Content Objectives and Duration Objectives: Planning for Quality.
Planning writing can feel pointless. A lot of us depend on deadlines, caffeine fuelled all-nighters and forgetting how last time we promised we would never do that again. But for a book or PhD sized project – really anything where the finish line is years away and the work too large to write in a night – that approach is unsustainable. Probably. I mean, I’m prepared to give it a go. But there has to be a better way!
This article is about making the choice between planning your work based on content objectives (five thousand words by Friday, a 12 chapters by December) or duration objectives (20 hours a week, 0800-1200 Monday to Friday). We are always operating a balance between the time we have, how much we are prepared to invest and how good the work is going to be. Choosing the right intermediate objectives helps you prioritise the outcomes you want. So how do we choose the right sort of targets?
Last month I wrote about my plan for editing the first draft of a novel draft I have written. I mentioned that I was worried about the time estimates, but they represented what I needed to do to be finished by the end of the year. And I really want to finish it and write something else.
Unfortunately, editing is taking much, much longer than I planned. There are 73 chapters in my first draft. I have edited 6, which have become 10. This has taken me a month. 9 and 10 probably aren’t finished yet. And the book, which was already too long, is getting longer.
Worse yet, the process is catapulting me into a place of despair familiar to us all. I don’t think my book is very good. Now, I could force myself to edit faster so that I hit my deadlines. But that would involve ignoring some bits of the story that are, erm, well, shit. Really, really shit. Nobody look at that enormous pile of poo of there. Nobody smell nothing – if you don’t breath it in it can’t kill you. What do you mean, I should have stayed teaching law, because this book was always going to be crap and I’ll never be a good writer? When did I buy these razor blades and how did they get in my bag?
So, I’ve got a choice. Just finish the bastard and don’t worry that it isn’t very good. Or work on it until I make it good. Which may or may not involve ignoring an old saying about polishing turd. Is that enough of the scatological references?
I’m not prepared to give up. And I’m not prepared to accept the text as it is. So what do I do? Well, I’ve switched my work objectives. Let me show you how.
You may be familiar with this diagram:
The old project management joke is that you can only ever have two corners of the triangle (Good and Fast [thus expensive], Cheap and Fast [thus rubbish] or Good and Cheap [thus slow]). In reality, we all have to manage the compromise between the three. You can’t just give infinite time and cost to achieve total quality. Those things don’t exist.
Now, I don’t know what sort of writer you are, but I want everything I write to be good. I think most of us feel that way. But, also like most of us, I have made deliberate compromises on quality (I have, after all, written the occasional piece for Newspapers.[i]) And I’ve had times when the amount of time available or the amount of effort I’m willing to put in have run out and I’ve submitted what was written. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about my work. It’s just real life doing its thing.
For a creative writer cost is often about personal investment. How hard are you prepared to push yourself? What are you prepared to give up? You might say “I always give of my best!” But there are limits to what one has to give. There should always be things that you are not prepared to sacrifice for your writing.
I have a little boy who giggles like a maniac when we play football and goes to find a book then holds it up and says “Papa” when he wants attention (he knows me well). He isn’t going to be this small forever (and hopefully we’ll find other cool things to do when he’s too big for cuddles). I can’t live without writing. Actually, I’ve never tried. What a weird idea. But man cannot live on writing about spaceships alone. And if you tried to, I suspect what you wrote wouldn’t matter very much any more.
I know I throw this one up a lot, but you also have to think about your health. Yeah, sure, Hemmingway is spitting at me from his grave. But writing is hard work (try writing for eight hours if you don’t believe me.) Increase your hours, decrease your health. Decrease your health, reduce your ability to produce good writing. Plus, you know, decrease your health, which is a bad idea.
So the time you have and the investment you are prepared to make will always limit the quality of your work.
I would strongly argue, your first consideration should be personal investment. How important is my writing to me? Preserve things that are more important, reduce things are less important. You can’t plan to care more about your writing. You can think carefully about whether watching TV is more important to you than writing.[ii] And you should ensure you spend your time doing the things you care about most[iii]. See, this blog comes with free life coaching.
That leaves you with time and quality. But how do you turn this into planning – you know, specific measurable objectives?
I’ve written about setting yourself content deadlines and targets. I used daily word targets extensively when writing the first draft of the novel on which I am working. When revising my PhD I arranged chapter by chapter dates on which I would send work to my mother for comments.[iv] This is a good way to go when you have a fixed deadline (like a viva, the limits of your scholarship or the patience of a loved one), or, actually, when you’re blocked and you need something to force you through.
