In my work with book development, authors who finish their books often differ from authors who don’t finish in just one respect: Those who don’t finish don't feel accountable to completion.
Creating flow charts, using editorial calendars, adhering to timelines, tracking time, soliciting beta reader feedback: These tools help foster a willingness to take responsibility for a project. Appropriately deployed—and routinely used—they can encourage someone to feel more accountable for a project than they might otherwise feel inclined to do.
I rely on the tricky quality of these types of tools to produce posts. My editorial calendar works as an impassive disciplinarian, coldly reminding me that I’ve set out to but have yet to complete a task.
Coaches and others know that there are all kinds of ways to foster accountability. One of the simplest is to articulate your goal. Go further by writing it down. Go all the way by writing it down and regularly reporting your progress to a friend.
The efficacy of this method was tested in 2014 by Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at Dominican University, who wanted to test the premise of the never-conducted-though-frequently-cited 1953 “Yale Study of Goals.” The latter was used (spuriously, it turned out) as evidence that people who wrote down their goals had a much higher chance of reaching them.
When Matthews created her study, she found that among her 267 participants, 76 percent of those who had been instructed to write down their goal and send their weekly progress to a friend accomplished their goal or felt they were “at least halfway there.”
Matthews's sample size may be too small to draw big conclusions, but I will add my anecdotal evidence in support: Authors whose work requires routine progress reports almost always progress. Those who do not make use of progress reports may progress, but who can tell? They don’t report.
Whether you manage teams or just yourself, research suggests that there are some very basic ways to foster the accountability that can lead to success. Write it down and phone a friend to get at least halfway there.
If you’re a reader of the MWS newsletter, you already know that I used Independent Bookstore Day to restock my supply of birthday books. You also know that at the very top of the heap is Normal People, Sally Rooney’s follow-up to Conversations with Friends (an emo-elder-YA hybrid), and that it’s for me!
But there are lots of other titles in my stack, and they’re mostly for young readers. My favorites include the endearingly odd Dory in Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon, the clever environmentalist Noah in Flush by Carl Hiaasen, the delightfully different Penderwick sisters in The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, and the hilariously unlikely nanny in Nanny Piggins by R.A. Spratt.
I love giving books because it lets me imaginatively repeat the first-time reading experience with the anticipation inspired by the knowledge of what’s to come—the book is great! When I give Life After Life by Kate Atkinson or Enchanted by Rene Denfeld or Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell or Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, I feel like I’m giving someone a ticket to a fantastic land I’ve just discovered.
But of course, because it’s a one-way, single-use ticket, I can’t take that journey again. Sure, I can reread the book (and that, too, is a source of great pleasure), but I can't ever discover an already-visited land. In this way reading is like stepping into Heraclitus’s river: It’s never exactly the same book (because it’s never exactly the same reader) twice.
Giving books, then, is a gift you give yourself. In giving, you get to relive a bit the magic of discovery, and once your recipient has returned from their journey, you get to talk about your discoveries together.
'The weekend is coming! The weekend is coming! And while that news alone is a source of joy and wonder, it's doubly so this weekend because Saturday is Independent Bookstore Day!
Where will you visit and what will you buy? If you're in the Minneapolis area, you might try The Wild Rumpus for a belated copy of The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, or maybe the Red Balloon in anticipation of the newest Wings of Fire? How about Birchbark for Killers of the Flower Moon, or Once Upon a Crime for the creepy classic, Rebecca? Or maybe you'll head to Magers and Quinn for a newer classic, The Great Believers?
Or maybe you're working, or digging in the (muddy [snowy?]) dirt, or riding the bleachers at a child's doubleheader. If you can't get out and about in your neighborhood, there's always the internet's busy streets. Specifically, you might try Belt Publishing for the Minneapolis-superfan's Under Purple Skies.
Buying independent is an excellent way to make manifest your belief in the restorative value of books and the invigorating power of independent bookstores.
It's true that books are expensive and can be borrowed—for free—from the library (libraries!). But good books are forever: You read them once or twice or more. You read them aloud to those you love. You lend them to those you trust. You gush over them with acquaintances and hate on them with strangers. You revisit the phrases, the characters, the scenes, the stories—and the images and feelings they invoke—over the years of your life. And good books make those years so much better.
