Oregon State Bar Bulletin JUNE 2013
The Legal Writer
Breaking the Habits of the
Procrastination and Writer's Block
By Elizabeth Ruiz Frost
No matter what sort of writing we do — drafting contracts, writing articles or creating Twilight-based fan fiction — many of us struggle with inefficiency. Even with brilliant ideas swirling around our heads (or fine ideas and deadlines approaching), some of us have trouble committing pen to paper. I suffer from this, too. In piecing together the 50 or so words that precede this sentence, I checked email twice, organized my wallet and got myself fully briefed on celebrity news. If you find yourself losing the efficiency battle to writer’s block or procrastination, maybe some of these ideas will help.
Brainstorm and Outline
In “The Sound of Music,” Maria says to “start at the very beginning; it’s a very good place to start.” Well, Maria is a liar, and for the nonlinear thinkers among us, she’s dead wrong.
Blank pages can be intimidating. Asking oneself to dive into a blank document to create something from nothing may induce more stress than necessary. Even writers with the clearest understanding of their subject might stall out when starting with the first topic sentence and marching on from there. So to ease stress and make your time more productive, turn away from the blank screen and try this process: brainstorm, spew, get organized, and then start drafting.
First, brainstorm to get the ideas churning before even thinking about formal writing. Write down all the ideas you have. That’s the “spew” part. Some thinkers prefer to create a free-form mental map or brainweb, while others use bullet-pointed lists.
Once the big ideas are all out of your head and onto paper, even if in no particular order, you can begin to make some sense of it by organizing it into an outline. Once you’ve got your document mapped out in an outline, begin drafting. Just as connecting dots is easier than drawing freehand, you may find it easier to create logical, beautiful prose from an outline than from scratch.
Silence Your Inner Perfectionist
You might not get as much done with someone nagging you. But what if you are your own worst nag? Anne Lamott, a novelist and nonfiction writer, writes about the struggles of writing in her book Bird by Bird. Lamott points a finger at the perfectionist within us who slows down our writing and, in some cases, paralyzes us entirely. Fear of making a mess, even if just a verbal one, stifles creativity and prevents us from getting the words out.
Lamott suggests a couple tips for writers to silence that critical voice. First, try not to judge your first draft as you’re writing. Accept that it might need some editing and polishing, and give yourself freedom to get the ideas out. Trust that you can clean up a messy first draft in a second draft. Lamott writes, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” A first draft should be nothing more than a place for a writer to set forth every idea, every foolish word and every clumsy sentence that pours through him or her. Some may be bound for the garbage, but some might just touch upon genius.
Second, be as compassionate about your own writing as you’d be about a friend’s writing. Surely you wouldn’t tell your friend that he’s a valueless dolt, even if the draft you’re reading suggests that might be the case. Telling yourself you’re bad at writing can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Set Interim Goals
Perhaps nothing breeds procrastination better than a distant deadline. Each semester, at least one student tells me that she put off writing a paper for weeks because she thought she had plenty of time. Then she found herself scrambling to write it in the few twilight hours before the paper was due. Unsurprisingly, those last-minute papers do not usually represent students’ best efforts. Sometimes, on the other hand, the overwhelming size of the task, and not a lengthy deadline, is the culprit. In either case, creating interim goals might be a solution.
Creating mini deadlines can help with budgeting time. Instead of one distant deadline, set several shorter ones (e.g., an introduction by April 1, one chapter by May 1, a conclusion by May 15, and so on). Some legal writing projects have tighter turnaround times, but the idea still works. Rather than thinking you have 24 hours to draft the entire memo, promise yourself the statement of facts by dinner, Part I of the argument by midnight and Part II by lunch tomorrow.
If time isn’t the issue but the size of the task is, breaking the project up into smaller parts can ease anxiety. The parts could be the separate analytical questions you need to address in a research memo or brief, or they could be the components of your document (e.g., the statement of facts or the conclusion). Finishing a small part can increase your confidence, and you might find new energy to take on bigger parts. Piece by piece, you’ll see the larger project getting completed.
Interim goals serve a few purposes. First, many of us work better with a clock ticking. If the ticking is too remote, we might ignore it. Second, most of us manage smaller projects better than large ones. So even with compressed deadlines, we reduce our anxiety about producing work when it’s bite-sized.
Third, interim goals require a conscious budgeting of time, so we might be more mindful of the work required and how long it will take. That might mean we’re less likely to find ourselves with a filing deadline looming and no time to proofread.
Write By Hand
You might think that if you can type faster than you can write, you will necessarily work faster on a computer. For some, that might not be true. Those who draft on computers often tend to edit as they write. Those little red and green squiggly lines indicating spelling errors and typos are like stop signs along a roadway. Wouldn’t you rather maintain your cruising speed on the interstate? Editing and proofreading are a vital part of the writing process, but editing as you write can slow you down.
Handwriting may seem slower, but a hand-writer is less likely to go back to perfect each sentence as she writes it. That continuous writing might make you more likely to get through your ideas more efficiently. You can always edit and move things around later when transcribing your handwritten work onto the computer.
The best perk of writing by hand: you get away from the screen! No email will ding at you and no calendar reminders will pop up. You can simply write.
Turn Off the Internet
If you are unwilling to use a pen or no longer own one, you can at least minimize your electronic distractions. Writing is just plain hard when you’re faced with constant interruptions. Some interruptions at work are unavoidable. But some are very, very avoidable, like email and ESPN.com. Perhaps you have the self-restraint to minimize your browser to give yourself uninterrupted, focused writing time. For the rest of us, we must take matters out of our own hands.
A program like Freedom.com can help. Freedom, which costs $10, shuts off your computer’s Internet access for up to eight hours at a time. You can always reboot if you want to get back online before your time is up. The act of rebooting can be just enough of a disincentive to keep you from cheating. Freedom is available for download for both Mac and PC users at www.macfreedom.com.
Keep a To-do List By Your Side
I like to think of myself as a productive procrastinator. If I set aside an hour to write, I might not write a single word, but I will pay all my bills, clean out my keyboard and iron every cloth napkin in the house. I justify procrastinating by telling myself that if I don’t do these other chores that very second, I might forget forever. So if you’re like me, you can alleviate the urge to deviate from your writing by keeping a list right by your side. When you remember a chore or come up with a good idea for some other project, jot down a note for yourself. You’ll feel reassured that you won’t forget to do it later. And you will have only interrupted your train of thought for a quick second while you take the note.
Inefficient writing can be rooted in several causes: panic, lack of motivation, self-censorship or simply too many distractions. Whatever the cause, there is a solution. Give yourself a break on the perfectionist stuff, but seriously, stop taking so many breaks!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Ruiz Frost teaches Legal Research and Writing and other courses at the University of Oregon School of Law.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2013 Elizabeth Ruiz Frost