Positive Writer

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Why You’re Not Finishing the Writing You Started

This is a post by Shanan Haislip. Shanan is a full-time business writer, an essayist, and webmaster at The Procrastiwriter, a blog about ways to fit writing in around a full-time life (without going insane). Follow her on Twitter at @Write_Tomorrow.

Are you the kind of writer who’s brimming with ideas, but can’t seem to finish a single one of them?

That was me. I had a ton of ideas, and they sounded great for a paragraph, maybe a page, but then they’d just… fade. My work-in-progress would inevitably be consigned to a bottom drawer, never to be finished.

All of my ideas seemed doomed to fail. In fact, my inability to finish work was making me doubt myself as a writer. Until one day, I pitched an idea to a magazine, and it was accepted. Cue panic. Now what?

writer-idea

Not having the option to quit taught me a huge lesson: The problem wasn’t my ideas, it was how I handled them once they appeared.

Inspiration: I was doing it wrong.

Here’s what I learned about ideas, and how to make them stick around for the long haul.

1. Let the Idea Breathe

I’m an ignoramus about wine, but I married into a family that’s very knowledgable about it. The one concept I struggled with was the idea of uncorking a bottle of red wine, and then just… leaving it there. On the counter. “You have to let it breathe,” I was told.

Letting wine “breathe,” whatever that meant, seemed grandly silly. It’s wine, I thought. You’re supposed to drink it, not stare at it.

However you feel about letting wine breathe (I’m still not sold on that), the concept is a useful way to think about your ideas. If you get struck with inspiration, and rush to your desk to write it down, that’s like uncorking new wine and drinking it straight away.

Instead, start writing around it. Freewrite about it (Joe Bunting at The Write Practice has an excellent, and hilarious, post about freewriting here). Ask your idea questions. Get to know your thoughts about the topic. Write your last sentence. Cross it out. Write another one.

Whatever you do, get to know your idea before diving straight into Chapter 1.

2. Write Your Idea’s Elevator Speech

Consciously or unconsciously, there’s an endgame, a point, to your idea. In the case of the piece I pitched to the writing magazine, it was: Every writer is a musician, whether they realize it or not.

Can you find that kind of nugget in your idea? Something that has to be proven, has to be shared? Imagine writing the query letter that’s going to accompany this idea. What would the first paragraph say? Write it down. When momentum starts to slip, stare at it. Get passionate again. Keep writing.

3. Put Your Idea on a Deadline

A deadline makes me wiggle out from under the rock of “someday,” reminds me I can’t quit writing when it’s difficult, and forces me to finish what I start.

Fortunately, deadline-driven writing opportunities are everywhere. Sending query letters, pitching an article to a magazine, an essay to a literary journal, or a book to an agent, puts you on a deadline. The secret is to complete steps 1 and 2 above, and start querying while your idea is still bright and shiny.

If your inquiry gets accepted, you’ll probably have that moment of panic, like I did. What do I do now?

You’ll write, rewrite, stare out a lot of windows, and chew on a lot of pens (just me?). You might write a few drafts. My magazine pitch took seven drafts before I considered it finished.

And you know what? You’ll figure it out.

Do you have an idea you’ve been struggling to finish? How is it going? Share your experience in the comments.

 

About Shanan Haislip

I'm a full-time business writer, an essayist, and webmaster at The Procrastiwriter, a blog about ways to fit writing in around a full-time life (without going insane). I'm also a regular contributor on PositiveWriter.com. Join me on Twitter at @Write_Tomorrow.

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Writer's Doubt the Book
  • Debra L. Butterfield

    Shanan, this is so me. Thanks for terrific, straight forward advice. I especially like the “write an elevator speech.” Capturing the core essence of the idea brings it all into focus for me.

    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      Thanks, Debra! Elevator speeches helped me to take a step back from the details and see my writing how a potential reader might see it. I’m glad you also find that strategy useful!

