or devalued.
When you design your writerly work for completeness, you give yourself the grace of acknowledging the full scope of your writerly work.
We will always have sweet spots in our writerly work. Work that we love to do. That is easy for us to do. That we are confident doing.
We will also have writerly work that we prefer less. Some writers hate revision and love drafting, while for others it’s the opposite. For the parts of our work that we like less, it is possible that our confidence level is not as strong. Perhaps we’ve avoided doing that work and/or learning how to do it well.
As we continue on the adventure, there will also be work that is new to us. This could be by choice, such as learning a tool like Scrivener; or as a result of where a writer is on the journey, such as a debut author navigating the launch of their first book. Our confidence level will vary depending on what the new work is, but in general there is usually some trepidation in doing something for the first time.
When you design your writerly work for confidence, you give yourself the grace of meeting yourself where you are.
Many of our writing goals, such as “write a book,” are long, complex endeavors. Not exactly a task you can slap on a to-do list and call it a day. That to-do would keep rolling over, day after day, and even if you are making solid progress, staring at that unchecked-off to-do item over and over and over again is going to mess with your mindset and your motivation.
Designing for movement is all about organizing your work into smaller bits so that you can move the work progressively to done. Every time you move work to done, it creates a positive boost for your mindset and motivation.
When you design your writerly work for movement, you give yourself the grace of seeing (and experiencing) the progress you are making.
Once we have movement in our writerly work, we can build momentum. Where, instead of it feeling like we’re dragging the work forward, it feels like the work is moving with us, or even flowing forward of its own accord.
If designing for movement is getting the ball rolling (which I would say it is,) then designing for momentum is keeping the ball rolling. It is about managing blocks, planning for the unexpected, and knowing how to regroup when things get really whacked off track. Like with a pandemic, for example. But also being able to adapt with aplomb when things go faster or smoother than expected
When you design your writerly work for momentum, you give yourself the grace of infusing ease into your creative process.
If there were one principle to rule them all, it would be this one. Designing for done means that every time you commit to a task, you also define what done is for that task, meaning you are clear what you have to do to get the task completed. I know that sounds obvious, but vague definitions of done are very common in writerly work.
Which begs the question: If we aren’t clear about what being done entails for one of our writerly tasks, then how will we know that we actually have it done? But beyond the process implications, of which the preceding question is the simplest, the bigger problem is the mindset mess(es) that might result when we’re not crisp with our definitions of done.
That lack of crispness is a boon for our Inner Critics, who now will be able to harangue us about how we should have done “more” on that task. It is a nightmare for our Inner Imposters, who now have even more supposed proof that we don’t know what we’re doing. And it is catnip for our Inner Perfectionists, who might decide to keep us spinning on that task, having us rethink it, refine it, redo it, reconsider it, revamp it, and re-whatever-else-it it can come up with. Yikes!
So to protect both your progress and your mindset, it’s important to make ousting fuzziness around definitions of done a priority. Then you will be well on your way to designing for done.
When you design your writerly work for done, you give yourself the grace of adding clarity and kindness to your creative process.
With these designing principles, I took over two decades of organizing and planning work in the corporate world and adapted that experience to the particulars of the writerly journey. One of those particulars is the fear many writers have about adding greater organization and structure to their writerly process: that to do so will constrict their creativity, possibly even force them to work in ways that they find stressful.
I hope with this post, you are seeing that the opposite is true.
When you integrate these principles and design your writerly work for completion, confidence, movement, momentum, and done, your writerly adventure will indeed transform. In ways that surprise and delight you. The struggle will lessen, fun will come calling more often, and you will be rocking (and reveling) in your writerly progress like never before. Sweet!