Learning to Finish

A few weeks ago, I posted about how difficult starting a writing project can be. Later, it occurred to me that finishing can be positively bone-chilling.

For every friend or co-worker that I know with an unstarted story, I can name two or three who began a great project and lost steam somewhere along the way. In the past, all of these abandoned works would have languished away in secret. Thanks to the Internet, however, today’s unfinished projects are often displayed for all to see.

Think back to all of your friends who’ve ever sent a mass e-mail like the following: “Check out my new blog, in which I’m going to perform a painstaking analysis on every relationship I’ve had since kindergarten and unearth some glaring, profound truths about the human condition as we know it. Happy reading!”

This groundbreaking new blog will likely be updated once a day at first. Then blog posts will appear once or twice a week. Eventually, several weeks pass before the newest installment. If by then you’re still remembering to check the site, you may view the first new post in three months as a positive sign of the writer’s second wind—but more often than not, it’s just the final death rattle as another promising young blog sputters away into oblivion.

Sometimes, we’re excited to start because we haven’t yet realized how hard the writing is going to be. If we have an exciting new idea, chances are we’ll be able to throw together some kind of intriguing beginning, and maybe even a thought-provoking middle. But not many have the discipline to make it to the end.

Finishing is hard, mostly because it demands that we make a commitment of both time and effort. To start a piece takes only an hour at most, but to get to the end may take an hour every day over a period of several days, weeks, or years, and most of us don’t have that kind of time. At first, we may devote an hour each day with gusto, but—well, the next day is Saturday, and family is coming over, so I can’t be expected to write on Saturday. And Sunday we’re taking a drive out to Connecticut, so I’ll just pick up where I left off on Monday. But wait, now it’s Monday and I’m tired, so I think I’ll take one more day off… it can’t hurt, can it? It’s just one more day…

And before you turn around you haven’t written a new chapter or blog post in six months. Believe me, I know—I’ve been guilty of this myself.

But time is not the only barrier on the road to completion. When committing to finishing a piece, we are, in essence, limiting what that piece can be. After all, a work-in-progress has the potential to be anything at all. A finished story, on the other hand, is what it is. And what it is might not be as good as we had hoped.

It feels safer just to leave the work unfinished. Unfinished and brilliant in our heads is greatly preferable to finished on the page and mediocre, after all.

This puts me in mind of a story: During a dance rehearsal one day, the great Broadway director Bob Fosse approached the stage to see his chorus line just standing around, while the choreographer stared at them helplessly.

“I don’t know what they should do next,” the choreographer moaned, to which Fosse promptly replied:

“Well, make them do something! At least then we’ll have something to change.”

The truth is, finished beats unfinished any day of the week. A finished piece can be revised, edited, rewritten and then finished again. An incomplete work can only sit silently, of no use to anyone.

Now that the new year is upon us, make a resolution to your writing self to finish what you start.

Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.


5 thoughts on “Learning to Finish

  1. I love the post but I have to be honest. I take exception to one specific line, “and most of us don’t have that kind of time.” That’s an excuse in so many cases. Okay, there are a few situations I can think of where someone literally can’t make the time, but I think a lot of people (certainly a lot of the ones I know) use it as an excuse for why they won’t start or don’t finish. I believe that if it was really important to people they would make the time. Yes, that might involve sacrificing something else while you’re writing/revising/polishing that book, but the time is there, if you want to do it. In my opinion, we often forget to check our priorities periodically, to make sure that we are committing the time we have to the things that are important to us.

    You’re right, possibility is more comforting and sparkly than actually spending the time and trying, and then trying to make what you created worthy of your original vision. But don’t use a lack of time as an excuse. At least face up to why you’re not making the time for writing.

    Before you ask, yes I do know what I’m talking about. I used to say I didn’t have the time too. Then I sat down and sorted out where my time was going and decided to give up some of the things that, while fun, were acting as a time suck and a barrier between me and writing. I decided writing was worth giving those things up. Best thing I ever did for myself.

  2. “After all, a work-in-progress has the potential to be anything at all. A finished story, on the other hand, is what it is. And what it is might not be as good as we had hoped.”

    Sara, this is a great insight. The closer I get to finishing my novel, the scarier it gets, for just this reason.

  3. I agree about the commitment. Did you ever think that maybe not everything started should be finished? I find that when I am writing and it is going smoothly it is because it has a will of it’s own. Not everything is in the same category. If it is forced in anyway; it isn’t going to happen.

    With my blog, I have made a commitment to anyone who might follow me that I will always be there but more importantly, I made a commitment to myself. I believe in testing my self and being disciplined. I think this stems from the fact that I am a control freak and well in my blog, I am in control.

  4. I hadn’t thought of it this way, but you’re probably right for at least a portion of the cases out there. A related thought. Sometimes there’s that hard part, and once you get through it there’s a feeling of accomplishment. Starting the next step/chapter takes away from that feeling and puts you back in the “it’s not done yet” category. That’s part of the reason I haven’t yet moved on to the rest of my story after finishing a major piece – I want to bask in the glow of completion a while longer (but at least I’m honest about it!).

    Nice post.

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