  • http://www.byronedgington.com/ Byron Edgington

    This describes every serious writer, I believe. I say ‘serious’ writer
    because we need to acknowledge that writing done well is damn hard work.
    Those who dismiss that tend not to be consumed by the beauty of writing
    perfection. If it comes easy, it’s probably no good. So it makes
    perfect sense that the struggle is what we speak about. We’ve all read
    stuff that should never have seen the light of day. That stuff was easy,
    quick, slipped off the printer in an afternoon. For those of us who
    know writing as true craft, it’s a slog and worth it.
    Thanks, Shanan!

    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      That’s a great point, Byron, and I think the opposite can happen to us when we’re having a hard time being confident in the work. Writers find writing more difficult than other people do. (Didn’t somebody say that?)

      As you say, good writing is difficult. If you’re not experiencing difficulty-in the idea stage or elsewhere-it might not be all that good. Thanks for reading, as always! :-)

  • http://www.annepeterson.com/ Anne Peterson

    Shanan,
    Loved your post. I err on the side of not letting it breathe. Just knowing it could be even better if I give it some time is challenging. And yet, there are some poetry I wrote a while back that I am going over. It’s had a lot of time to breathe. And as I scrutinize each word making sure it’s the “right” one, I’m getting excited with the finished products. So even writings that have been completed can still be redone. Exciting.

    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      That IS exciting. It also shows that, even though you’re finding some improvements you can make, your poetry is standing the test of time quite well, which means it’s good poetry. Congrats on rediscovering your work and making it new!

  • http://www.changetheworldwithwords.com/ Karen Banes

    Love this post. We definitely need to give our ideas time to breathe. (Wine, I’m not so sure about. I always figure it can breathe in the glass, while I’m drinking it!)

    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      And what is the exact amount of TIME wine needs to breathe, anyway? I’m with you. It gets plenty of breathing time in my glass.

  • Renia Carsillo

    Setting deadlines has been huge for me. I even use a word count tracker while I write now (as recommended in ‘Write, Edit, Repeat’). Good tips, and I’m with you on just drinking the wine already! :)

    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      Completely agree! While word counts may or may not be for everyone, they’re really great when you just need that structured approach!

      Thanks for reading :-)

  • loriestep

    This is SO me! I have tons of ideas that always seem to fade away. Thanks for this!

    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      You’re welcome :) Glad it’s not just me!

  • writerrobynlarue

    I’m always surprised when I read old journals and see good ideas in there I’ve completely forgotten about. I don’t know how many writers do it, but I’ll explore an idea by what I call “pre-wrting,” which is exactly as you describe…writing all around the idea until it develops and gels. Thanks for the post! :)

    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      I have the same experience every so often, when I’ll re-read an old nugget of something and get inspired! And yes, pre-writing is exactly what I meant :)

  • rj1983

    Sometimes laziness is the reason why we stop writing. Laziness in the sense that we’re not confident enough to think that we could finish what we started, or we couldn’t think any more ideas to support the previous ideas. Laziness in the sense that, instead of writing, we focus in our addictions, such playing angry birds or plants versus zombies. And all ideas that we have in mind will soon to be forgotten. Shanah is right, make some actions to focus ourselves in writing. Think, think, write, write. Don’t stop writing.

    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      rj, you understand me perfectly. And I like the way you characterize laziness here. It resonates with my own experience.

      And the question I often ask myself is, “What’s behind the ‘laziness’?” Sometimes, I think it’s fear. Fear of stretching out, fear of being vulnerable or exposed, fear of committing oneself to something big, like writing, and then finding out later that your idea wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, or that your novel, into which you poured time and energy and missed experiences, just isn’t right to help you make it to the next level. Because, then what?

      Thanks for reading :)

  • Jenn4492

    The more absurd thing is, how is wine supposed to “breathe” through a 1/2″ hole in the top of the wine bottle?