Sarah Arthur’s Top Ten Tips for Getting it Done

– by Sarah Arthur

Q1: What is that one thing you must start/finish/work on? (Or, to put it in graphic terms, if you were to die in an epic car crash this afternoon, what would you regret never having finished?)

Q2: What’s keeping you from getting it done?


I’m not naturally inclined toward getting my writing done. So what I’m presenting comes after fifteen years in this business. We are fully competent adults at getting things done in other areas of our lives (e.g., running errands, mowing the lawn, parenting, ministry), and yet writing is this BIG MYTHIC THING that paralyzes many of us. We assume that inspiration will strike, and that’s when we’ll write. But most of the time, writing doesn’t just happen. As Anne Lamott says, it’s “a debt of honor” that either we keep by getting our butts in the chair, or we don’t. (Here’s a great interview with Anne Lamott about this and other aspects of writing.) In short, most of the things that keep us from sitting down to write are internal, not external. With that in mind, here are

Sarah’s Top Ten Tips for Getting it Done:

1. Prioritize your writing as more than just a hobby. If you can’t shake this project, it’s probably because you are being called to write it; and if you’re being called then it’s worthy work: it’s a job. If you think of it as a “job,” budget your time and finances accordingly.

2. Set aside designated writing time / make an appointment with yourself. If you have a dentist’s appointment, do you go? In my family this takes serious heroics (dentist’s appointments and writing) especially regarding childcare, but we make it happen because it’s important. It’s my calling, my job.

3. Accountability. Tell your loved ones & friends what you’re doing. Your goal is to have at least two people ask you in the next few months “How is the writing going?” Join a class or a writer’s group (even if it’s virtual). Or, like I do, meet with a friend for a writing date once a month: the goal is not to read & critique each other’s work, but to put your butts in the chair and to know that you’ve written nonstop for two hours at least once this month. Since your friend is counting on you, you’re more likely to show up.

4. Think in small chunks. If you have it in your head that you are WRITING A BOOK it can be overwhelming. Instead, give yourself word counts or page goals or sections, and don’t feel like you have to complete one thing before you can chronologically move on to the next thing. One small bit at a time.

5. Think like a binder or a scrapbook, not like a finished book. Yet. Here’s where it gets real for me: I write in Scrivener, which operates on a binder concept; but you also could create an actual 3-ring binder for your project. That way you can move material around, write non-chronologically, tackle the Acknowledgements if you’re stuck on something else (invent people to thank, if you have to), and not get hopelessly lost in endless word processing documents that are impossible to navigate.

6. Set deadlines. Even if they’re arbitrary, based on personal benchmarks (e.g., “I want to have this drafted by the time I’m ____” or “by the next writing conference.”), deadlines are super motivating. Especially if money or treats are involved.

7. Hold your work loosely. No combination of words should have the power to bind you–not even your own words. If you can’t “kill your darlings,” do what I do, which is give them a Time Out (lift that tricky paragraph or episode or story into a separate section of your binder, or into another document). And then move on to the next thing. You can always come back to that material later if you think you might need it. (You won’t, but it can be comforting to think it’s still there if you might.)

8. Think outside the desk. Changing where you write might be the break-through that you need (a coffee shop, a different location of your house, the kitchen table, your bed, someone’s cabin). Frederick Buechner wrote for a season in a Sunday school classroom of a church. I once finished a manuscript by escaping to a friend’s guest house for a week. Another author I know takes her fifth wheel to a campground and drafts her next novel in 1-2 weeks. ONE-TO-TWO WEEKS. Okay, ignore the insanity of that timeline and focus on the campground, where no one cares if you’re antisocial, as long as you silence your dog (my advice: don’t bring your dog); and everyone, not just the novelist, looks like they haven’t showered. Also, give yourself permission to take a break from the work: do something else entirely, something mundane, like fold the laundry. Your subconscious is still working, and sometimes you might have a breakthrough while you’re not working on the work you’re supposed to be working on.

9. Write as if you’re someone else. At heart, writing is not about expressing yourself (mucho bad writing has entered the blogosphere with that in mind); it’s about forgetting yourself. Maybe I’m weird, but when I pretend I’m someone famous (like Anne Lamott or Maya Angelou or Frederick Buechner or C. S. Lewis) my words are suddenly competent or funny or eloquent or articulate. If we write like the “masters” of our craft, eventually we can begin to improvise on their style and develop our own. But this takes time–and it takes reading many voices, reading all the time. Oh, and one slightly embarrassing side note: often when I edit, I read the manuscript out loud with a British accent. Yup. Amazing how intelligent your words can sound–and how obvious those moments of bad grammar can be–when it’s Hermione Granger saying them.

10. Give yourself permission to pick the low-hanging fruit while it’s ripe. Sometimes–rarely, but sometimes–inspiration will strike, and you have to write while it’s pouring out of you. So do what you need to do: take personal days or sick days, eat the awful snacks that keep you going, stay up till 4 in the morning, whatever it takes. The farmer doesn’t apologize when the strawberries are in, right? So harvest that stuff. Right. Now.

How about you? What’s your top ten list for getting it done?