Category: A Personal Ritual

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Ten Tips for Working from Home

Writers and editors find themselves oddly prepared for the situation many of us now find ourselves in.  

As it happens, I have just written extensively about working from home for my book, Making a Living as a Freelance Editor, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in Spring, 2021. I gained permission to reprint the following excerpt, which might, unfortunately, apply to a wide variety of industries right now. If you have to create structure (including breaks!) in your day and no longer have a commute to signal when it’s okay to quit, there might be something here for you, too.

  1. Design a workweek that suits who you really are. For example, I am ready to work at 6:30 a.m.—but it could be 4:30 a.m. if there is a pressing reason. You might feel that the only way you are working at that hour is if you are still up. Conversely, my brain shuts down at 8:00 p.m. and things take two to three times longer to process. I am only working harder and not smarter. Even with the restrictions that may be upon you where you are sheltering, you can still think about, What am I like?..
  2. Start with your own system. While you are designing your perfect workday you might derive inspiration from other sample list-making systems but, bear in mind, trendy time management and productivity gurus can change with the season and it isn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel. It is better to start with your present system and evolve it rather than overhaul it based on someone else’s ideas, only to quit your new plan almost immediately.
  3. Create a Weekly Calendar. My spreadsheets are pretty simple: In the first column I list the client’s name, the second column the hours I intend (or estimate) I will spend on their project this week, the third column how many of those hours I have accomplished, and the fourth column any notes regarding such things as due dates. After I have completed a client’s work for the week, I will cross it off, digitally speaking, by highlighting the line in a darker grey. Even just seeing everything I have to do for the week ahead in one place helps me take a deeper breath. It also helps me manage additions that pop-up into my schedule.
  4. Create a Daily List. In addition to your weekly calendar, you need your list for today. To be able to concentrate, you first need to know what you are focusing on. I make my list each morning, ideally after I meditate for twenty minutes. If I make the list (or check my email) before I meditate, everything feels pressing, with those who shout the loudest seeming to be heard the most clearly. If I make the list after I meditate, some surprising things see the light of day—and everything else has a more purposeful feel to it.
  5. Do your hardest tasks first. A lot of people know to do this; doing it, on the other hand, can take some discipline. This is just a reminder that when you work your way down from the most complicated assignments to the easiest ones—when you knock out the key projects earlier in the day—you get more quickly to that great feeling we love to have at work: I got this.
  6. Work real hours. I realize this is a time when we may not be meeting all of our goals, but a good week for me is forty-five hours of work. When I say forty-five hours a week, I mean forty-five real hours, recorded in quarter-hour increments. Going on Facebook doesn’t count. Waiting for someone to call who doesn’t, doesn’t count. Either we are doing things that are tangibly contributing to the business or we are not at work.
  7. Take breaks. Your day can’t be all work, of course. We need to take breaks to refocus our minds, and breaks are best when we take them intentionally. If you are coming up from one work session, and before you head into another, should you check email? Is that a break? Unlikely. These days, menu planning, helping a middle schooler with homework, or running the dishwasher again are more likely to empty our minds temporarily.
  8. Tame the email beast. I have set times during the day when I review my email. This may not work for the nature of your job, but I still think we should eliminate the phrase “checking my email” from our vocabulary entirely. There is no point in just checking email; this puts you in a reactive, burdened state. When you review your email you should have the time to do something about what you are reading. During my set times, I engage with email instead of just checking it, by using three related strategies:
    • If it will take less than two minutes to respond to an email, I do it now (H/t to David Allen for this strategy.)
    • Second, not every email needs a response. I know. I couldn’t believe it either when I first really figured that out.
    • Third, after an email has been responded to (or not), I put it in a client file or a general archive. Let’s face it, no email is ever really gone unless you put it in the trash and then delete the trash. If you do a search by name, you will come up with everything you and that person have ever talked about, so you don’t have to worry about losing anything. But you don’t have to look at it every day, either.
  9. The joys of punching out. If you have worked all the hours you planned to today, it is time to go home. Even if you are already home. Taking time to regenerate, whether it is simply for the rest of the day, or for the weekend, is important for you to do your best work (as is taking a real vacation again someday). Some people like to make their list for tomorrow at the end of their workday. I say, let tomorrow take care of tomorrow.
  10. Write a brief work journal entry. At the end of every day, I make an entry into a journal: 100–150 words about the biggest challenge I faced, a question I don’t yet have the answer to, a long-awaited triumph or a small piece of an evolving strategy—whatever is the most pressing content on my mind. When I shut that journal, I will listen for that imaginary socking noise of a timecard entering and being stamped by one of those metal clock boxes…punching out, people. I’m done.

You can consider all of this a work in progress. What matters is to reflect on what you are like, and then to evolve a system that is sane and works for you. And don’t forget to write it down.

P.S. If you can’t stick to a rule, that means that it needs to change, not you. These aren’t official laws; they belong to your system, and that system should be set up to maximize your efficiency, income, happiness, and performance.

Meditation For Writers

I started meditating to become a better writer. Pretty much everything I have done in my life has had “becoming a better writer” as its ulterior motive. Therefore, I hope what I am about to say about the connection between meditation and writing does not sound shallow or preachy. Just trying to help.

