Small Chunks, Big Projects

by Ann Byle

Freelance writers have a well-developed deadline muscle. We can whip out a news brief, short news story, or blog post pretty quickly and without an all-out panic attack at the thought of meeting a deadline.

We know how to collate an interview, background facts, and new information to create an 1,100-word piece. We can interview people without stress, discern that one piece of information the article needs, and can find the lede in the midst of all the details.

Yet writing something longer that 2,000 words? Heart palpitations, sweaty palms, deep breathing, and a remarkable resistance to starting. I felt these exact things when it came time to write Chicken Scratch: Lessons on Living Creatively from a Flock of Hens (Broadleaf, May). I clucked and delayed, fiddled around, procrastinated, and generally made myself miserable with thoughts about how much work writing a book was going to be.

Then I sat on my vent (which is chicken language for bottom), and starting writing. Lesson learned. Just start. If you’re planning to or dreaming about doing a larger book project, here are several suggestions for getting started and staying on track.

  1. Outline first. This may go against the grain for those who believe outlines are of the devil, but knowing where you’re going is a huge help when the project seems too big. I had created a chapter outline for Chicken Scratch to include in the book proposal, which helped me greatly to move forward with the book. I didn’t always stick to it religiously, but it was enough of a scaffolding to keep me moving and out of the chaos of not knowing where to go next.
  2. Know your Anne Lamott. In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Lamott describes a time her brother needed to complete in one night a project on birds he’d had three months to do. His dad said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” The same principle applies to a writer moving from shorter pieces to longer books. Paragraph by paragraph, section by section, chapter by chapter. Looking at a project as one big whole can stop you in your tracks, but seeing it in small pieces—bird by bird—can keep you going.
  3. Trust the process. More than once I thought of Chicken Scratch as a big, confusing pile of mush. I couldn’t see the way through to a completed book. But over the years as a freelance writer, I learned to trust the process in small articles. I learned to trust that the interviews, facts, details, and research would coalesce into a readable piece. This same trust applies to books, too. Yes, I had to create a process (with help from Kid 1, who is a process person and the Left-Brain Chicken in Chicken Scratch) to help me organize the many details. And yes, I trusted the process and the process trusted me back.
  4. Create a process. You can trust the process only so far as you create a process that works. If your process is printing your notes, cutting them into pieces and rearranging on your kitchen table, so be it (I have a friend doing this very thing right now). My novelist friends use colored note cards for each scene based on which character is leading that scene—allowing them to see who has more scenes, when scenes need to be repositioned, etc. For Chicken Scratch, I used different-colored note cards divided into source books, people interviewed, quotations, resources listed, Left-Brain Chicken details, Egg-tivities, and chapter overview. I kept track of all the different pieces of each chapter in a cool box complete with dividers. A bit old school, yes. Who cares anyway? Do what works for you whether it’s colored note cards, sticky notes on a wall, or a project managing platform such as Trello, Scrivener, or Asana.
  5. Set deadlines. Give yourself a week to complete a chapter, an hour to research that detail, an afternoon to write and edit that section, until next Tuesday to set up interviews with five sources. Lots of small deadlines add up to meeting that self-imposed deadline to finish your book or longer assignment, or that publisher-imposed deadline to turn it in. 

We freelancers know that deadlines are in place for a reason. We meet those deadlines so a piece of writing can go out into the world via a magazine, website, blog, newspaper, or book. The same techniques apply to small and large projects, so flex those deadline muscles, think big, and get writing.

Ann Byle has been a freelance writer for 25 years. She writes for Publishers Weekly and Grand Rapids Magazine and has written for Christian Retailing, Inspire and more. She has cowritten or written several books including When Angels Fight with Leslie King and the ebook The Joy of Working at Home with fellow EPA freelancers, The Baker Book House Story, and Christian Publishing 101. Her newest book is Chicken Scratch: Lessons on Living Creatively from a Flock of Hens.

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