And bad books? They're the worst. But even bad books deserve a second life in more appreciative hands. So sell back A Little Life and The Flamethrowers to the used bookstore, and try to remember that the books we hate also give us something to think over and question, and that's a lot.
Find your Minnesota-specific guide to Independent Bookstore Day at Rain Taxi or Twin Cities Geek. And reserve Saturday for spending money on the booksellers, bookstores, book publishers, book printers, and, of course, the authors that entertain, educate, delight, and, sometimes, astound us.
It's hard to find the time for in-depth project review. It's harder to adopt the can-do attitude necessary for efficiently editing a project. But it's hardest of all to realize that in the time you've taken to review and edit, your collaborator has changed your working version of a project draft.
Collaboration is a fact of life. Like all worthwhile (group) work, it requires time, energy, and the wherewithal to relocate your personal sense of value away from effort and onto the project itself.
Whether it’s a team of two cowriting a book or a team of eight running a nonprofit, effective project collaboration requires open communication, adherence to work flow, and the right tools for the work.
Zoho and Github, which are but a few comprehensive integrative solutions for small businesses, are fine. But they’re not necessary for good project-specific collaboration. Google Docs and Dropbox Paper speak to this purpose, but not as persuasively as Microsoft 365.
Google Docs is free, accessible, and has many text-based and formatting features. But it requires good, stable internet access, and although it offers excellent note-taking features, it can be frustrating to use when working with others on high-stakes docs.
Dropbox Paper is also free and accessible, with a simple modern interface and superior media integration (making it a great option for collaborative design). But its simplicity means it lacks all but the most basic text and formatting features.
Docs and Paper include tools for collaboration (edits, suggestions, comments, chat), but these tools are so integral to the apps that they sometimes cause new problems. Google Docs, in particular, can cause maddening frustrations when various contributors actively edit and comment at the same time.
To solve some of these problems, consider Microsoft 365. It’s a hypercapable version of Word that offers the same collaborative tools as Docs and Paper, including tools for real-time collaboration (“coauthoring” in Word terminology), but as a supportive feature, not a main function.
Tools for efficient collaboration are meant to streamline group work and laborious back-and-forth exchanges. Sometimes, though, collaboration is overvalued. When it's too easy to invite in contributors, too necessary to chat about inconsequential details, and too typical to duplicate work, it's time to try something else. In these cases, consider using an app that fosters (and rewards) a clear and clearly communicated work flow, builds in the space for engaged work, and creates the distance in which everyone can take a project-first approach.
We typically offer suggestions for nuts-and-bolts practicality: Schedule your project! Create a flow chart! Try a cool app! Read a great book! But we don’t typically talk about what this practicality serves. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not really your “project,” it’s actually your goal.
While “goals” are somewhat tainted by association with “objectives,” “targets,” “ambitions,” and other jargon-adjacent terms, goals still serve to concretize aims and aspirations. Goals still imply the promise of attainment (and therefore invoke the necessity of strategy).
A goal is hard to make because, once stated, we assume responsibility for achievement. For big projects, when just getting started feels like responsibility enough, stating a goal can feel paradoxically too small and too big. That's why we frequently hear demurrals in the form of “let’s just get going” or “let’s just see how things turn out” or “let’s take the first step."
But in our experience, a project becomes more doable, and ultimately more efficiently successful, when writers take the time to define their goals and (in what can be a bit of a thought experiment) to create a strategy for realization.
When approaching your own project and determining your own goals, you may be tempted to take your cue from productivity wonks and their SMART methodology (goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely). But such specificity is not really required, and it can sometimes become a subversive avoidance tactic. Instead, ask yourself what your project must do out in the world for you to consider it a success. Then push yourself to answer this question in concrete terms.
It is certainly possible to start your project without a goal—for some lucky people, it’s not an external goal that motivates, it's the necessity of realizing something more like an internal vision. But for most people, it’s much easier to finish your project and launch it into the world when you know exactly where you’re aiming.
Although the push for efficient productivity seems to be waning, the desire to discover a new app, method, or model to spur a project to completion will always wax. We’ve read lots of books and implemented lots of models, and—lucky for you!—we’ve discovered the secret.
The best way to finish a project is also the simplest: First, define your audience, your message, and your method. Then, create a shared calendar or timeline. Third, stick to it.
Project completion is often obstructed by too many people knowing too little. This is a variation on the old too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen trope. Typically, the issue is not that there are too many bodies working over one stove, it’s that few of these bodies can be considered “cooks,” and none of them are working with a recipe.
