Agile Project Management for Writers
In my day job, I am a project manager. I can’t help but notice some parallels between getting projects done and what we go through as writers. For example, in the continuum between the “Pantsers” and the “Planners,” I have late in life embraced the Planner philosophy. Map out your direction and then write to that plan. As someone who struggles with procrastination and closure-phobia, I value Plannerism as a way to actual complete something rather than draw it out into eternity. In project management, we would call pure plannerism the “Waterfall” methodology.
Construction or aerospace engineering projects have always benefitted from extensive planning with the final product design in mind. By all means, Boeing, keep covering every little safety detail, please! Waterfall project management breaks down every piece of work into what we call, not surprisingly, a work breakdown structure. In the past couple of decades, however, massive failures in software development using Waterfall project management have created a counter-movement known as Agile project management. Software, existing in the realm of the virtual, is harder to draw onto a floor plan or blueprint than physical structures like buildings or jet planes. The requirements of the software’s end user may change or grow once the user sees what has been developed. Agile, which leveraged the already existing concept of the prototype, permits software project managers to engage the developers, designers, and customers of a product in an iterative, flexible, adaptive, and cyclical dance. Smaller increments of development move products forward, delivering, at first, what we call the “Minimum Viable Product” or MVP. (I know, sports fan have a prior claim, but I did not make this acronym up. It’s standard project management jargon!)
For you writers, I hope I haven’t lost you entirely, so let me revert to writing terms: think of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) as an Ugly First Draft (UFD). You can still be a Planner, but strive toward that UFD as your MVP. It doesn’t need to be perfect, it doesn’t need to fly (like a Boeing 757), but it is something that roughly meets the requirements (the vision of your novel, let’s say). By definition, it is something you will be adding to later. Like a software MVP, it’s a roughed out, somewhat functional prototype. Your UFD tells as much of the whole story as you can tell, but may tell it in an ungainly fashion, may be missing some details, may lack some character development, may be riddled with typos, may be wanting additional research. Like a software MVP, it is crude, and has a “backlog” of work still needed. You know you need to do it, but you aren’t doing it now, because now is not the right time. You’ve parked those tasks for later.
I struggle with perfectionism, which loves to ally with my closure-phobic tendencies and keep me from completing things. (There’s always a new idea on the horizon to pursue with my butterfly net!) One thing I like about a more Agile approach to my writing is that I don’t have to get it all right on the first iteration. As Elizabeth Gilbert, quoting her mother, has said: “Done is better than good.”
An Agile flavored, slightly Pantseristic Plannerism helps me get my writing done. I synopsize my novels (hooray for Plannerism!), and then write the UFD. There may be Agile changes to the synopsis along the way (hooray for a little bit of Pantserism!), but I try not to make too many changes. I’m striving for an MVP, remember. Once I complete the UFD, then I can manage my revision process like a project too.
In Agile software development, there may be different “work streams” such as requirements definition, technical design, coding, testing, and documentation. Any of these work streams can happen at the same time, to different parts of the software product.
Similarly, in writing, one can apply writing and revision work streams iteratively to the UFD, enhancing it each time, into a Less Ugly Second Draft, an Even Less Ugly Third Draft, an Almost Acceptable Fourth Draft, and so on, until you reach your “It’s Going To The Printers So It’s As Final As It’s Going To Get Final Draft.”
Some work streams one could apply to revising one’s writing: character development; tightening (or expanding) descriptions; punching up dialogue; copy editing; continuity checks; and the dreaded process of unraveling and re-weaving plot strands. And rinse and repeat. I find it helpful to focus on one work stream at a time, and move across the length of the piece rather than polishing and re-polishing the same section. This is like the parceling out of different tasks to the software development team, except youare the development team. Your inner team is tapping into one set of strengths at a time, in order to break the work into manageable pieces.
There are other project management and writing analogies, for future discussion. One popular Agile technique is the “kanban board,” based on a Japanese term for visualization. If you know the concept of kanban, I think you’ll be reminded of it when you see J.K. Rowling’s matrixed plot outlinefor one of her Harry Potter novels. That is less about the work streams and more about the thematic structure of the novel, but I think the diagrams resonate with each other. Another Agile concept, the Scrum, may also be helpful for writers. What do you think about these tools? Stay tuned for more discussion of this in the future.
Reed Vernon Waller was a winner in the short fiction contest for the Saints and Sinners Festival 2018 Anthology, and currently has two novels in progress, Trudy and Elliot and the Wondrous Merge, and Division of Magical Verification, Book 1: Who Transfigured Dirk DeLuxe?. He holds a masters degree in arts management from American University.