But, if we remember our triangle, what you are sacrificing is either personal cost, quality, or most likely both. Which is one of the reason final year PhD students tend to look profoundly ill. If you need to get a project finished, concentrating on time is a good approach – set deadlines with someone who cares about you enough to put up with your crappy drafts and check-up that you’ve finished.
But what do you do if you need a boost to quality?
It’s tempting to say “work harder,” and I’ve talked about why that is a silly target and you should be concentrating on “work the amount that this is important to you.” But there are other problems with just telling yourself to work harder. Obsessing over quality (which I expect you do anyway) has a nasty habit of making you work less and worry about deadlines more. And how do you break “make it more good” into quantifiable targets?
The trick is to switch from a content target (I will write 500 words today) to a duration target (I will work for 2 hours today.) At the moment I am editing in four blocks of a minimum of 30 minutes and a maximum of an hour before I take a break. Because of the nature of this phase, my editing actually involves a lot of new writing. It’s hard to say how long a chapter will take to edit because I don’t know how much new writing it will need. But as long as I hit my duration target I know I am actually working, and I can concentrate on quality.
This does require some discipline. You don’t want to end up like poor old Joseph Grand, endlessly revising the opening sentence of a novel we will never finish[v]. Equally, thinking really deeply about quality is a great way to find yourself drinking really deeply of absinthe. Choose your own poison.
I find it helpful to keep a tick off sheet for content alongside my duration objectives. In this case, a note of chapters either annotated, compiled or redrafted. This is retrospective – I don’t set a time for which it must be done, only a time by which it was done – but lets me verify that I am actually making forward progress. If you are writing/editing four hours a day and you still aren’t making any progress[vi], then you probably need to switch back to content targets and deadlines to give yourself some forward momentum. But as long as your list keeps growing, think less about the list and keep on working your hours.
Now that I’ve got to the end of this blog post I notice that it is largely a lot of wittering concealing a simple central point.
If you have a project that needs to be finished by a fixed time, plan on the basis of fixed content objectives by intermediary dates (chapter 1 by August 1st, chapter 2 by August 14th, etc…)
If you have a project where producing the best work you can is the main focus, or you can’t reasonably predict how long you need to make it right, then set yourself fixed amounts of time each day to work on your project. Make that your goal. If you wrote for an hour and produced a paragraph, fine, great, well done. You wrote for an hour. Delete that paragraph tomorrow and replace it? Doesn’t matter. You wrote for an hour. Keep it up, keep a loose note of your quantitative content progress (words/chapters/whatever), and as long as there is forward progress at the end of the month, keep it up.
In both cases, I find it helpful to have a friend, colleague or family member with whom you can check off your targets.
Finally, you probably want to switch between these two approaches over the course of your work. Content deadlines when you slow down or when a publisher/editor/supervisor demands, duration targets when you need to think deeply about quality.
I’m going to leave the wittering here. I don’t have time to edit blog posts, I’ve got real work to fix! Thanks for reading 🙂 Now, where did I leave my poo polishing rag…
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/134465805@N06/21623729612″>Wecker</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>
[i] Burn! More seriously, some of the finest writers I have met have been journalists – and there is a lot to be said for the discipline journalism teaches. But journalists operate under constant time and cost pressures. If we believe in our little triangular diagram, compromise on quality is the only possible outcome – and that doesn’t even have to always be a bad thing. Sometimes being on time is more important that bringing the best possible work, for example, in a race, on a birthday, or breaking a news story.
[ii] And, seriously, totally fair enough if it is. Nobody gets to tell you what is important to you. You can’t and shouldn’t work all the time, otherwise you’ll end up hacking holes in doors with an axe and shouting “here’s jonny!” That was the take home message of The Shining, right?
[iii] Remembering, everything in moderation, including moderation. I love writing but I don’t want to do it all the time.
[iv] She read more about insolvency law than she ever dared to dream. Actually, is there a verb “to nightmare”? Than she ever nerved to nightmare? Thanks Mam!
[v] Ok, maybe you do. But I have other books I want to write. See, compromising quality for time – we all have to do it sooner or later! Joseph Grand is a character from Camus’ La Peste, which is well worth a read.
[vi] Are you sure you aren’t using your time to do “research” on the internet? Yeah… me too.