#015: How to Manage Large Writing Projects Without Losing Your Sanity

Blog posts, articles, white papers, case studies, marketing collateral.

These are some of the most common pieces business writers come across. The bread-and-butter projects that pay the bills.

But occasionally you may come across a project that’s so massive, it requires a different set of skills to execute. Your writing chops alone won’t save you.

My friend and colleague Denise Kiernan knows this firsthand. Not only has she written dozens of books and large-format pieces, she recently finished the largest and most complex writing project of her career: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II Touchstone/Simon & Shuster), now a New York Times bestseller.

(Side note: This week marks the 68th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bomb attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

To tell this true story of the women who helped build the first atomic bomb, Denise spent years conducing intense research all across the U.S., doing live interviews, writing and rewriting. It was the kind of assignment that required flawless project management, excellent organization skills … and unshakable faith in a story that had to be told.

I recently sat down with Denise to learn more about how she approached this massive project. She shared some excellent tips, insights and advice that apply to ANY writer facing a large-scale project.

The notes that follow are a very basic, unedited summary of the show. There’s a lot more detail in the audio version. You can listen to the show using the audio player below. Or you can subscribe in iTunes or on Stitcher to get this show delivered straight to the Podcasts app on your smart phone, tablet or iPod.

A Serendipitous Discovery

The Girls of Atomic City was borne from a serendipitous find at the National Archives. While working on another project, Denise came across a beautiful black-and-white photo of young women sitting on stools in front of gigantic panels with knobs, dials and gauges. The picture captivated her, but the caption really peaked her interest and made her want to investigate further.

These young women, many of whom were recent high school
graduates from rural Tennessee, are helping enrich uranium
for the world’s first atomic bomb — only they didn’t know that
at the time.

Thinking she simply missed the history lesson on these girls and everyone else must know about them, she drove to the town of Oak Ridge, TN to learn more. She quickly discovered that, in fact, few people knew about them other than those from Oak Ridge.

She started asking people in the town if they knew about these women. She jokingly says she became a stalker of anyone who might have been around during World War II that would talk to her about them. 

At the same time, she was running the idea past her agent and other trusted writers and journalists to gauge if this was as interesting a story as she thought it was.

Seven years of research, interviews, drafts, manuscripts, edits, and finally the book was released in March of this year by Simon & Schuster.

Landing the book deal

Already working on the idea for the story for a few years, Denise started working on a book proposal in 2009/2010.

There is so much work involved with writing a proposal to a publisher that she needed to be sure this was a viable, interesting, and publishable idea.  The proposal for this book was a whopping 75 pages!

What happened before the first word was written?

Lots of ideas and organizing! Denise used a tool called Scrivener to keep organized and stay on track during this long writing process.

Scrivener is a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents. It is a word processor and project management tool that helps keep your ideas, images, videos and writing organized in one place during the creation phases.

Denise also used Evernote to cast a wide net during the writing process. She actually also uses it in her everyday life to:

  • Clip/organize information for future ideas
  • Remember names of people that have helped her in a store
  • Things for/about her garden
  • Mindmapping on paper, take a picture of it and save it

Once the general ideas move to this needs to get done and outlining stage, she moved to Scrivener.

The scope of this project


  • Hundreds of hours of audio and video interviews- Group interviews can help trigger memories for the others
    – Solo interviews tend to bring out more details and personal
  • Research hours included
    • Days at the National Archives in Atlanta going through
      boxes and boxes of information
    • Fifty to sixty different books pertaining to the period
    • Reading newspapers published from 1943 to 1945 in the
      Oak Ridge, TN community
    • Days at the National Archives II in College Park, MD
      You can bring your own scanner which must be approved
      by them.
      You must wear white gloves to be able to handle documents

There are over 5,000 boxes in the National Archives pertaining to the Atomic Energy Commission! Consequently, Denise’s research required her to make a lot of decisions about what was important for shaping the story. This is what all writers are faced with regardless of the length or breadth of a project.

Staying on Track (or how not to get lost in the weeds)!

It is difficult to stay on track when faced with so much information. Curiosity and knowledge can take us in so many directions. Before you know it, you’re off on a path that isn’t quite where you wanted the story to go. As writers, we can face this type of overwhelm at some time or other in our career.

Staying inspired about what you’re working on can help. Inspiration can come in various forms such as:

  • Pay – the fee you’re charging
  • A particular idea related to the project
  • What you’re doing after the project is complete

Whatever it is, it keeps you going and moving forward. Every day doesn’t have to be a writing day. Denise would watch a documentary from the period if she didn’t feel inspired to write one day. Other things to help keep you on track and moving forward:

  • Calendar – set goals with completion dates, but allow yourself some play with the dates
  • Managing expectations of yourself – sometimes life gets in the way.
  • Task lists to help get you to your completion dates.

Sometimes you’ll have to recalculate, because there are always detours or diversions that alter the plan.

How to deal with the overwhelm

You can’t map out a plan and not encounter unexpected stops! You have to trust that they happen for a reason and trust your instincts rather than becoming overwhelmed. Coming back from the dark place of overwhelm is possible.

Being aware of what makes you tick and what doesn’t is incredibly important. Self-awareness will help you adjust plans and calm you down.

A long walk or shower, a massage, a conversation with a good friend, gardening; whatever it may be, we all need something or someone to bring us back to sanity and help us to relax.

Another productivity tactic that works for Ed is to focus on today instead of creating milestones or deadlines and mapping them out in a linear fashion.

What can I do today to get closer to the milestone that is due in a month?

This helps to keep overwhelm at bay by allowing room for the bumps in the road.

How did writing this book change the way Denise will approach future projects?

Denise has been a journalist for a long time and has written over 20 books. This book was by far the largest.

On the dark days… “I’d never do this again!” The rest of the days, Denise resoundingly cherished the knowledge that she did it; knowing how to get it done in itself is an incredible boost for the next project!

Breaking the project down into smaller achievements she had already attained, also showed her she knew how to do it.

The feeling of accomplishment and pride in completing a project that actually scared her a little, is a powerful feeling that will stay for a really long time after the project is done.

A great quote from Jim Rohn that sums up the power of completing a large project such as Denise’s book is,

The real purpose of a big goal is not the attainment of the goal itself is in the person you become in pursuit of that goal.”

Items mentioned in this podcast include:

  • The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed: The Only Personal Finance System for People with Not-So-Regular Jobs – www.denisekiernan.com

Want More of This Stuff?

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Finally, if you have a question you’d potentially like answered on a future show — or if you have any feedback in general — please let me know: ed at b2blauncher dot com.

Thanks again for your support!

Till next time,