Chunking and what to write right now

When you're writing long it's easy to get caught up in the glittering prize of completion, but by chunking you can set shorter, more manageable goals that lead to better, happier work.

Rather than fret and worry about the thousands and thousands of words we have left to write, maybe we should try and split things into more manageable, less daunting chunks. Let’s call it chunking.

I often talk about how it’s hard work that puts writers off or leads them to stop. I think people start writing with plenty of motivation and good intentions, but when they get bogged down, like we all do, they only see the long, hard road in front of them.

They focus on the delicious, mouth-watering three course meal that is their finished project, a mirage in the distance, many metaphorical hours away. They get so caught up in its false promise that they drive straight past the lovely sandwiches, which are readily available at service stations. Also metaphorical.

Make it easy on yourself

Anyway, essentially, chunking takes away the panic and terror of having tens of thousands of words to write.

Whether you’re suffering from some frightful blockage, don’t have enough time or you have some other writing-related brouhaha going on, large projects can be a difficult business.

It’s hard to imagine the end product and tough to even know where the finishing line is, let alone how to get there and cross it. That’s where chunking comes in. It can play a huge part in pushing your writing forward.

The key is not to worry about your big climax. Instead, split your project into chunks and eat them up, gradually, one by one as you go. Set smaller, shorter, easier to envision goals and meet them on a regular basis. Do the stuff you can do.

You’ll find yourself feeling under less pressure and more able to focus on what needs doing right now. If you’re stressing out about a huge piece of work, make a list of the next three things you can and want to achieve soon. In the next hour. Day. Week. Whatever.

Don’t give yourself a hard time. Start getting things done.

Just rewards

Once you’ve removed that big-project terror, you’ll realise that chunking is actually quite an enjoyable way to write.

Every chunk (every task completed) will feel like a reward. Quite literally, if you like. You may eat some chocolate or do a little dance.

I’ll say it again: writers give up because they get bogged down. When struggling to write, the prospect of doing so for many more weeks and months is quite unappealing. And some people can’t hack it. So they simply stop.

‘Did you ever finish that novel?’ friends ask them. ‘No,’ they reply, ‘but I did write a couple of chapters. Well, one and a half.’

The way to get through this malaise is to give yourself a pat on the back once in a while. But you must have something to celebrate. Chunking means completing tasks and achieving goals on a regular basis.

More chunks equals more celebration. And that’s an equation.

Show me a chunk

A chunk can be anything you want or need it to be.

If you’re written a novel or piece of long-form non-fiction, chapters provide obvious chunks. But sometimes so do paragraphs. Sentences even, if you’re working on a crucial part of your text.

Poets have poems, of course, but the same applies. You may consider three poems in a week a good chunk, but by the same stretch you might come up against a stanza, line, word or even syllable that takes the same amount of time.

The point is, chunking should be flexible. You need to do whatever works for you at any given moment.

Expectations matter too. I always say aim high, but you do need to be realistic. You might want to win the Nobel prize for literature, and that’s awesome, but if it’s your focus right now, you might be disappointed when, outrageously, you don’t get the nod.

However, other, smaller aims, like getting a story published or winning a regional competition, is totally doable. Again, focus on what’s in front of you. Do what you can do today.

Now back to me

I’ve done plenty of screen-gazing recently, thinking about how wonderful it will be to have written another novel. But I’ve also been thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I have to write another novel.’

Really, at this very moment more than ever, what I need to do is chunk. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t chunked before. I am good at chunking.

So my immediate goal – the think I need to do right now – is use my notes and write a couple of chapters. Let’s say three chapters. I need to get those down and see where I’m at. I’ll probably eat some chocolate. Maybe do a little dance.

And then I’ll move forward. On to the next chunk. And the next.


Anonymous 29 June 2011 Reply

I appreciate this post. Chunking is the perfect plan to any project. I am actually doing this with my book right now. I don’t have a whole lot of time so my book is chunked into smaller bites of information- hopefully the readers will appreciate this as well as they will be able to quickly pick it up and put it down quickly, if they have to. I’m an Instructional Designer and ‘I teach teachers to teach online’ (my elevator pitch). I actually use the chunking method with training instructors, which influences them to develop their content in much the same fashion, and allows them to deliver the content to student in chunks, so it’s not overwhelming. 30 June 2011 Reply

I do a bit of the ol’ instructional design at The Workshop and it’s true, chunking content is just a good idea in general. In terms of writing, it also means you can have more than one chunk on the go at any one time, so less chance of getting completely stuck. 29 June 2011 Reply

I’m on the last 8,000 words of a novel and stalled. Just reading your post made me mentally divide that last effort into four, manageable chunks and I’m now away again. Phew! Thanks for that. 30 June 2011 Reply

Chunks are great. They are the only way I can work properly. I’m working on the last  ten chapters of my novel and while I know exactly where I want to be and how to write it, dividing the storyline into chunks is basically the secret for me to be able to finish the book.
Thank you for another wonderful topic to think about, I really appreciate it. 30 June 2011 Reply

No worries at all – it sounds like you’ve got things well and truly in hand! 30 June 2011 Reply

Excellent post, Iain, I do this too, then forget and get all ‘omg, I have tons to write!’ thanks for reminding me… 30 June 2011 Reply

I was kind of reminding myself too – it’s so easy to lose track and get lost in the millions and millions of words-not-yet-written. 1 July 2011 Reply

I’m currently pretending my novel doesn’t exist (and just groaning when anyone asks me about it) because I got so stuck. I’ve got a hot deadline for an art exhibition, bit I’ll give it another proper go, with chunking, after that. Thanks Iain. 1 July 2011 Reply

Just try and think about the next 500 words. And then the next 500. Try not to think about the whole thing or you’ll just feel totally swamped. But make sure you do give it another go! 1 July 2011 Reply

Though  am not subscribed to you, I do check this site almost daily. I have to say you’ve been a continuous source of inspiration and a big help regarding my writing. I’ve gained a lot from the different techniques and ways of thinking that you share, and this post was no different. Anyway, I just wanted to spread a little love. Good luck with your second novel! 4 July 2011 Reply

Thank you and no problem at all!

Anonymous 4 July 2011 Reply

I did this with the draft I just finished. It made it so much more manageable. Focusing on one chapter at a time, and not paying attention to overall word count, I averaged 11k words a week! 
I really like your idea that chunks should be flexible. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up a certain pace. 5 July 2011 Reply

Wow, that’s a lot of words! Glad that it worked though – I think it’s a really good mindset to have, especially at the beginning of a project. 19 July 2011 Reply

Wonderful advice — similar to Anne Lamott’s one-inch picture frame. This is especially helpful if you’re working on more than one big project at the same time. Thanks! 19 July 2011 Reply

Thank you. I don’t actually know that one, so I shall look it up. 

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