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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Forget Finding Time to Write

by Joseph Barbato

From executive directors to neophyte grant writers, the complaint keeps coming in a great chorus: “I can never find time to write!” And my response, alas, offers little solace: You never will find the time to write. No one ever has. You have to make time to write. Then you have a chance of getting your scribbling done.

Finding time conjures a picture of you looking for the odd hour or two in the crazy week ahead to squeeze in writing letters to a few donors, a speech for an upcoming conference, or an outline for a new campaign. Without doubt open time lurks here and there. But the chances of your seizing it to write are slim. Not when there are emails to return, a staffer with problems at your door, and a phone message that your son has fled home to join the circus.

Trust the insurance people: Life comes at you fast. And it always arrives just when you think you’ve found time to write. Since life won’t stop coming, you need to exercise common sense. Make time. Carve a swatch of hours out of your week, and commit: This time is for nothing but writing. 

of related interest OF RELATED INTEREST: In How to Write Knockout Proposals, recipient of a Starred Review in Publishers Weekly, Joseph Barbato shows you how to improve your proposal dramatically and distinguish it from the multitude submitted today.

Here are tips for getting your work done:

1) Take writing seriously.

Schedule it like you would a meeting with your boss or a major donor. Writing takes time. Good writing takes more time. Writing is hard work. Sure, you can hire a writer. Failing that, you must stare at a blank screen and put black on white. The time you take will be reflected in the outcome. Take your writing seriously, and people will take you seriously.

2) Make time to write.

Block out a writing appointment with yourself. Decide where you will write. If you plan to write at the office, send your phone calls into voice mail and hang a sign on your door: DO NOT DISTURB – WRITING. The first time they see it, office jokers will knock, open the door, and ask what they sign is about. The second time, they will know better than to bother you. Trust me, it works.

If you can, write at home. Spend a half day working at home when needed; tell the office that you are incommunicado. You may find yourself walking the dog or accepting the occasional UPS package (answering the doorbell is optional), but you will get a great deal of writing done.

3) Avoid distractions.

Oddly, the best way to avoid distractions is to spend the first 15 minutes of your writing appointment procrastinating. Surf the Internet. Straighten your desk. Satisfy your urgent need to do anything but write. Clear the air. Now, gird yourself and call up a blank document on your monitor.

Blaise Pascal remarked that people are unhappy because they do not know how to sit quietly in a room. So there’s a chance you will get your writing done – and learn the art of happiness, too.

4) Write a first draft. No matter what you want to write, get some words down. 

Now is not the time for perfectionism. Perfect comes later. Now, in the first draft, get down the key elements of what you want to write. Write them as they come to mind.  When your thoughts seem not to flow logically, switch them around. That’s what first drafts are for. No one else will ever see the first draft. Be sloppy. There’s no need to form complete sentences or paragraphs. A list of ten words for ten topics you want to cover will be fine. Now add some words around each of the ten to elaborate. 

The idea is to work from chaos toward order. Essentially you are reining in related thoughts to form a logical message. When you’ve shaped your thoughts into a coherent whole, you have a working draft. Many writers are tempted to stop working at this point. Computers make it so easy: send your text to the printer. Kick back and go right out for a celebratory repast. No, you are made of stronger stuff.  There’s still work to be done.

5) Revise.

Sad to say, a first draft is just that. The real writing gets done when you revise. You don’t have to pull a Gustave Flaubert, spending hours putting a comma in and then hours more taking it out. But do the workmanlike crafting that makes for good writing: rewrite awkward sentences, eliminate clichés and redundancies, keep your language active and concrete, and hone sentences until they are bright and tight. Does something seem superfluous? Out with it! Paragraphs too dense? Split them up! Beware of passages that you are inordinately proud of. They are probably not nearly as good as you think they are.

6) Do nothing.

This is my favorite part of writing. And it is absolutely essential to getting the job done. Set the piece aside for a day or two. Put it out of your mind. And while you are at it, ask a colleague to read and critique your draft. By the end of your do-nothing mode, you will be surprised to discover glaring shortcomings in the piece. Overlong sentences emerge. Weaknesses cry for help. At times the writing will make you wonder who could have written it. Well, you did. But you were deeply immersed in the process then. Now you are coming at the piece cold, and you see some fairly strange stuff. Some gemlike sentences too, with any luck.

Edit out the words that don’t work. When in doubt, cut it out. Consider and act on your colleague’s suggestions. Then go through and polish. Find the better word. Shorten the overlong sentence. Make things punchy.

7) Go out for lunch or dinner.

Seriously. The author Nicholas Gage says he goes out to a Chinese restaurant after he finishes an important writing project. It’s a reward. Having made time to work, he takes time to celebrate. Who knows? Maybe anticipation of General Tso’s Chicken makes writing easier the next time.

Joseph Barbato is the author of How to Write Knockout Proposals and Attracting the Attention Your Cause Deserves, by Emerson & Church, Publishers. He is also president of Barbato Associates (www.barbatoassociates.com), a consulting firm in Alexandria, VA, that produces case statements, brochures, and other persuasive pieces for nonprofits. His more than 20 years of experience include stints in major capital campaigns at NYU and The Nature Conservancy. He can be reached at 703-379-5441

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