Do better by designating yourself the chef and creating a recipe that anyone can follow. In terms of a project, this means straightforwardly defining—but then recording and sharing—your specific audience, your message to them, and the most efficient, most welcome form of delivery.
For a nonprofit communications project, this might mean that after you determine a fundraising goal, you identify your supporters most likely to contribute to that goal, and then develop a social media-based fundraising campaign and marketing collateral that will reach and reward them. For a coauthored book project, this might mean that after you determine a self-help-book goal, you determine readers most likely to be moved by your message, and then develop an organization scheme that will reach and resonate with them.
If you want to finish a project with a minimum of detours, it’s necessary to do this relatively low-effort work. If also necessary to create—and to record and share—a calendar or timeline.
We’ve frequently discussed calendars in terms of editorial calendars—and those are great. However, our nonprofit and book-making clients are often overwhelmed by the inputs required by the editorial-calendar format. For these clients—and for you—a calendar can be as simple as an auto-formatted Google Sheet that breaks down the calendar you’re already using in a more granular, more accountability-fostering way.
Ultimately, project completion requires getting back to basics: Defining and sharing your audience, your message, and your method ensures everyone is on the same page. Putting together a project calendar will provoke participation, and sticking to it promises completion.
For big, audience-targeted projects, beta readers can offer helpful feedback: With the right guidance, they can spot strengths, take note of weaknesses, and offer valuable information about a message's viability (or at least its viability with a member of its target audience).
But beta rounds often go bad. From providing too much information, to taking too much time, to providing too little insight, to acting as too enthusiastic an editor, a beta reader can unwittingly throw good work off track.
It’s not too surprising; after all, a beta reader is really just a (very good) reader, and good readers have lots of opinions. To avoid beta-driven detours and take advantage of the best routes to completion, decide when (and to what) readers should respond.
The question of when can be tricky. Writers working on big projects can experience a long and dramatic cycle of productivity. The highs are high, pushing them to efficient productivity. But the lows are low, burying them in inert doubt.
Writers sometimes navigate the low moments with outside readers. This is premature! Although feedback can act as a prod, too-early feedback can lead writers backward, revising and revisioning a project’s focus and message before either has been fully worked out.
The question of to what readers should respond is more straightforward. Create a Google Form and ask questions that will solicit practical answers. A question like, “What’s weak and needs to be strengthened?” can provoke long, impressionistic responses. A question like, “I want to close chapter 5 with a powerful testimonial. What would make the current example stronger?” encourages more actionable answers.
Reader response works best when readers are acting less as contributors and more as quality control, the last step of affirmation and/or gentle remonstrance before submission. Use readers to make your writing better, but use them at the right time and ask them the right questions.
Productivity trackers are like a mirror on a workday morning after a particularly convivial night: What you see is terrible, but it’s helpful to know what you’re working with. The best tracker is a passive tool that aids your efforts but that doesn’t require much more than a look.
RescueTime, for example, has a “forever-free” version offers tracking and reporting and thus fosters online accountability on par with iPhone’s hate-loved screen-time summary. But it also enables users to set goals. If you spend a lot of time on email, you can find out how much is too much, and you can set a goal to stop.
Related to RescueTime: a Chrome extension. The bare-bones web time-tracker is good for people (not me/me) who like having a tiny clock ticking dictatorially away in their browser. The counting may provoke complicated emotions—anxiety, annoyance, rage—but some people like the fight-or-flight mindset it triggers
Followup is a high-maintenance-to-be-low-maintenance app, but, alas, it doesn’t have a forever-free version. What it does have (for a steep $18.00/month), is email tracking capability. You’ll spend more time “processing” emails, but less time remembering when to respond to and then actually responding to them. If your work depends on networking, on bids and proposals, or on project-managed teams, Followup is a more powerful, more comprehensive, and far more active and participatory Gmail-nudge.
While I frequently wonder why productivity apps are even necessary—why do I sabotage my productivity when I definitely don’t want to (and when my time is so short)—until I answer that question in a way that permanently changes my behavior, I’m relying on apps like these.
There are so, so, so many takes—all the time—about the soul-sucking, mind-melting, brain-breaking perils of online distraction: You don’t use the internet, the internet uses you. Vertical reading is a way to pass the time, not to live in it. The internet is a zero-sum game where online relationships take the place of real-life ones.
