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June 10, 2022
By Carmen Amato
Have unfinished writing projects? Here are some tips for completing them.

A writer’s life is littered with scraps of ideas. Half a novel. A neglected blog. The abandoned article. So many authors start a project but never finish. Let’s look at the tools and mindsets that will get you to done.

Fewer than 17% of the writers who sign up on the NaNoWriMo website to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November complete the challenge, according to numbers tracked by Why such a low number?

Outline, outline, outline

Do too many writers start without an outline? They may have a strong concept, but many will soon begin to flounder because they don’t know where the story is going. It’s like the old saying, “If you aim at nothing, you will surely hit it.”

The editors of Writer’s Life make a strong argument for creating a comprehensive outline before you start writing: “A persuasive plot outline... will give you a proper perspective of how your whole novel will pan out and will ensure that you don’t get halfway through your story and realize you don’t have any idea how to finish it!” If you can’t commit to an entire outline, consider mini-outlines to keep your momentum going forward.

In a YouTube video for the SinC-Up channel, Edith Maxwell, who writes mysteries under the name Maddie Day, admits that she writes without knowing where her plots are going beforehand. But when she is stuck, Maxwell creates small outlines away from the keyboard. Changing her location, she goes on “plotting walks,” using her smartphone to capture ideas, or puts pen to paper.

The right tools

Linda Whitaker, author of thriller The Crucible of Steel and current president of the Upstate South Carolina chapter of Sisters in Crime, focuses on using the right tool for various writing tasks. She uses Scrivener for writing but also leans on Google Docs for outlining and critique group submissions. The Google Keep app gives her virtual sticky notes, although she also uses real sticky notes for original storyboarding.

Though I’m a huge fan of real sticky notes myself, I love the free Notepad app on my Android phone, which lets me jot down memos and ideas, then email them with just a tap.

Dictation can be a powerful way to keep a project moving forward, and many authors rely on the Dragon speech-to-text software. Not ready to invest? Try the Gmail app on your smartphone, which will capture 100 words at a time in an email with excellent transcription quality. Microsoft Word also has a dictation feature but, in my experience, the resulting word jumble on the screen requires too much editing to be useful.

Schedules and milestones

Novelist and journalist Jeanine Kitchel publishes a post every other Friday on her popular cultural blog, Maya Musings. The longform posts delve into Kitchel’s research on Mexican history, architecture, persons of interest, and more.

She uses milestones to stay on track, saying a two-week schedule “gives me a week to research and develop the theme and the next week to write and polish it. Friday is a natural for deadlines, which makes it easy to pace myself for completing the post.” Each post gets hundreds of views, making for a powerful incentive to stick to the schedule.

But even without an immediate audience, you can create your own milestones and celebrate them. Whitaker creates a tracking schedule. “It makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something when I record my day’s work,” she says, “and also makes me push through on some days when I don’t feel like writing.”

Be realistic

The 10X Rule by Grant Cardone is a popular business book that claims that most of us underestimate the level of effort required to get projects done. Not only that, Cardone writes, but we also underestimate the time commitment and the obstacles we’ll face. We start off wearing rose-colored glasses.

When we don’t achieve the goals, we don’t get realistic and redouble our efforts. Instead, we either reduce the size of the goal or simply declare failure. Could that be a reason for all of those half-finished novels and abandoned blogs?

Using his favorite catchphrase, Cardone recommends taking “massive action” to achieve our goals and being starkly realistic when estimating what it takes to finish. Factor in other demands on your time, how well prepared you are, whether a learning curve is involved, and so on.

Think about those unfinished writing projects. Did you underestimate the time to completion? Did a miscalculation make you ditch your goal? Were there obstacles you should have expected? Could you have upped the level of effort?

Finish before fixing

One way writers trip themselves up during the NaNoWriMo challenge is stopping to edit or revise. The forward momentum is broken. In what is essentially a monthlong sprint, backing up several paces and then running over the same ground is a sure way to squander time.

Habit Writing underscores the pitfalls of revising before finishing: “This is a trap because it puts us in a place where we just keep changing our story and never feel like we are making progress. This trap can rob you of your momentum and can lead to countless loose threads, inconsistency, and add a whole bunch to the editing process that bogs you down and keeps you from reaching the end.”

The solution? “Make a note and then write... your current scene as if it was already fixed. Keep going and keep making progress at all costs.”

In short, make the change at the point you recognize the need, with a note to self about what to fix in the preceding portion for the sake of consistency. After the entire draft is complete, return to those sections and revise.