Reading time: Less than 4 minutes
Do you know how to finish the writing you start? Being a good finisher is an entirely separate task from being a good writer…
Thirty seconds ago, I shipped the last chapter of my next book (title still to be decided) to my copy editor. Woo hoo!
Even though I had sent her more than 90% of the book after Christmas — and viewed the work as “finished” — truth is, I still wasn’t happy with one of the 13 chapters. So, I hung onto it, to do some more fiddling. But at last, it’s done.
I feel happy, accomplished and relieved. (Those sensations will undoubtedly end when I get the manuscript back, filled with little red markings. But I refuse to get ahead of myself.) I recognize that completing this part of the project is a big deal because I am my own publisher.
This reality means no deadlines. No external accountability. No stakes. It would have been shamefully easy for me to say to myself, “this is taking way too much effort,” and walk away from the project.
If you’ve had the habit of starting writing and not finishing it, let me suggest some ways to frame the process, so you have better odds of success:
- Examine your previous pattern of starting and stopping. Make a list of every past unfinished writing project you can remember. Write down why you started those projects, and when and why you stopped. Can you determine any common themes? Being aware of your habits will help you better arm yourself against them in the future.
- Differentiate between experiments and commitments: When researching this column, I discovered an intriguing proposal from blogger Scott Young. He suggests that we need to differentiate between tasks we really want to finish and those we are just experimenting with. For example, we don’t need to finish every book we start. Thus, starting a book can be viewed as an “experiment.” But there is also great merit in building the habit of being a “finisher.” The message of Young’s column: Be mindful about what you put in the “finishing” category. And if you put it there, do it.
- Count the full cost. Sometimes we don’t finish projects because we haven’t fully prepared ourselves for them. And, frequently, we bite off more than we can chew. If you are going to commit to a project, make sure you truly understand it first. Talk to others who have undertaken similar goals and learn what they discovered while doing it. Most of all, don’t let ‘stretch’ goals turn you into a pretzel. Be ultra-realistic as you plan for your project. Even if you’re unhappy with the idea that it might take you 10 times longer than you want, isn’t it better to be aware of this timeline than surprised by (and disappointed by) it later?
- Don’t get stuck on the big picture. With a big project, it’s all too easy to feel overwhelmed about the size of it. That book you want to write needs to be 80,000 words. ACK! How can anyone ever write so many words? Don’t think about this right now. Instead, just get started.
- Set exceptionally small daily goals: I’ve noticed that many of my clients tend to overwhelm themselves with lofty, onerous goals — thinking that this strategy will help them become more accomplished. Instead, the reverse is true. The bigger the project, the smaller the goals need to be. I like what psychologist Martha Beck has to say about this idea: “To train an animal,” she writes, “you give high levels of reinforcement for very small moves. To train a killer whale to jump out of the water, you start by rewarding it just for coming to the surface. If it won’t come all the way to the surface, you reward it for advancing four or five feet.” (You can read her whole piece here.)
- Find the pleasure in the work: Work will ALWAYS take longer than you expect. And if you focus on the endpoint, you’re likely to become tired and worn out. Instead, if you can remind yourself of WHY you’re doing this piece of writing and create some pleasure while you’re doing it, you’re going to be better equipped to deal with the inevitable frustrations of any large project.
- Track how you’re doing: Many people who don’t finish projects fail to do so because they have no accountability to anyone else. If you’re looking for accountability, my Get It Done program might be the right choice for you. Or, alternatively, you can also track your own writing. I call this a “secret sauce,” and you can learn how to use it here.
- Stop ruminating over the negatives: Sure, things will go wrong while you’re writing. That’s just the nature of the beast. But if you focus only on your failures, you’re going to hurt your own chances of finishing. Instead of obsessing over what’s gone wrong, focus on what’s gone right. Celebrate your successes — even the small ones. This will not only boost your creativity, but it will also improve your odds of finishing. (I suggest you generate a daily list of one to three things you’re happy with about your project.)
- Change the story you tell about yourself. Do you tend to describe yourself as a slacker or a procrastinator or a perfectionist? Stop it! Those kinds of labels are not only not helping you, they’re also explicitly hurting By attaching a negative label to yourself, you’re increasing the odds of it being true. Instead, tell yourself that you’re diligent and hard-working and successful. Even if those statements feel like a lie, they will start to work on your brain, gradually helping to transform you into someone who is more accomplished.
The only obstacle to finishing what you start is YOU. Your fears. Your anxieties. Your inability to plan. Don’t let these issues hold you back. Decide you’re going to be a finisher.
My video podcast last week offered advice on how to juggle many different types of writing. Or see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
How do you persuade yourself to finish big writing projects? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book Business Writing and Communication by Kenneth W. Davis. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. You don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.