On Procrastination and Fake-Work

We’ve all done it. You’ve done it. I’ve done it. Watching reruns of “How I Met Your Mother” instead of writing. Cleaning the kitchen instead of editing the writing. Reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals  instead of working on chapter summaries (ok, maybe that’s just me). Procrastination rears its ugly head in many ways. Today I’m going to introduce you to another form of procrastination that is far more insidious because it goes undetected and undiagnosed. Fake-work.

Fake-work happens when you want to work, but have little motivation to do anything more than fiddle. Reading blogs on “how to write,” searching your novel for words such as “certainly,” “suddenly,” or “that.” There are some things that feel like work even when, let’s face it, you’re not making much progress.

Sure, these things need to happen. But when you fake-work, you move at such a slow pace and at such a low level of activity that you might as well not be working at all. In fact, fake-work can sometimes inhibit real work. My first novel was slowed to a halt due to fake-work. I spent three years writing the first 60,000 words, and then I grew so frustrated with my own pace and level of production that I spent the next three months writing 5,000 words and deleting 5,000 words. The book was going nowhere. My fake-work prevented me from moving forward with the draft.
Joan Bolker in “Writing your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day” argues that what I am terming fake-work can be a great motivational tool for writers who are stuck or side-tracked on a project. She advocates writing the acknowledgement section, editing the end notes, or thinking of chapter titles during those times when you need time to think or work through difficult moments (in the case of a non-fiction work-in-progress. Fiction has it’s own set of side tasks: working on your author bio, for example). I have myself worked on the bibliography to my prospectus when I don’t want to tackle the sticky mess of my introduction.

But fake-work can’t last forever. Although fake-work can be a tool to break writer’s block, it will not in and of itself help you finish the project. If you find yourself doing more fake-work than real work, then you need to reevaluate the situation. Perhaps you are stuck on the next scene or don’t know what argument you want to make in a chapter. In these cases, maybe doing no work is actually the better solution. Go for a walk, have a cup of coffee. If your fake-work is taking away from your real work too frequently, it’s time to take a break and come up with a more effective writing practice.

What do you think? Have you ever found yourself doing fake-work? Was it a positive or negative experience?


5 thoughts on “On Procrastination and Fake-Work

  1. Neurotic Workaholic says:

    I've found myself doing fake-work plenty of times. Often I'll do research on stuff that's only a little bit relevant to my topic, and I try unsuccessfully to convince myself that I might be able to use it later. But then it just leaves me with more "real work" to do and less time to get it done.

  2. Ghenet Myrthil says:

    Yes, I'm guilty of doing fake-work. I agree that it's necessary sometimes (you need to go through your manuscript as some point to get rid of repetitive words) but you can't spend all of your time doing it. Lately I've been good at buckling down and getting real work done.

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