One Piece at a Time: Break Your Writing into Chunks

In case you’re not familiar, Johnny Cash’s last number one hit was a song called “One Piece at a Time” about building a whole Cadillac by stealing it piece by piece from the GM assembly line. The chorus says it all: “I’d get it one piece at a time and it wouldn’t cost me a dime.”

This was the first thing that popped into my head after discovering the writing of Mr. Robert Boice. He was a professor of Psychology at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. He studied the work routines of his fellow academics and discovered that the most successful writers were those who wrote only small amounts at a sitting, but that worked every day. By making writing (or any other endeavor) a smaller part of your day it makes keeping up with it much more feasible. 

Let’s take a look at Boice’s twelve Rules of the Road for Writers. Even though he was addressing primarily academic writers, these rules can apply to all sorts of artistic endeavors (even chores or New Year’s resolutions).

1) Pace yourself: Work in brief, regular sessions, 10-50 minutes in length, no more than 3-4 hours a day, 5 days a week. Use a timer to help yourself keep the sessions brief, and take breaks between each.

This is something I have sort have been doing, using short 15-30 minute bouts of writing. However, I like the advice about wanting to write more in the day. Usually I would just push on. Boice recommends stopping and then starting another 10-50 minute session. 

2) Check for comfort: Pause while writing to check for comfort. Watch for signs of impatience and rushing, particularly thoughts about needing to finish in any one session.

The key here is to not try to squeeze everything into your writing session. Some things will have to be left for next time. I’m guilty of this. Often I cram just a little bit more into my writing time only to find myself getting cranky or speeding through the sentences. 

3) Stop when the timer goes off: Stop when you get to the end of your time limit, preferably in the middle of something (a sentence, paragraph, argument).

This is so hard to do. Yet the more I’ve tried it, the more rewarding it becomes. Why? Because the next time I start up a session I know it won’t drag on. I really can squeeze in 15 minutes of writing. 

4) Spend as much time pre-writing and rewriting as you do writing: Here Boice adds in notes that pre-writing can include noticing, collecting materials, taking notes, planning, outlining, making drafts.

I never really thought about writing this way. I always considered pre-writing as busy work or cheating. But now I realize how vital it can be. It’s dangerous to go too far one way or another. There are those writers who spend all their time researching and never actually get down to writing. Notice the balance Boice sets (an equal amount of time for both). The pre-write activities set your frame of mind and also guide your progress. 

5) Spend as much time socializing around writing as you do writing: Again, Boice is balancing creating with the connections we make with other writers or artists in our field. Socializing doesn’t mean drinking and partying. Boice defines it as talking with other writers about what you are writing. But he advises to spend only moderate amounts of time at either.

6) Make writing a modest, daily priority: Writing is something done routinely but not at the expense of living. Take regular breaks and avoid working when you are tired or in large, undisrupted blocks of time.

That last bit about large blocks of time is interesting. I used to strive to do my writing in the morning when others were asleep because I could dig in for a longer period of time. However, this wasn’t a reliable time so when I didn’t have these blocks, I eschewed writing. I think Boice is saying that those large blocks will tempt you into writing too long and break your comfort level (see rule 2).

7) Pay attention to your emotions: Do not get caught in reactive self-talk. Watch particularly for thoughts about what you “should,” “ought,” or “must” be doing as a writer and recognize them as the irrationalities that they are.

These are the thoughts that plague me. Wondering what the market wants in a story. Or what an agent wants. Or even what my critique group thinks is good. 

8) Avoid binging: Watch, above all, for the temptation to binge out of impatience to get something done. Remind yourself that bingeing leads to overreaction leads to depression.

It’s very interesting how in touch with the emotions of the writer Boice is. He talks about how binging will cause you to overreact (you weren’t in a place of comfort as in rule 2) and this will lead to depression. I’ve cycled through all of these on various projects.

9) Listen calmly and patiently to critiques: When you share your writing with someone, listen calmly and patiently to what they have to say. Find something in their reaction to your work with which you can honestly agree and ask for clarification about anything that they say that you don’t understand. But don’t expect everyone to like what you write or to read as carefully as you would like them to.

That last bit of advice is the best. Many people won’t give your writing the patient read it deserves and will simply comment on a gut reaction. Though that sometimes can be helpful, these people certainly won’t be able to offer you any concrete advice for improving your work. And yes, not everyone is going to like what we create.

10) Don’t fret about what the writing experience “should” be: Check again for any irrational thoughts about what your writing or the experience of writing “should” or “ought” to be like and dispute them. Remind yourself again of the link between strong emotions, hypomania, fatigue, and depression.

Stereotypes litter my brain of that writer alone in a forested cabin, typing up their masterpiece (thank you Stephen King). Or the writer scribbling away in a busy coffee house. I am so guilty of the second one. I used to think this was the only way one could write. 

11) If you start worrying, then stop writing: If you find yourself worried about not being busy/smart/productive enough, stop and do something else (like sleep) until you feel rested again.

I think this would be the hardest to implement. Yet the advice seems solid. You can’t do your best work if you are fretting about every little thing. Plus I love naps.

12) Start before you feel ready. Stop before you feel done.

Having tried the timer method, I can see how this final rule sums up the whole process. Since you are blocking only a small time, you don’t need any pre-rituals to get you started. Just sit down and get writing (or stare at the screen until your time is up). Likewise, by using a timer, you are bound to stop before you’re ready. I tried this recently while learning a new song on guitar. The timer went off and I put the guitar down. Even though I stopped playing, I found my brain still thinking about the process throughout the day. Yet the pressure was off. And I really wanted to start on it again at the next session, which is the point to having it be a daily activity.

Boice’s rules try to ritualize writing to the point that you don’t even blink when it’s time to get down to work. Yet I can see this technique work for simple chores or housework. Instead of pushing yourself to get it all done at once (binging) you tackle a little each day. When the time is up, you stop, knowing you’ll pick up where you left off later today or tomorrow. 

Break your art into chunks you can do every day. Even the most hectic schedule has time for ten minutes. Hell, that’s the time it takes to get a Starbucks.

Create each and every day.

Tim Kane

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