How the Hell to Finish a Writing Project

I have a terrible problem with completion. If you lived with me, you would see this play out in various ways — cabinet doors left ajar, closet lights on, shampoo bottle caps open. The diagnosis in video game terminology would be a “refusal to level up.”

This is exactly it: I often work ferociously until the progress bar is filled to somewhere around 95 percent, and then I just stop.

You can probably think of a project (or seven) that you’ve started and never finished. If you’re an entrepreneur or creative writer, you may have a handful of writing projects going right now, which points to the heart of the incompletion issue — the problem of having too much going at once. I still remember the moment I discovered this phenomenon, when I was about eleven or twelve years old. This would have been 1997 or so, and I had a personal computer in my bedroom that I would primarily use for writing stories. One day I decided to tally up every story I had started, even if the document only had an opening sentence.

The grand total was 20 stories, an incredible number to me, for I hadn’t known I was so swamped in work until that particular moment. I ran downstairs with my news and spouted it to my mom, “guess how many stories I’m working on right now? 20!” I was blissful in my overwhelm.

Of course, I wasn’t working on 20 stories. I think even as a sixth grader, I knew this. But something felt so suddenly dire when I realized how many projects I’d started and never finished, and their mere existence led me to believe I was responsible for finishing all of them.

You Did This to Yourself

There is some kind of sick, masochistic pleasure in working toward multiple things at the same time and never finishing anything. You can use it as an excuse for why you never RSVP to parties — “I’m so sorry Jenny, I’ve just been so busy I completely forgot, you know how it is,” or, in worse cases, to justify bad behavior — “I know I shouldn’t have snapped, I’m just so stressed and overwhelmed right now.”

You’re not overwhelmed. The word “overwhelmed,” like “beaten” or “coddled” implies a state of being imposed on you by others. Unless somebody held a gun to your head and told you they’d shoot if you didn’t start all of these projects and live this lifestyle and have that many kids and join so many groups and lessons, you are not overwhelmed. In reality, you have overwhelmed yourself.

The next step is to take responsibility for the work you truly have to finish, and then examine everything else with a critical eye and push pause on most of it.

The Most Important Thing in Your Freelance Writing Career

Everything else flows from your most important thing. For many of us, the most important thing in our lives is the people we love. However, for the sake of this article, we’ll limit our discussion to the most important thing in your career.

I decided one year ago that the most important thing to me was writing a book about writing. I had spent years focusing exclusively on client work, earning money and experience, but having few lasting feelings of achievement or purpose from this work. So I wrote the book, hired an editor to help me improve it, and revised it thoroughly. I was about ready to self-publish it when I started having conversations like these with myself:

“Are you going to make any money at all self-publishing this thing?”

“I’m not sure…I might be better off going the traditional route and finding an agent. But that could take months, and self-publishing is so romantic.”

“What if it’s a piece of shit, though? Wouldn’t you rather have some other eyes on it, just to make sure?”

“Jesus, you’re right. It is a piece of shit. I should make it a collection of essays instead of a straightforward how-to book. People seem to like your essays more than your service pieces, anyways.”

“But then there’s the whole ‘sharing your life with the world’ thing. Remember how stressful that was when you wrote essays on parenting? All the judgement and vitriol from those terrible women?”

“Fuck. That was the worst. I should probably just not publish this. I’ll scrap it for now and keep doing client work until I figure out what I want.”

And on. I finally realized that the most important thing wasn’t the book itself. The most important thing was sharing my passion and expertise in freelancing with other people. I get giddy when I have an opportunity to write or talk about my career, because it has brought me so many interesting experiences and freedoms I wouldn’t have otherwise had. Opening up a window to my freelance life through writing was my most important project, not its actual mode of delivery.

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The result was this website. And this website took a lot of work, from learning how to use to tackling new obstacles involving code to simply finding the time to do this amidst a full client list and taking care of a child and trying not to be homeless again.

In sum — I made this website my priority and chipped away at it a little bit each day.

Finishing the Most Important Thing

But the promise implied in this headline isn’t how to work on something, it’s how to finish something. It seems we’ve come full circle, back to the part about the “progress bar” being filled to 95 percent. (I should note, I inadvertently just spent about a full minute staring at the phrase “95 percent,” fingers frozen as they hovered above the keyboard. It’s a serious neurosis, guys.)

Right. So you’ve worked and worked, and you’re feeling close to wrapping up that big writing project, and you notice you’ve used the same word three times in a sentence. You fix it, but now you’re terrified that you’ve done the same thing elsewhere so you’d better comb back through the whole thing again just to make sure.

This could take forever. This will take forever if you’re inclined toward perfectionism, which is a very dangerous tendency I recommend against.

The truth is, some projects are truly never finished. The best example is learning a language. I took French for most of my childhood and well into college. I stopped taking French because I was frustrated that I never felt I’d mastered it. But if I had really considered it, I would have realized you can’t fully master a language because language is ever-changing. An even closer examination would show that I didn’t even have mastery of English — and I still don’t, despite a lifetime of writing and reading, and seven years of professional freelancing.

Writing projects are the same. It’s not like a cake or a chicken breast, where the difference between done and not done means the difference between a good night’s sleep and that some version of that wedding dress scene from Bridesmaids.

When it comes to writing, “done enough” may be the same as done.

Want more writing advice like this? Amanda tells it like it is in The New Freelance: A Book for Writers

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