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  • Writer's pictureDebra Stang

5 Secrets to Tackling a Long Writing Assignment

In June, you get a contract to ghost write a book. The rough draft is due in September, three months away. Nothing to worry about, right? You spend the next month or so keeping up with projects that have tight deadlines. After all, you've still got three months. Except now it's more like two months, and in a few weeks, it will be one month, and a couple of weeks after that, you know you're in serious trouble.

Have you ever done that? Do you still do it sometimes? When I started out as a writer, letting long projects slide until it was too late to do anything with them was my time management disaster of choice. It cost me I-don't-know-how-many sleepless nights, tears, migraines, and stomach upsets.

In fact, it made me so miserable that I knew I had to change, so I put together a plan for taking on lengthy assignments. This may not work for everyone, but it's certainly made my life a lot easier.

1. Assess Immediately

When you get a long project, it's easy to stick it into a corner of your desk, and/or into a computer file, and forget all about it. Bad idea. The moment you get the assignment, go over it with a fine-tooth comb. Be sure you know what your part entails and that you understand what the client really wants from you.

2. Break It Down

Sure, that's standard time management advice, and do you know why? Because it works! Think about writing 300 type-written pages and your brain is likely to go into overwhelm mode. Now imagine doing just four pages a day. If you can commit to that, you'll meet your 90-day deadline with room to spare.

3. Schedule a Time to Work on the Project Each Day

I found out the hard way that the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions. I'd get my project nicely broken down and work out my daily assignments…and then I'd let life get in the way. A phone call from a friend. An emergency request from a client. A new project with a tight deadline. You name it, I've probably used it as an excuse. The thing is that unless you physically block out a time to do those four pages, they probably won't get done. After all, you have three months to catch up…

4. Set Deadlines

I'm a fan of deadlines, because they motivate me to get my you-know-what in gear and put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. Whatever. The point is that a deadline that's a quarter of a year away won't give me the urgency I need to work efficiently, so I make up deadlines. "I will get to the end of Chapter 5 by Tuesday at 3:00 p.m." "I will research until Wednesday. Then I will start writing no matter what." If you're not a fan of deadlines, you can skip this step, but it sure works for me.

5. Reward Yourself Each Step of the Way

Three months is a long time to wait for the emotional payoff of finishing a challenging project. It's easy to lose track of your motivation or to lose interest in the project. So, each time you meet a  mini-deadline or stick to your writing goal, give yourself a small treat, like 30 minutes curled up with a book by your favorite novelist or an episode of your favorite trash-TV program.

Long projects tend to be well-paying ones. As writers, we want them and need them. We just have to be sure that, when these types of projects come knocking at our door, we don't self-sabotage.

How do you stay on track when you're working on longer projects? 

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