Micro-Progress Your Novel

A few weeks ago I spotted an article in the New York Times entitled ‘Micro-Progress and the Magic of Just Getting Started’ (you can read it here) and realized it was tailor made for us writers (especially after I’d seen a number of posts on my writing groups about writers writers feeling overwhelmed about their projects).

The idea of ‘micro-progress’ is simple: For any task you have to complete, break it down to the smallest possible units of progress and attack them one at a time.

In many ways, it’s an obvious concept. But what caught my eye, was the fact that studies had shown that micro-progress (or establishing micro-goals) can actually trick the brain into increasing dopamine levels, providing satisfaction and happiness. Sounds like the perfect plan for anyone facing the daunting prospect of completing a novel:)

Online I was seeing posts from people who felt overwhelmed by revisions, who were despairing that their novel had run aground mid way through, or who were experiencing chronic writer’s block and desperate for advice. In all of these situations, focusing on ‘micro-progress’ seemed a useful place to start.

The concept of ‘micro-progress’ has also helped me. I currently have a number of projects out on submission and a couple of ones with my agent – so it was time to start a new WIP. I faced a dilemma though – I had the first 50 pages of a YA novel that I’ve been noodling over (actually driving myself insane over is probably more apt) and yet I was concerned it still wasn’t quite ‘there yet’. I struggled with whether I really knew what the book was about (despite a synopsis and outline, mind you). So I decided it was best to put it aside and start a completely new project – yet at the back of my mind I still couldn’t quite let the old project completely die. Enter ‘Micro-Progress’!

I decided to use the advice in the NYT article and tackle both projects but with a different mindset. For the brand new WIP I’d sit down and get started in the usual way. I have the synopsis and outline so it was time to face the blank page and get writing. I’d focus on this everyday except Friday – when I’d allow myself to tackle the old project but with a ‘micro-progress’ approach. I’d just take it scene by scene in Scrivener and see what happened – without placing too much pressure on myself. The regular WIP could progress in the usual fashion – but for this one I’d be happy setting smaller, more manageable goals to see how it would all come together. In this way a ‘micro-progress’ mindset helped overcome my confidence issues as well my concerns about abandoning the project all together.

A ‘micro-progress’ mindset could be helpful in almost all our writing as it focuses on the smaller more manageable steps that can be taken. The evidence also seems to demonstrate that this approach can stimulate our brains, enabling us to continue, progress and feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction – rather than becoming overwhelmed by the totality of the task ahead. But I guess the key question is – TKZers – what do you think about ‘micro-progress’?


45 thoughts on “Micro-Progress Your Novel

  1. This is how I work. I have a full-time day job and do theatre on nights and weekends. If I have a show going, I leave the house by 7:30 a.m. and return around 10:00 p.m.
    Any writing I get done happens between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. during the week and most of Saturday morning.

    I write scenes as I see them and stick them in my binder where they should go. When I stop seeing scenes, I look at what I have and what I need. Then I write those.

    I’d love to have all day to write, but I don’t. So I work with what I have.

    Happy to know I’m not the only one.

  2. I totally believe in this concept & have been implementing it these last few months with good results for all forms of creativity–drawing, painting, and writing. I use it because I am too perfectionistic & given the chance will grind the fun out of any creative endeavor by over-criticizing it. I’ve especially worn myself out on writing fiction so I made the decision that for a while, I want to instead focus what creative time I have on drawing & painting BUT I still want to write each day to keep my hand in the game.

    I don’t use a time-limit but a word limit. I ask myself to write at least 25 words a day. Yes, that sounds paltry, and yes there are days I only write 25-50 words. But there are also many days where I write 800-1000. I’ve already written more words in 2018 than all of 2017 combined.

    In visual arts micro-progress works as well. I’ve wanted to draw & paint for DECADES but fear of the imperfect work kept me from it. So when I draw or paint, my goal is to do those things for at least 15-20 minutes a session. Some drawing sessions are that short, but other times I can sit and tinker for 1-1.5 hours. I stop the drawing/painting session when I start to get too critical of how I drew the dog’s nose or the human’s eye, etc. The result is I’m learning to appreciate each imperfect work & keep coming back to the page to draw another one & another one & watch my progress. Ultimately that will feed back into my writing.

    Sounds like a bunch of psycho-babble I guess & not everybody needs this technique. But it works for me & ultimately I think it will contribute a great deal to my creativity. In fact, it already is.

  3. Great post, Clare. I can tell you from personal experience that micro progress has merit. My son began studying the violin when he was about 3 and 3/4 years old. He was fortunate enough to study with an amazing Russian teacher named Klara Berkovich. When I met her, she said, “My students make very big progress in small steps.” She wasn’t kidding. During the time my son studied with her, he learned many long pieces/concertos at a very young age. People would ask me how he did it. How does a preschooler learn concertos and such? It’s really pretty simple: four measures at a time. Not kidding. He never practiced whole pieces at once. He learned to practice in small sections. Then he’d run off and play and come back and practice a little more later. Sometimes before a performance, he would practice a piece straight through, but that wasn’t the usual method. Most of the time, he practiced in very tiny sections. Then it was easy to put the sections together. It makes perfect sense to me that writers (or really people working in any discipline) could make use of this strategy with great results. Big progress in small steps. I believe in it.

    • I’m going to remember that when I finally come to a point that I can start learning banjo.

      • My son, unbeknown to his strict Russian teacher at the time, used to get together with a couple of older banjo players (one was a cardiologist), and they’d play at birthday parties and such. In fact, if you Google Scottie Waldron (violin) w/Dr. Grenzer & Ray Jaworski (banjo) you can see a snippet on YouTube. Music is great for stress relief, and it may even help you tap into the creative area of your brain. I think you should go for it!