And, look, you won’t find a counterargument here. Some nights I only realize it’s time to force my eyeballs from the screen because I sense the return of my old friend, existential emptiness.
The antidote—for everyone, it seems—is easy. Open a damn book already! Lately, I’ve opened a few, and I’m here to suggest a few of those few to you.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. The book, now a movie, is a Coen Brothers-esque reverse Bildungsroman, in which protagonist Eli Sister seeks to unlearn his trade as a hired gun, escape from the Wild West, and, ultimately, return to his childhood home. Although Eli is a guileless dreamer, he is also inconsistently and violently rageful, a quality his sharpshooting, drink-swilling brother, Charlie, is only too happy to provoke. The book is shaped by the brothers’ journey, undertaken at the behest of their boss, Commodore, to dispatch a gold digger whose alchemical secrets promise unimagined riches. The book is a magnetic mix of soul-searching and eye-gouging, insecure self-talk and blind misogynistic fury (in an awful aside, Eli remembers that his mother always told him to masturbate to calm his fits of anger). It’s much worse—and thus much better—than Twitter.
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Smilani. I may have purposefully missed this chart-busting curdler when it first made the rounds. To be honest, it’s hard to recommend even now. Part of me wishes I could cleanse my brain of the book and the abject facts on which its plot is based. But another part of me acknowledges that the book’s reliance on two austere and incomplete portraits of mothers, and not on a sensationalist plot, offers a funhouse mirror for the reader’s soul. Once you see yourself anywhere in the book’s isolating, immolating, passionate-and-alienating version of motherhood, you can never unsee the image. Reviewers sometimes interpret this book as a rebuke to the working mom, but this working mom found a relatable ambivalence that left a lasting and unsettling impression.
Those Who Knew by Idra Novey is the best book I’ve read so far this year and an excellent antidote to whatever glowing screen ails you. The action is set on an unnamed island ten years after the fall of a brutal regime (aided and exploited by the United States). Like the US, the island is shaped by political power begotten through dictatorial violence and the strife of ragged class disparities. It is also marked by women’s negative relationship to power. In fact, the book’s action is driven by women. When the novel opens, the protagonist Lena is haunted by the specter of a dead woman she suspects was murdered by Victor, a beloved politician. Lena suspects Victor because ten years earlier she was a student-activist and Victor was a student-activist hero. She, too, had been in Victor’s thrall, but the spell broke after he coldly seduced her and then choked her into unconsciousness. I paint a depressing picture, I know, but Novey’s book is a translucent and lively thing. Spare but evocative, enraging but funny, the book complicates easy depictions of ruthless politicians and pure-hearted radicals, viciously angry men and disposable women. It also gives women the slanted power they’ve already earned. Read it.
Big projects need big backers. These aren't the kind of backers that make giant contributions to your Kickstarter (although those are great, too); these are the backers who will not only contribute to your Kickstarter, but who will also provide enthusiastic support when your project needs it most.
The role of cheerleader is frequently derided (everywhere, but also in business management circles). A cheerleader denotes a sideline position—someone who isn’t actually playing the game and whose input is therefore superficial. But a cheerleader doesn’t have to be a mouthpiece for empty and purposeless praise, and cheerleading doesn't need to come at the cost of the real-talk that gets things done.
The best cheerleader is an empathic listener who supports a project by considering possible throughways through challenges. A cheerleader responds to a crisis not by ignoring it and hoping it can be rah-rah-ed away. A cheerleader responds to a crisis by listening and offering positive feedback and a few tactical suggestions for a way forward.
When undertaking a big (or team-based or many-stepped or project-managed) project, a cheerleader is indispensable.
But big projects also benefit from eyerollers. Austin Kleon, responding (sort of) to Jon Lovett and George Lucas, recently wrote about that critiquing voice that helps keep projects in check. Although Kleon writes more specifically about artists and the undermining efforts of outsized egos, eyerollers also play an important role in making sure projects fulfill their goals. An eyeroller does not naysay for the joy of expressing cynical skepticism; an eyeroller (a good, useful eyeroller, that is) acts as an editor and a critic, deploying skepticism to ensure that a project reaches its stated goals.
Cheerleaders and eyerollers can benefit any project. When assembling your team—whether formally or informally—decide who will cheer you on and who will keep you in check.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.