Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Project Management 101 - the Writer as CEO

We've all seen them. The overworked ones. The 'important' ones. Always rushing, always poking at their electronic PDAs, and they bite your head off if you offer to show them a picture of your new puppy. Sad little people with sad little lives. They are everywhere in the corporate world. They're usually middle or junior management, but you find people like this even among the lowest ranks. They exhaust themselves, they're awful to be around, and you know what? I can confidently say after twenty years of working with people like this that they are not super-productive.

You know what the really important people are doing as these PDA types rush about working up a sweat? They're enjoying their morning coffee as they gaze out over the city in their big corner offices. Or perhaps they're on the golf course. Who knows? One thing of which you may be sure, though, is that they aren't working up a sweat over how much they have to do.

Before you go off on a rant about the fat cats of Bourke Street, though, consider this. These are the people who have been successful, more successful than everyone else in their organisations. And they've done that largely by being in command of their lives. Okay, having an uncle on the board doesn't hurt. But there are plenty of people in the middle ranks who had similar advantages.

This is not a hymn to capitalism. Bear with me here; I do have a point to make, I promise.


As a writer, you are the CEO. You probably don't have any staff, but be that as it may, you are the boss of your working life. It therefore falls to you to determine how that life is going to play out. And if you don't accept that role of command, your working life is going to be largely random, and you will be at the mercy of your messy desk, all the people who swoop down and try to take bites out of your day/week/month/life, and your faulty memory.

Now, as you're also the workers, the secretary, the janitor and the boy who makes the coffee, I'm not suggesting you get carried away with self-importance and sit about admiring yourself. Not at all. What I am saying is that as a self-employed writer, you consist of many roles. There's an executive in your head as well as a wordsmith. There may be an editor, a proofreader, a janitor, a research assistant... well, you get the picture. Sure, they're all you, but you need to invoke the right one. Don't be all edity when you're drafting. When a telemarketer rings up, don't start researching his life. You're supposed to be the security guard for that one. It's your job then to get rid of undesirables.

When it's time to command, though, that is when your Inner Executive needs to take over.


There have been thousands of volumes written on this subject, mostly by people with porcelain teeth. But because I am Tabitha Ormiston-Smith, I can condense the science of management into one simple sentence for you.

Management is about manipulating variables.

There are four variables in any project:

  • Scope
  • Quality
  • Time
  • Resources

The basic structure of any project can be viewed as a parallelogram with these four things as its sides. Try it with two pieces of string tied at both ends and four nails. One piece of string is the deliverables string - scope and quality. The other piece is the cost string - time and resources. If you wish to increase the scope of your project, for example, you can either increase time, resources or both, or you can decrease quality. This is the first painful lesson that every new manager learns. 

Now as a writer, you'll find these don't all have equal weight. You may, for instance, not see quality as a variable. I take no issue with this. That's a philosophical decision that one makes about one's career. You may consider it a given that you will publish only work of the best quality of which you are capable, or you may decide to churn out six porno romances a year, and never mind the quality. There are people who make a good living doing this. I am not judging you. 

However, what you must understand is that even if you do not accept that quality is a variable, it still is one. This means, for example, that if you rush your editing, your finished product will suffer. 

Resources is the other variable that has limited application for a writer. Okay, if you are super-successful you might have a team of people working for you. A secretary, a publicist, a research assistant, who knows what all. And those people are resources. So is your computer a resource. So is software. I use Word, Excel, Outlook and Microsoft Project. Those are my software resources. A lot of people use Scrivener or other purpose-built tools. Whatever your resources, though, they are not infinitely variable. If, say, you hire three more research assistants, that will not get your book written any faster unless the speed of research was what was limiting it. And two copies of Scrivener will not work any better for you than one. Trust me on this.


Depending on how long you've been writing, the number of unfinished projects on your desk may be one or many. This is not a criticism. You can be much more productive with a number of things on the go at different stages. The more you have, though, the greater the importance of managing your work, and the greater the risk of falling into a shitstorm of fragmented effort.

A project is whatever the project manager says it is. The scope of it is up to you. You may consider each separate book as a project in itself, and there's nothing wrong with that. You may also divide your projects into timeframes, or into some other category. My own current project, for example, contains two short stories, two novellas, and two non-fiction books. The project scope calls for one of the non-fiction books to be published this year, and the other things are only to be got ready for publication or submission, as the case may be. That's my project for 2017.

Do you see what I did there? I told you about the scope decisions that I've made for this project. Yes, I have two novels partly written, a completed novella drafted and a bunch of short fiction that I haven't done anything with. But these things I listed above are the things that I've chosen to focus on this year. They are going to get done, provided I stick to the plan. Remember, a plan is like soap. It only works if you use it. Every day.

Do you see what else I did there? I told you the parameters of my project plan. It is my project for 2017. I decided up front to plan in terms of my year. That's how I like to work. You may be different; your plan may be scope-based. It might be all about finishing one book. That's fine too. The important thing is that you decide what it is. Because you are the manager, remember?

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