        • I came to appreciate this approach when I was started piano lessons as an adult. I often felt overwhelmed with something akin to despair that I would never play anything better than “Wooly Bears.” (a piece in the elementary kids’ book). But I had a wonderful teacher who, when I finally worked up the courage and dexterity to try a Satie piece, “I want you to practice only four bars. Until you feel confident about those four bars, you are forbidden to look ahead.”

          And that is how you eat the elephant. Or a Gymnopedie

          • My son’s teacher would always say, “Only practice slowly. Do you want to have to rely on luck to get it right?” So true.

  4. This post makes me think of the Hubster who never tackles a task start to finish. He calls it “staging.” Emptying the dishwasher can be a 3 phase project. Remove dishes. Stack on counter. Put away. Which would be fine if the steps didn’t have hours between them.

    The thought of writing a 300 page book is daunting. The thought of writing 100 words is doable. When that’s easy, then 200, 500, or 1000 words a day doesn’t seem like much.

  5. I wasn’t able to start my revision – a huge novel – until I divided it into 8 sequences. Working on 1/8 felt manageable. And it was.

  6. I apply this approach to all projects I have, both work and personal. Also, I give myself points for each tiny step and at the end of every month (and in-between weeks, as well) I count the points. I also give myself bonus points for each finished part and delivery (as a manuscript to the editor or similar). I call this self-gamified approach Project Crush and write a non-fiction book about it currently.
    Before that, I have played a game I call 5 Minute Perseverance Game (which also resulted in a little book), and by writing about 5 minutes a day for a month, I managed to write more than 6000 words for one of my works-in-progress! 6000! This was quite an epiphany to me! By continuing such a pace, I would have been able to have a manuscript within one year just by writing about 5 minutes a day.
    Btw, the small step philosophy is also called Kaizen and is widely applied in Japan and especially by Toyota. But it is also applicable on the personal level as well.
    I discovered when you turn your life into a game (which makes the whole process much more fun), you need to do three things:
    – be here and now (that is living in the moment)
    – breakdown the big goals and challenges into small, effortless and easily doable (Kaizen)
    – import game design elements and have a thrill being the superhero of your own game.

    • I like that concept of turning it into a game. I think my life has circled around to that outlook independently.

      • The small step philosophy is certainly working for you and I love the reward system for each step. Often I find myself being critical of what hasn’t been done rather than focusing on what I have achieved in a given week. Changing that mindset is one of my challenges for this year:)

        • Seeing it all as a game definitely help in change of the mindset. I got much better and concentrated as soon as I reminded myself that this is a game. We all want to reach the next level and make efforts to do so. I discovered that when I used to say in the past that I needed to be serious about doing something, I was rather adding drama to the task at hand than being concentrated on it. So approaching our project as games and doing them in small steps helps being truly “serious” and successful in what we want to do.

          • I forgot to say, thank you, Clare, for raising this topic. Quite a few writers have problems finding time to write. The realization and the experience that small steps cannot only help but actually be both fun and even improve writing (because they become fun) is a surprising gift to them. It was definitely for me. 🙂
            Thanks again!

            • You’re welcome! When I came across the article a few more things clicked for me, even though I’ve approached every novel in a stage-by-stage process, it helped me overcome some obstacles by thinking in terms of ‘micro-progress’!

  7. When I was studying time management back in the day, I came across a techinque called “Swiss Cheese.” Instead of being overwhelmed by a project, you punch holes in it (a la swiss cheese) in small units of time.

    So instead of thinking, “When am I ever going to find the time to edit 100 pages this week?”, you go: “I’ve got twenty minutes here. I’ll work on that scene between Monica and Jack.”

  8. This is great. Thank you for bringing it up and the link to that article. I have struggling to get back into a regular writing routine after months away because of family issues. I, too, am trying to choose between finishing a book that has been kicking around in my head for years and going back to complete the first draft of a much simpler story. The mere act of sitting down last week to read a hard copy of what I had written helped me get back on the road to writing a bit every day again.

  9. Re writing a novel, a magazine editor once told me, “You eat an elephant one bite at a time. Likewise, you write a novel one word. one scene, one chapter at a time.”
    There are days when I feel like I’m literally going ’round in circles because I have too many scenes that need to be developed, and I have to inwardly yell at myself (regarding the elephant), “Pick a toe. Any toe. Eat it. Paint it. I don’t care. Just pick a damn toe!”

  10. One of the techniques I use is to write each scene (or chapter) in a separate word document. That tells my brain “this is all you’re working on right now” – once I’ve done as much as I want to on this particular component, I”ll copy and paste it into the manuscript. That way it feels more like a work in progress, something I can noodle around with, change, morph; typing it right into the WIP in progress feels too “set in stone” and too intimidating.

    • Maggie – I’ve started using my iPad Pro (Xmas present!) and writing (with the ipencil – also xmas present, thanks hubby!) mini scenes in an app that then converts to text. It helps me jot down scenes and then copy and paste into the chapter later:) Makes me feel I can make micro-progress in whatever spare time I have.

  11. I love the idea of micro-progress. It’s how I write. I don’t concern myself (usually) with the big picture of the novel (disclosure: I’m a pantser, so I seldom if ever know where the novel is going). Rather, I focus on the scene I’m writing at the time. Or, to be even more micro, on the line of dialogue I’m struggling with and the line following it, or how do I want to describe this room, or whatever. And when I accomplish those little bits of micro-progress, I feel good about myself and about the novel. Then it’s on to the next micro-challenge.

  12. I live by this technique, but sometimes I need someone to remind me. Thank you for the reminder, Clare. I’m dealing with the nightmare of a computer crash and shopping for a Mac (finally taking the plunge from Windows to Mac), so this post was exactly what I needed to read today, albeit from my phone. Yep, still having a minor pity-party. 🙂

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