While we typically offer suggestions for nuts-and-bolts practicality—schedule your project! Create a flow chart! Try a cool app! Read a great book!—we don’t typically talk about what this practicality serves. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not actually your “project,” it’s your goal.
“Goals” have been tainted by their association with “objectives,” “targets,” “ambitions,” and other jargon-adjacent abominations. But goals still serve to concretize aims and aspirations, and they still imply the promised certainty of attainment (and the corollary invocation 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 mean and too grandiose. “Let’s just get started” or “let’s just see how things turn out” or “let’s take the first step” are the goal-avoidance demurrals we hear the most.
But in our experience, a project becomes more doable, and ultimately more efficiently successful, when writers take the time to define their goals and engage with the thought experiment of developing 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 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 the goal that motivates, it's the necessity of realizing their vision—but 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.
When I prepare for phone calls with passionate authors, I like to revisit “How to Conduct Difficult Interviews” from The Open Notebook. I do it not because my authors are difficult (never!), but because the article is so widely applicable. Who hasn’t had a tough conversation with a business partner, boss, team member, or client (or a friend, partner, or spouse)? In these conversations, you don’t gain a lot of ground by gaining points; you gain ground by gaining information.
When facing a discussion that may feel intimidating or adversarial (for me, this is typically an interventional phone call for a fragile or otherwise off-track project), “intimidating” can stand, but “adversarial” must be recast.
Feeling intimidated, or what Mallory Pickett calls feeling the fear, can be an excellent exercise in humility. The Antidote persuasively argues that getting comfortable with this kind of discomfort is an important and worthwhile skill. It doesn’t mean ignoring discomfort, though—quite the contrary—it means allowing discomfort to exist, allowing conversations to feel and be challenging, allowing uncomfortable silences to happen, and, ideally, allowing all points of view to emerge.
But while it’s okay to be intimidated by the prospect of a difficult conversation, it’s not productive to sustain an inner dialogue and accompanying imagery that casts the conversation as a battle in which a winner will emerge victorious after vanquishing a loser. I know when I rehearse a difficult conversation, I sometimes slip into attack-and-defense mode—but when I want to win and not lose, I’m focused not on the project but on my (single, limited) point of view.
Instead of viewing conflict as adversarial, it’s helpful to occupy the position of a science journalist who works not to win a point but to gain as much information as possible. Making information the goal takes the onus off conversational combat and helps to unify different views by refocusing them on the project.
Because gaining information is the goal, the best preparation for difficult conversations is, ultimately, preparation. This might take the form of role playing a difficult conversation, or it may take the form of research that provides insight and context for the client’s point of view, or it might take the form of breathing exercises that can provide comfort in the midst of discomfort. Science journalists take on the work of confrontational reporting because they want to fully answer a sometimes slippery question. Their techniques apply to anyone who has to talk it out.
You might already know that Kickstarter has a vibrant and delightful publishing category. Illuminated books? Botanical illustrated sketchbooks? Letterpress type specimen books? Yes, please! The site has helped to launch over 45,000 publishing projects and to raise over 156 million dollars. Can it help you?
Maybe! Launching a project is no joke—it's a whole lot of work—but for authors, especially authors of niche books or books rich in design elements, Kickstarter can be an excellent move.
Kickstarter offers a home and platform for entrepreneurial authors looking to go their own way, shorten their publication timeline, raise money for quality printing, determine a more accurate count for an initial book run, and establish a place for fans to congregate and show support.
However, Kickstarter should in no way be considered an “easy” route to publication. Its author-driven platform is freeing, but that’s because the author rather than a publishing team takes on fundraising and marketing responsibilities. While that work may be unavoidable (traditional publishers don’t typically invest in niche books with boutique audiences, and they frequently require, implicitly or explicitly, that authors do the heavy lifting in marketing anyways), it can be challenge, especially for the unprepared.
Thinking about launching a Kickstarter campaign? Consider the following:
Successful Kickstarter campaigns reward the prepared and persistent. From our perspective, it's a platform that's helping to diversify publishing in the form of riskier, niche-ier projects. If you’ve got one, and you've got the energy and passion to fuel it, get in there and kickstart it!
Well, that’s pretty rare, actually. Although a foreword, a preface, an introduction, and an afterword are all framing elements, they are only sometimes used (and only sometimes read). So what are the differences between a preface, a foreword, and an intro, and what is the point of an afterword? How do you know what your book needs, and when should you start to write it?
Writing is an extension of your voice. You may not always think about it that way, but every time you put fingers to keyboard, you’re conveying information and communicating something about who you are (even when “who you are” is “someone who uses Gmail autoresponses”).
You can put that power to work in your community by writing letters to the editor. Activists and advocates use letters to the editor (LTEs) to speak to the issues that matter to them in a voice loud enough for their communities—and congresspeople—to hear. But “activists and advocates”? That’s you. And me. When we write letters to the editor, we say, and to a large audience, a bit about who we are, what we care about, and why we think others should care about it, too.
The best LTEs are the published ones, so follow the rules to get yours read:
While some of us rely on the power of the pen too frequently (guilty!), others seldom make use of its persuasive potential. In an unsurprising twist, this is especially the case for women. The New York Times editorial page recently addressed its gender disparity after reader and PhD candidate Kimberly Probolus wrote in both to persuade women to write more LTEs and to ask for institutional change.
The editors responded to Probolus's letter by pledging to do better (maybe they'll follow Ed Yong's protocol, as narrated in The Atlantic). The editors also asked women (and others who feel underrepresented) to write in and indicated they would begin to cull letters from a wider variety of outlets.
So, women, if there’s an issue in your community that you care about, if your local paper covers a topic but leaves out the most important parts, if an article fails to make clear to readers the ramifications of a congressperson’s political stance, LTEs offer you an opportunity to flex your informed muscle.
Letters to the editor speak to the issues that matter: You don’t have to be an “activist” or an “advocate” to write one. You don't even have to be a “writer" (or a man). You just have to be willing to use your voice.
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.