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How Not to End Things

Allow me to pull back the curtain just a bit. Yes, I am a developmental editor who gets paid to be an instructional expert…to know what I’m talking about, in other words. And yet, the writing process is separate from editing skill. All writers make mistakes, and I think that the ability to fix them is the measure of talent/ability. For those of us who have struggled to end a piece of writing, we know that there are a series of pitfalls that the ending can fall into. Below, I have tried to break these into five broad categories based on the particular flaw in each argument. (I should mention that there was one runner-up, the speech which reveals all ending, which didn’t get quite enough votes to be included…)

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You Won’t Know If You Don’t Go: “Making It” as a Writer

(This is a lightly edited version of a speech I gave at the Pennwriters Conference Luncheon on May 20, 2016.) 

My first book was published by Penguin in 2013. It was nice to get that monkey off my back. I always dreamed of being a published author, from my childhood when books spoke with the clearest voices I heard anywhere. I wanted to participate with that. I was also tired of getting that question; you know the one, “Oh, so you’re a writer…are you published?”

I still have a few monkeys on my back, so don’t get too jealous. Besides, when I got published, it wasn’t like I joined some secret club. You’ve likely heard the tales: one book pays for the other six, they don’t put any money into promotion, and so forth. While I relished that seal of approval on the spine, and leaning on their expertise as mine grew, I was the one who set up all twenty spots on my book tour that first year.

On the road, I’ve had all kinds of experiences. I’ve presented to 300 people, and I’ve presented to zero people. Actually, I didn’t present that night, I packed up all of my gear, and when the lone straggler came in to ask if this was where the reading was, I smiled at her broadly: “Nope.” I’ve gotten five star reviews which said, “Thank you for existing.” And I’ve gotten one star reviews saying my writing was “as dry as sawdust.”

For the most part, it’s been great. I’ve now completed 70 tour dates throughout North America in the past three-plus years. But no matter how exciting life post-publication has been, it has never gotten better than those champion writing sessions where I was achieving the height of my flight. When someone says, “Your books are so original; I have learned more from you than anyone else” — I am happy, of course — but it is like I am hearing about a trip they’ve taken when I got left home.

Nothing will ever beat those rare nights when I knew I nailed it. When I had prepared for a writing session, and executed, while welcoming the unexpected. And then went to go smoke a cigar in the heart of Providence. I might have been thinking about the people who inspired me, but sitting there it was just me, myself, and I.

So my point is that we need to take writing and separate it from publishing. My third book on writing comes out today but I also have an unpublished novel and an unproduced play. What writing has done for me exists outside of what has been published, and far exceeds it in value.

When I work with writers as an independent editor they sometimes put too much emphasis on publishing like that will determine the worth of the exercise. Other parallels could be sought here. I’ve run two marathons — should I not have done them because no one later called me to compete at the Olympic trials? (Maybe if they wanted someone who ran it in twice the time trials mark?)

There are things we do because we are called to do them, and that is what we can control. We can’t control fate. In Buddhist iconography the person is represented by a little wheel and the universe by a big wheel; when their teeth link up and they turn together, that is when you get your “15 minutes of fame” as Andy Warhol might have said… And then the big Wheel of Fortune spins on, and it may be a long time until you are linked up again.

So what are we supposed to do with all that lonely empty wheel space in the meantime? Live in the Glory Days? Feel like an impostor? Worry about the future? Try to chase the market and write something that meets current popular trends?

While we are waiting for the little wheel to intersect with the big wheel, we get distracted from what is really important in our own development. Like, what is the best thing I could be writing right now? What have I learned so far about writing that can help me reach my next goal? How much time can I find to pursue my passion of writing? How can I let that passion change me? What kind of excuses do I need to find for the people in my life to explain what I am doing?

How can I commit to the lifelong process of finding myself as a writer? What trips do I need to take? What people do I need to meet? What research do I need to do? What music do I need to listen to? What kind of community do I need to join, or create?

Earlier in the cigar story I referenced those people who inspired me in my current project. Some are editors, some are beta readers. Some are just people who make sense every time they speak. I call them my team, and put their names in the Acknowledgments section of the new book. Some of them are surprised. “What am I doing here?” they ask. “It’s a long story…” I say.

Basically, you’re there because you helped me not quit. That’s the best thing you could have done for me. I once drew this Venn diagram which shows how, of the people who don’t “make it,” all of the people who quit are contained completely in there.

And now I’d like to read a little bit from my new book. This is from the section, “Why Some People Don’t Finish.”

I think that a lot of the reasons people don’t finish is because they don’t have a structured process to know what they need to be working on, when. That’s a pretty innocent way of getting lost that hopefully this book has helped a little with.

Some people don’t finish because they can’t keep the publication wolves at bay. Daydreams about acceptance, and the converse, anxiety attacks about rejection, and not going to help you finish. Sometimes, this pressure from the outside world gets too intense, or sometimes people can’t bring themselves to put themselves out there as the author of this book. They may have what are called hidden, related commitments—something just as strong or stronger that is working against them being a successful, published author.

Whether you want to get really deep about it, or just say, “I can’t seem to find the time…” there is one thing I want to say that will seem pretty obvious. The people who quit, can’t make it. Finishing requires tenacity. Taking something all the way to the end always looks kind of insane. Of course, it won’t feel insane. It will feel indescribably satisfying.

Thank you very much.