The Things You Carry, Part Two

Guest Post by Christina Kaake

As therapists, here’s a concept you know and love, right?

Well for those of you who have stuff to write, and particularly if you have trouble with writing anxiety, boundaries are your BEST writing friend! Set yourself some keyboard-related boundaries because they give you an incredible edge in finishing what you start and, importantly, making sure you finish strong.

I’m sure some of you are excited about even the concept of a new boundary to set (amiright?) and some of you think this makes no sense at all, so let’s get down to hard rules. Maelisa recently asked a bunch of you who are currently working on writing projects what your writing weaknesses are.

This week I promised to talk more about The Things You Carry—those issues people have mentioned to us that keep them from finishing a writing project and weigh you down.

Writing too much can be an issue (and I would know—word counts are SERIOUS business in journalism), or getting distracted, or simply taking too long. So in our last installment of the Writing Boundaries series, I want to cover those concerns, as well as some general tips.

1001, 1002, 1003, 1004….

First thing first, if you feel like you write too much…well, welcome to the club. You know how I mentioned above that word counts are serious business in journalism? I have agonized over cutting 100 words from a piece, and I have hated it and been sure it’s ruining everything.

Yes, I tend toward the dramatic when I’m stressed.

But the thing is, it doesn’t matter how much I hate it, what matters is that the word count is there for a reason. Sometimes I know the reason—space limits, attention-span limits, consistency—and sometimes I don’t. It doesn’t matter. What matters is I’ve been given a task and, honestly, my writing has been better for it. I’m forced to make sentences tighter and refine ideas. It’s a fantastic exercise, and I’m about to drop it on YOU.

Give yourself a word count.

Catching up on notes? Set a limit and see if you can stick to it—if not, ask yourself why. Are you including unnecessary information, or was the limit unrealistic? I once had an editor tell me to go back and add words because she decided the limit she gave didn’t work for the story. Check the average length of your notes against a colleague, and see where you might be able to trim, or if you’re right on target. If you are, use that average as your limit from now on, unless there’s an anomaly in a session.

Working on a book or scholarly article? Maybe you don’t want to limit yourself, but once you’ve started writing and are ready to re-read a few hours’ work, force yourself to cut 20% of the words and see how it turns out.


Shiny distractions keep us all from our work.

Sometimes you open a browser window and a suggested article pops up and…two hours later you never actually started your work. Not that I speak from experience. Or you work from home, and kids and spouses interrupt you or make it hard to focus. Maybe you have so many projects that one piece of work is distracting you from another.

If you don’t absolutely need the internet, turn the wifi off on your computer. I know it’s hard. I promise, I’ve been there. But it helps! Put your phone on silent in another room. Without Facebook, Twitter, and those Firefox reading suggestions (again, totally hypothetical), you stand a better chance.

For me, music and headphones help. Headphones serve to focus my mind (although I have no idea why) and some good music in the background just makes me feel like I’m in work mode. Music may not be your thing, but headphones can keep us from noticing what’s going on elsewhere in a crowded office space, coffee shop, or around the house.

Too many projects vying for your attention? Set a specific time to work on each one. Knowing that you have two hours scheduled for project B tomorrow morning can help you stay on project A now. If the two share a deadline, or both have no deadline, then feel free to work on whichever one is inspiring you, but still block out separate time to work on the other. Keep an open document on your computer or a notepad nearby, and write down ideas as they come, but then get right back to what you were doing.

That will keep you from losing any fantastic ideas you have and also allow you to stay on task.

“Cross this line and you’re DEAD”

I had a writing professor who LOVED to say this to us in college. Annoying? YES. Accurate? Yup. Deadlines exist for a reason, and they’re rarely arbitrary. Set yourself a deadline that makes sense for every project you start, and tell yourself over and over that crossing that line is NOT acceptable. I know it’s tempting to ignore self-imposed deadlines, but honoring your deadlines means respecting your own time as a professional.

Keep that in mind, create deadlines, and make a practice of sticking to them.

A final note…

Some people just aren’t writers, and that’s okay! I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are lots of excellent professionals who can help you. Consider working with a ghost-writer if you have too much writing to do or your skills aren’t up to scratch. We’re very discreet :)

If all you need is a little polish, you can hire a copywriter to check your work for consistent tone, voice, grammar, etc. If you want to do the writing yourself and have confidence in your skills but need some help with structure, consistency, or staying on track, hire a writing coach.

In all of these cases you can try someone’s services before committing to a long-term contract (although you absolutely must pay them for their time—imagine if your clients asked for a free month of sessions to make sure you’re a good fit). If a ghostwriter sends you a chapter you don’t like, or a coach just isn’t getting your style, move on.

Give yourself the freedom to ask for professional help.

Once again I’ll ask you to consider your own profession: your clients need tools, or they need a helping hand using the tools they already have, or maybe they’re overwhelmed and just need someone to shoulder some of the burden. Just as you wouldn’t want clients judging themselves for needing help, or wanting help, and you would be aghast at someone else judging them, you should never judge yourself if you want or need help with the writing tasks you’ve set yourself. I promise you, professional writers won’t judge you, they’ll just step in where needed and give you a hand, and they’ll be happy to step back out again if you feel like you don’t need them anymore.

This is the official end of the series on instituting boundaries in your writing, but if you have a concern that hasn’t been addressed, never fear! We’re always around, so comment here or send us an email and we’ll get back to you with the perfect boundary.