When I’m putting together my writing plan I have two things in mind. First, I think about what I’d like to write. This might seem unnecessary, but there is always something tugging at our sleeves trying to divert us from what we think is important or exciting. We know when this tugging has worked, because we find ourselves writing whilst dreaming of the things we would actually prefer to be writing. The beauty of a good writing plan is that it helps with increasing the amount of time spent on real enthusiasms. It gives the confidence to stick to the agenda we have set for ourselves. It provides a solid beacon in some fairly inclement times. For me, it acts as an anchor point to help me to resist getting pulled over onto someone else’s agenda.
I try to formulate my writing plan around my enthusiasms – I aim to maximise the time I spend on them. So, the second thing I think about is what, amongst these ideas, is the thing that I want to prioritise. This is because the second job my writing plan is to keep me focused on writing one thing at a time – I might be thinking and developing more than one project, but I tend to have one writing project at a time. The writing plan tells me what I should be working on when I get an hour, a half day or whatever is available. I think that helps to limit wasted time. My writing plan usually has one current project or possibly, occasionally, two things. I never stretch to three. If I end up with three I demote one – usually the thing that is the least urgent – to prevent me being paralysed by the uncertainty about what to work on when I get to my desk. My preference is to have only one prioritised writing task, which I try to make match with the thing that I really want to work on, if possible. I always have a main project which I know I can turn to when I get any space (which I often schedule in my diary). Sometimes the plan gets disrupted, but generally it stays in place. Probably the key thing to doing this is by saying no or picking opportunities based on what the writing plan is saying to me. The writing plan is in charge – I can change it if I want, but only if I’ve got something more appealing than the original plan.
My plan has three sections. These are headed: ‘now’; ‘next’; and ‘after next’. What this allows me to do is to be certain about what I’m currently writing, to have a strong sense of what I will do when the current project is complete. I usually have about 3 options in the ‘next’ section, so that I feel I have options that I can select from. When the project in the now section is complete, I choose which option from the ‘next’ section to promote. The third category ‘after next’ is a way of capturing potential ideas without worrying if they will ever happen. It is like having a safety net of ideas that I can turn to if I need them. It makes me feel like I’ve got plenty of options for work over the coming years, so I never need to worry about where I will go, I’ve got options that can be moved forward. As a result, I have a list of around a dozen things in the ‘after next’ section. The three part structure gives me focus and options for the future. If I come up with an idea, I think about where it might go. I’d rarely add it to the ‘now’ section, because I’ll usually have something on the go, but I decide how likely it is to ever become a reality and use that to put it into ‘next’ or ‘after ‘next’ – similarly, I sometimes move things between those two categories as my thinking develops. To emphasize its importance I always have a print out on my wall as well as backed-up the Word file. It’s important not to be too rigid in the plan, it’s also important not to let it get hammered down to easily.
I do give myself some space and variety though. I nearly always have a book review on the go alongside my main writing project. I don’t put those on my writing plan, but they seem important – helping me with my current or future projects, or just because there is something interesting I want to know about. I let the book reviews follow whatever path emerges – sometimes these end up not as reviews but as interviews with the authors. The book reviews give me something small to work on, which can help me to make the most of moments when other writing is perhaps a little hard. They also help me to formulate and imagine future projects to be added to the plan.
Not everyone can or should plan the same, but my writing plan is central to my work. It doesn’t control the writing, it supports it and helps to keep it on target. It’s no millstone to generate anxiety, it is a comfort and reassurance. It reminds me what I’m supposed to be doing and eases any worry about what will happen when the current thing is, finally, finished.
David Beer is Reader in Sociology at the University of York. Metric Power is now available in paperback.