Image: Matthew Loffhagen
For many amateur authors, producing art is enough of a challenge. Inspiration is difficult, time is scarce, and it takes insight and grit to turn a doughy first draft into something you can be proud of. If that’s the journey you’re on, keep at it; self-expression is a worthy goal. If, on the other hand, it’s important to you that you also grow as a writer – that you’re not just creating art but creating art of increasing quality – a weekly review might be right for you.
Carrying out a weekly review
So, what’s so great about a weekly review? Well, a review helps you set and attain discrete goals. Instead of stumbling along doing your best until an errant comment or particularly insightful beta reader lets you know that your characters aren’t convincing or your dialogue is flat, you can take an active role in improving your art and striving to be a better writer.
As for the ‘weekly’ part, the idea is to keep things as simple as possible. A yearly review is a good idea, it helps you define your ultimate goals and keep an eye on the long view, but it’s also a lot of work. A weekly review can be a short, to-the-point affair that saves you more time than it takes, allowing you to reify your goals and tailor your approach to achieving them.
What does a weekly review look like?
If you’re going to carry out a review once a week – or at least most weeks – then you don’t need to dedicate a huge amount of time to it. Thirty minutes should be sufficient, perhaps stretching to an hour every month or two.
Working with such little time, it’s best to have a review routine ready to go. Now, it’s your writing and your career, so the best routine for you will differ hugely from the best routine for someone else, but I’d advise writing a set of questions to which you can give short, quantitative answers.
Examples might include:
- How many words did I write this week?
- How many hours did I spend writing and editing?
- What progress did I make on my current project?
- Is there a particular area on which I need to focus?
- How could I focus on this area in the week to come?
- What specific goals do I want to achieve in the week to come? (E.g. number of words, hours spent writing, focus on a particular task, etc.)
- What obstacles to my writing do I expect in the week to come, and how can I work around them?
It can also be useful to set up a brief writing schedule – when do you plan to work on the goals you’ve chosen, and how long do you expect to spend doing so? This is part of how a weekly review can save you time; instead of hoping you’ll find the time to write, you can consciously earmark the time in advance. On the flipside, if you know you won’t have time to write this week, you can adjust your goals to be more realistic. Improving your writing is a marathon, and part of planning ahead is managing your morale – if you’re going to get an hour, max, to write this week, there’s no point treating it like any other week and feeling depressed when your word count doesn’t make the grade. Instead, acknowledge the time you have and choose to use it productively – perhaps doing some character work, plotting, or another task that doesn’t rely on hours of toil.
In How To Stop Decision Fatigue And Burnout Hurting Your Writing, we talked about the fact that making any decision has a fatiguing effect on our brains. The fewer decisions we set ourselves up to make, the more mental acuity we can bring to each one. One tactic we suggested was making decisions about your writing sessions ahead of time – that way, sitting down to write doesn’t first involve deciding what to focus on, how long to write for, and which goals to chase today. A weekly review is a great place to tackle this thinking so it doesn’t need to bother you over your writing week. Whether you fit your review in on a Sunday or a Wednesday, try to just plan seven days ahead. That’s far enough in advance to give yourself an advantage, but not so much that you’re overwhelmed by your own plans or stuck in a rigid system that isn’t adaptable to what life throws at you.
In Nobody Beats The Triangle, But You Can Be Prepared For It, we discussed the project management triangle – the idea that a project can be improved by making it ‘faster,’ ‘better,’ or ‘cheaper,’ but that you can only really choose two (whatever remains constituting the cost of that decision.)
For authors, these terms have different meanings; ‘cheaper’ refers to all resources, not just money, that you pump into a project. If you want to write something great quickly, you’ll need to dedicate a lot of time and effort (your mental resources.) If you want to write something great but you don’t have the time and energy to do it all at once, it’s probably going to take a long time to finish. Finally, if you don’t want to dedicate a lot of mental resources and you want to finish a project quickly, the end result probably isn’t going to be great.
Any of these options can be justified under the right conditions, but in every case, your project will be easier to complete if you’re aware of the triangle and you’re making decisions consistently. The worst thing you can do is keep cycling through which point of the triangle you care about most; spending one week dedicating all your time to the painstaking creation of a single chapter, then getting frustrated and dashing off the next few because you want to be further ahead.
Use your weekly review to keep on top of this process and be consistent with your priorities – if you don’t have much day-to-day time but you want to write something great, then remind yourself every week that it’s going to take a while, and that’s okay. If, on the other hand, you want to produce a first draft as fast as possible, it’s valuable to remind yourself that quality isn’t the most important factor at this stage in your process.
Once you’ve made these decisions, turn them into a motto, and use part of your weekly review to check whether this motto still applies. If it does, remind yourself why you chose it. If it doesn’t, use your review time to make new decisions.
Where to focus in your weekly review
As much as a weekly review can help you stay on course, sometimes you’ll discover that you need to change direction. Maybe your approach isn’t working, or maybe you’ve reached a new stage of your project and it’s time for a fresh angle of attack.
At this point, it’s time to start setting new goals. Again, this needs to be a quick process. While you may use your weekly review to clarify your longer-term goals, you only have to decide on practical tasks for the next week. In one week, you’ll have the chance to question whether these minor goals worked toward your major ambitions and, if not, to change them. Allow that to give you the freedom to set small, clear goals and go after them without doubting yourself.
The first thing to keep in mind about setting good goals is that they should, wherever possible, be quantitative. When you put numbers to your goals, you ground them in reality, and you give yourself the ability to fine-tune later decisions. If you wanted to spend six hours writing and you only managed four, you know that you need to find two hours for writing next week or else alter your goals. Qualitative measures – like how good you feel your writing was during a given session or how inspired you felt by a given approach – are excellent measures of evaluation, but when you’re looking forward, try to put a number on things.
This feeds into the idea of setting ‘SMART’ goals. This is something we covered extensively in Improve Your Writing With An End-Of-Year Review, so I won’t belabor it here. Suffice to say that good goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. ‘Specific’ and ‘measurable’ are pretty self-explanatory; ‘I want to find the time to write more’ is a wish, whereas ‘next week, I will write for one more hour than I did this week’ is the beginning of a plan. Attainable goals are contextual to your situation – aiming to write for ten more hours next week is no good if you don’t have any way of gaining those hours, since it’ll just leave you dispirited – and deciding what goals can actually be achieved can be a productive part of your weekly review. Relevant goals address the bigger picture; don’t set goals just to have something to do, but rather in the service of what you’re ultimately trying to achieve. A writer who hits random targets isn’t doing themself the service of a writer who consciously thinks about where they need to focus their attention to genuinely improve their craft. Finally, time-bound goals are set within a sensible timeframe. Happily, you’re only setting goals for the week, so that one takes care of itself.
Don’t use your weekly review time to nag yourself. If you’ve really considered what you want to achieve and how to do it, then you either made progress, which is great, or you didn’t, which is a prompt to try a new approach. Keep your weekly review practical, results-focused, and SMART.
Weekly review success
Done correctly, a weekly review is a short activity that makes your writing week substantially easier and keeps you on track to attain your goals. If you want to improve your writing and find publication, this is one of the best ways to avoid decades spent wandering in the wilderness. Decide what you’re going to do, decide how you’re going to do it, decide when you’re going to do it, and then don’t worry about it again until the same time next week, when you can perform a deliberate review, make any necessary changes, and give yourself permission not to obsess outside of the time you’ve dedicated to this simple planning.
Have you tried a weekly review? Let me know how it went in the comments and, for more great advice on organizing your writing time, check out Can The Pomodoro Technique Help Your Writing? and the other awesome articles mentioned above.