I recently had dinner with a friend of mine who is trying to finish a book that she’s been working on for many years. She asked my advice on how to finish her manuscript.
As the author of more than 40 books, I thought she might find it comforting if I told her that I too had quite a few books that I had not yet allowed myself to finish. Of course that thought was scary, not reassuring. (If someone who has published more than 40 books has unfinished manuscripts, what hope was there for her?)
I decided to provide some more concrete advice. I told her that I have found the two most effective ways to finish a manuscript is to keep going till you’re so sick of reading and rereading it, that you know you’re finally finished. The second way–if you have a publisher, and a contract, and they gave you an advance–is when the publisher tells you that if you don’t deliver the book, they want their money back immediately. That second situation has been known to clear up writer’s block – or, in this case, should I call it “finishing block” –- quite quickly.
Neither of those solutions seemed to provide her with the insights and guidance that she was seeking. She responded to both of those ideas by saying, “There’s got to be a third way.”
This first article on this topic is about a third – and, yes, even a fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh way – to help you to FINALLY finish that book that you’ve been working on. Here are a few solutions that have worked for me over the years. (I will actually be applying one or more of these tips to finally completing and publishing some of those unfinished manuscripts of my own.)
A key question to ask yourself: are you procrastinating or are you justified in taking more time?
As the author of six books on time management, including Put More Time on Your Side, I have researched and coached about procrastination for decades. What I tell my workshop attendees, and readers, is that it’s key to decide if your delay – procrastination—is because you’re avoiding finishing or you need the time to get more information or to productively improve your project. Apply those concepts to finishing up your book: Are you afraid of finishing because if you don’t finish, you can’t be judged and possibly criticized? Or do you actually need more time to do more research, improve your writing with another rewrite or two, or maybe you have another project that is more timely that has to be finished first?
Once you understand what is causing your procrastination – or your delay in finishing your book – it will be easier to apply some of the proven techniques for overcoming procrastination to finishing your book.
7 Ways to Overcome Your Procrastination and Finish Writing Your Book
Here are some suggestions that are tailored to finishing your book:
1. Plan a reward for finishing the book.
Pick something to reward yourself with when you finally complete your manuscript. Choose something that you care about and make a commitment to making that happen. For example, you might want to buy tickets to a Broadway show you’ve been putting off committing to because you didn’t want to make plans until your book was finished. Or firm up plans for a weekend trip that you’ve been putting off for the same reason. Perhaps you’ll register for a cooking course once you finish your book or donate your time at a homeless shelter because you won’t have “the book” taking up all your time and energy.
2. Write down a list of pluses for finishing your book.
Make a list of as many of the positive results of completing your book that you can think of and put it in a prominent place in your office. For example, a renowned sociologist wrote to me, when I wrote to him and told him that I had finally finished my dissertation – I’m paraphrasing what he wrote, but this is the core of it — to note that at the very least, I wouldn’t have to explain to anyone why I was still working on my dissertation. The same is true for books. Some pluses for finishing a nonfiction book? A way to spread your brand. A demonstration of your expertise that can lead to TV, radio, and press interviews. If you write fiction, finishing your novel or short story collection can lead to a movie deal. It’s a way to share your plot and characters with others besides yourself. Of course let’s not forget that there is the possibility of making money from book sales.
3. By finishing, you avoid the possibility that you will become so bored with your book project and put it aside forever.
To finish a book, you need a momentum. Here’s the challenge: to start, continue and finish a book-length project, you also need to pace yourself. Although I wrote the first draft of two of my novels in a week and a weekend, respectively, the editing and rewriting took weeks and even years to finish each book. But the key is to stay with a project, for as long as it takes, to complete the book. That could be days, months, or years. Avoid putting your book aside for too long or it may languish forever or, especially in the case of non-fiction works that are timely, it could become stale and out-of-date before it’s even published.
4. Is your perfectionism stopping you from finishing?
I was having a hard time finishing my book Victims, the result of four years of original research into crime victims including completing a two-year program and getting a masters in criminal justice from Goddard College. I was rereading the final version of the book, after it had been proofread, but I still wanted to make some changes. Nothing drastic but I wanted to do some rewriting. But it’s usually not a good idea to start making changes at this stage. That’s because every change you make once the book is proofread can open up the possibility that you will create new errors. So you really have to decide if you are making changes in the manuscript – whether it’s proofread or just the “final draft” – that are necessary or you are being self-indulgent and revising unnecessarily.
So I contacted my first boss in publishing, Nancy Creshkoff, who had also become a friend and I asked her advice. She’d been in publishing for decades including as a project editor in the school division at Macmillan Publishing Company. Nancy told me that I could rewrite that one book forever, or I could accept the fact that this book was finished, I had learned a lot by writing, and finishing it, as writers learn something from each of the books that we write. But I would stop rewriting this one and apply what I learned to the next book I wrote.
I took Nancy’s advice and Victims was published to rave reviews, a book that had an impact on victims, criminologists, sociologists, and victim advocates partly because the book was published at the right time. Who knows what delaying the publishing process might have meant for that particular book.
5. Imagine the worst thing that could happen if you finish your book, and see yourself surviving it.
What do you dread the most about finishing your book? Getting a negative review? Putting in all that work and getting great reviews but meager sales?
For every book author, there will be a different fear, or two, or even more. The key is for you to take the time, if you’re having a problem with finishing a particular book, to sit down and do some self-talk about your worst fears that may be stopping you from finishing.
Then see yourself overcoming those fears. A bad review? Okay, it happens, from time to time. But you will get over it. See yourself dealing with a bad review. Also, if the majority of the reviews are positive, hopefully the negative one won’t carry as much weight as you’re giving it in your mind to the point of letting it stop you from finishing and publishing your book.
Great reviews, on Amazon and elsewhere, but meager sales? Okay, that also happens. But if you finish your book, and get it published, you at least have the chance of someday having great sales. You can’t sell a manuscript that’s sitting in your drawer, or languishing on your hard drive. You need to finish your book and get it out there.
6. Aim for excellence, not a perfection that is unrealistic.
There is a caveat to this statement/solution. When I give speeches on time management, and I discuss when perfectionism is a time waster, it usually get a laugh when I say that you want a brain surgeon and a proofreader to be perfectionists. So, yes, there is a place for perfectionism in writing and finishing a book. You want your finished book to be edited and proofread to perfection. But as the book author, you have to aim for excellence in your role, rather than an unrealistic perfectionism that may be behind doing the 15th rewrite on your manuscript when you actually were finished when you did your 7th rewrite.
7. Please yourself first.
A useful rule of thumb in writing books is to first please yourself. If you’ve pleased yourself – and of course, if you set and achieve very high standards for yourself – then you will be more secure about the book you are finishing and less traumatized by a fear of what your project editor, if you have one, proofreader, the public, or critics will think of it.
Still not ready to finish up that manuscript and get it OTD – Out the Door? In the next article, I’ll share six more ways to help yourself to finally finish up that book that you’ve been working on for far too long.