I used to be an “all or nothing” achiever.
This meant that went I went all in on something — such as National Novel Writing Month, for example — I really went all in. And I would do everything I had the time and resources to do in order to make sure that I completed every task, every goal, no matter what.
But this mentality had a darker side. If for whatever reason I could not even come close to meeting a goal I had set for myself — especially if starting was the issue I found myself struggling against — I just quit. I wouldn’t even try. If I couldn’t give 100 percent to the cause, I wasn’t going to give anything at all.
There is a reason I was not a great student. When it came to studying for an exam, I would either abandon all other obligations and necessities and study every waking moment until test day, or I wouldn’t even bother printing out a study guide. It was always one extreme or the other, every single time.
This is, of course, partially the fault of anxiety. However, even though I can’t change that factor, I very much can change how I respond to it. And this is a huge help when I am working on big writing projects that take long periods of time to complete — we’ll stick with our NaNoWriMo example.
When you are writing 50,000 words in 30 days, it’s almost inevitable that at some point throughout those 30 days you will fall behind schedule. Whether or not you make up for lost time is really up to you. But there are many writers out there who will quit as soon as they fall behind.
I know what that’s like. And I want you to know that it does not have to continue to be your reality.
No matter your goals, no matter what you are specifically trying to accomplish as a writer, it is possible to learn how to “correct” for missed milestones and still reach your own personal finish line on time.
Not everyone loves or even feels benefited by deadlines. In fact, there are plenty of writers who stick to writing for themselves exclusively simply because they have no interest in applying time constraints to their work. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this stance. You do you.
But if you are working toward a specific writing goal — to be completed within a certain amount of time — you can, and should, use a deadline to your advantage, even if you have not formally been given one.
This way, if you do fall behind, you can still correct and conquer. Let me explain.
There have been enough days in the month of November during which I have not met my daily word count for the day. Which means that there has already been a day I have looked at my total word count compared to where I am ideally supposed to be and realized I’m nearly 10,000 words behind schedule.
Ten thousand words is a lot of words. Enough words to convince most writers that trying to catch up could not possibly be worth the attempt. When you’re so far behind, you start to wonder: What’s even the point? Is there a point still at all?
Of course I have done plenty of this kind of wondering, especially since this month somehow turned into The Month of All the Big Projects that don’t involve fictional story writing.
But over time — and many months, especially recently, of feeling like there is no way I could possibly ever catch up to where I need to be — I have developed a simple method for making sure you get back on track and don’t fall any further behind than you already have. The rules are simple.
- Keep writing even if it’s only a little bit. Hitting zero will only widen the gap.
- Write a little bit more than usual when you’re back on your feet, but not so much that it’s painful.
- Keep looking at your progress bar. Watch the gap close. Believe you can still do this.
This doesn’t just apply to NaNoWriMo participants. It can apply to everyone. If you planned on writing 500 words every day for a month to hit a certain word count for your own personal project, see if you can double that a few days per week. Why? If nothing else, to remind yourself that you can still make it to the end.
I call this “course correction.” It’s a skill I am absolutely not an expert in and am still deep into learning myself. But if this year has taught me anything, it’s that you don’t have to give up just because you aren’t exactly where you want to be. You can do something every day to work toward getting back on track.
Let’s take my NaNoWriMo word count as an example. As I write this, I am slightly less than 6,000 words behind where the algorithm says I should be. Normally, if you are on track, you only have to write 1,667 words every day to hit your estimated 50,000 on time. Right now, I’m doing about 2,200. That’s if I want to near the end goal a day or two ahead of schedule so I’m not writing 12,000 words on November 30, which yes, dear readers, has actually happened to me before — or rather, I have previously brought it upon myself. Never again.
If you think about it, writing about 500 extra words than planned really isn’t that much more work. It helps that this year’s site update gives you an easy and simple way to track how close you are to reaching your recalculated daily goal. Seeing “0 words left to write today” really does give you all the warm fuzzies.
This is course correction. Not stopping because you’re behind, but acknowledging that you are behind and creating a new plan of action so that you are still capable of getting to your end goal.
Deciding when it’s okay to give up and leave your shortcomings behind — while also, hopefully, moving forward and moving on to other things — is really a matter of circumstance. You CAN give up. You are ALLOWED to give up. It’s your life. Your choice. Your win, or your loss, depending on your point of view.
But don’t quit just because you’re 10,000 words behind. That’s not so bad. It’s just 1,000 words 10 times. A few hundred extra words per day for a week or two or three. It’s not over yet. You haven’t lost. You can still do this, if you want to. If you have it in you.
I think you do.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.