Unfinished business (Mistake #14)

“Make sure you complete things,” says motoring journalist and author Maria McCarthy, who also runs writing workshops and classes. “Don’t have lots of ‘beginnings’ stuffed in drawers.”

The second I came across this tip I realised it was a winner. Maria was referring to fiction, as it happens, but it could easily be applied to works of non-fiction – proposals, articles, essays.

It’s easy to leave work unfinished, to get sidetracked by something else which you find just a bit more interesting, especially when you have assorted projects on the go, and also when you fear the work will be difficult to complete.

I know from what my students tell me, when I make enquiries about former (and very good) ideas that they’ve had, that up and down the land there must be decent articles lying unfinished in pending trays, book proposals sitting dormant on some sleepy hard drive and, yes, drawers bursting with scribbled-on outlines being ignored. “I’ve put it on the backburner for now,” they say.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you need to step away from ideas, let them simmer and stew, and turn your attention to other matters. But it is a mistake to allow yourself to give up on something and never revisit it. If you’ve forgotten it even exists, then you’ve left it too long. If you’ve been putting it off over and over and over again because it’s Just Too Hard – then you’re letting it defeat you.

Go back to these ideas, wherever you keep them. Perhaps set aside an hour a month to go through old abandoned notes and intimidating projects. If you’ve been doing this writing lark as long as I have, you’ll have dozens that have slipped through the memory net, and which you might now be motivated or bold enough to complete.

Why is it worth it? It’ll make you feel good. Succeeding in making an old idea work is a bit like stumbling across a shirt still price-tagged at the back of your wardrobe, which you wondered why you bought at the time, but suddenly suits your mood perfectly. It’ll teach you that even an old idea can come to fruition. It’ll teach you that the time spent on something you set aside now – for whatever reason – will never have been wasted, as its time will come.

The sense of nostalgia is nice too – it’s always curious to reflect on the kinds of ideas you were working on during an earlier stage of your career and appreciate how you’ve veered off into assorted unlikely directions since.

And if it’s something tough or challenging, completing it is extremely satisfying. The more you do it, the more likely you’ll want to experience that feeling again and again, and the less likely you’ll set stuff aside because it’s so tough. Simply, you’ll become a better writer.

Open those drawers. Destuff them at once.

Comments 1

  • Guilty as charged! I am too ashamed to reveal how many unfinished writing projects I have in my drawers! But it's true, I get side tracked and start on something new that excites me and I forget about the project I'm half way through. Not a great habot for a writer who is trying to be professional.


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