Author and school teacher Roxanna Elden offers her four secrets to accomplishing your writing goals this year.
When you were ready to finish school, you couldn’t wait to get out of the place. Goodbye, rigid schedule, hard desks under fluorescent lights, stern-faced instructors with their points off for late assignments. When you finally graduated, you were ecstatic. And… you haven’t completed a writing project since.
As an author who spent most of my career teaching writing and now writes about teaching, I’d like to remind you of a few aspects of your school days that you might want to recreate in your current writing routine. They might seem a little old school. But maybe that’s the point.
Schedule a class time.
In today’s world, you can do anything, any time. Any time you’ve got a spare moment, you can squeeze in a meditation session or learn a few phrases from a language-learning app. And during that one, glorious week where you’re actually sticking with your new year’s resolutions, you actually do. Until you don’t. On the other hand, there’s something about knowing you have to be in class at the same days and times each week that makes you… get to class. To be sure, not all those hours of class were used well during your school days, but sitting there, week after week, you somehow learned the quadratic equation, the scientific method, and the seeds of the writing skills you totally mean to use to write a book at some point. So block the time out on your calendar. Then, treat your writing time just as seriously as you treated your class time during your school days. Or, depending on what type of student you were back then, maybe a little more seriously.
Find your classroom.
Not only do you need a time to write, you need a place. Another pitfall of writing is that when the time you planned to do it rolls around, you're often in a noisy room, or the car, or the grocery store. That's when you start telling yourself you'll just "think through today's chapter" in your head or start that rough draft of your big project tomorrow. To make sure you achieve your writing goals, you need what innovative-minded people referred to dismissively as seat time. Have a specific, quiet, distraction-free place where you do your work. Then show up on time, materials in hand, without necessarily asking yourself whether you’re in the mood. Fluorescent lights optional.
Round up some classmates.
Writing itself is a solitary activity, but writing goals are often best when you share them with a writing buddy or small group. This is not to be confused with “group work,” which—as many teachers can confirm—often involves a whole lot of group and not much work. In other words, your goal is not to get a bunch of people together to eat snacks while you talk endlessly and hypothetically about writing. It’s to connect with a few people who are serious about their own writing goals and know you’re working on yours. It’s important to keep your eyes on your own work most of the time. But it also helps to know that at some point, you’ll put those pencils down and switch papers.
Set a deadline.
One of the best things—and maybe one of the worst things—about an in-person class is that you can't not do the work. Not if you want a passing grade, anyway. Even if you’re the type who waits until the last minute, you’re likely to knock out at least a low quality draft in time for a due date. That’s a big step up from that great idea you haven’t even written down yet. This is the rationale behind National Novel Writing Month, in which participants start a novel on November 1 and aim to finish a 50,000 word draft before December. The first draft of Adequate Yearly Progress came about when I participated in the challenge along with my students. When it came time to revise, however, the same approach was still helpful. Each of the nearly thirty rounds of revision started with a short-term deadline on the calendar. So, seriously: when are you planning to complete this assignment?
Roxanna Elden combines eleven years of experience as a public school teacher with a decade of speaking about education issues. Her first book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, is a staple in school districts and educator training programs throughout the country. Her recently released workplace novel, Adequate Yearly Progress, captures teaching with humor, insight, and heart.