Reading time: About 3 minutes
Do you have a half-finished manuscript collecting dust in a bottom drawer? A half dozen articles you’ve started but never managed to wrap up? Here are five tips that will help you learn how to finish your writing.
In the deliciously-titled fantasy novel, Miss Peregrine’s Children Home for Peculiar Children author Ransom Riggs allows the young narrator, Jacob, to speculate on his hapless father’s problems:
It was part of this pathetic cycle my dad was caught in. He’d get really passionate about some project, talk about it nonstop for months. Then, inevitably, some tiny problem would crop up and throw sand in the gears, and instead of dealing with it he’d let it completely overwhelm him. The next thing you knew, the project would be off and he’d be on to the next one, and the cycle would start again.
He got discouraged too easily. It was the reason why he had a dozen unfinished manuscripts locked in his desk, and why the bird store he tried to open with Aunt Susie never got off the ground, and why he had a bachelor’s degree in Asian languages but had never been to Asia. He was forty-six years old and still trying to find himself, still trying to prove he didn’t need my mother’s money. (pages 232 – 233)
I read this book more than a year ago and copied down the sentences, above, word for word because I knew this concept – of getting easily discouraged – could turn into a column for me.
If you’re the kind of person who starts many pieces of writing – and then, like Jacob’s father, fails to finish them – here are five ways to fix the problem:
1) Recognize that we all talk to ourselves. That nasty internal editor inside your head who keeps yammering at you should be acknowledged and then ignored. You know what I’m talking about – it’s the devil in your brain who says things like “my writing is boring” or “no publisher is ever going to read this” or “my thesis advisor is going to throw this out the window.” Tell the voice that you don’t have time to talk right now and you’ll re-engage when s/he will be more useful — when you’re editing. Here’s another strategy for dealing with that devil.
2) Understand that it’s normal to write a crappy first draft. Yes, some people produce better first drafts than others, but what does that matter? (As politicians like to say, “The only poll that matters is the one on election day.”) Do you know that famous New Yorker writer the late Brendan Gill typically rewrote his work 17 times? Seventeen! You don’t have to show your first draft to anyone. Keep it hidden, until you can make it better. But save the fixing until you’ve finished the first draft. Here are some strategies for breaking the habit of editing while you write.
3) Develop the practice of writing daily for a relatively small amount of time. Writing for 15 minutes per day for five days a week is infinitely more productive than writing for four hours once a week. And it takes far less time! I learned this the hard way, writing my book 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better, and via my own piano lessons. The habit is more important than the product. Yes, I mean that! Don’t worry about publication while you are writing. Just write.
4) Don’t talk about your project too much. Talking isn’t writing. All the enthusiasm and exuberance you have for the project should be invested in the page, not in chatter with your friends — even if those friends are writers. (Writing groups, where either your idea or your writing is critiqued, can be particularly damaging this way.) Your manuscript is something soft and tender — like feet after a winter of wearing socks and shoes. You don’t start walking on gravel without gradually acclimatizing your feet more challenging conditions. Treat your manuscript the same way. Protect it until it’s finished.
5) Allow yourself to work on only one project at a time. Some writers are like hummingbirds. They flitter over one flower and suddenly see a flash of red in another direction, and whoosh, they’re off looking for more nectar. When you start to research or write your mind can be just like a charm of hummingbirds — pulled in a dozen different directions. But think like an eagle: focus on one fish (or, less appetizingly, one rodent) at a time. If the idea is really great, just make yourself a note about it and vow to pursue it later. Making this kind of promise might even be your “reward” for finishing the first project.
Dale Carnegie said, “discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.” I think he’s wrong when it comes to writing. For me, the surest stepping stone to success lies in being relentlessly tenacious.
How do you persuade yourself to finish your writing? We can all learn from each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me by commenting below. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)