Three Types of Writers Have Trouble Finishing Things. Which One Are You?

I don’t know if it’s that time of year or what, but I’ve been getting a lot of emails from writers lately about finishing things. This is also a topic that comes up frequently in my coaching sessions with writers. Lots and lots of writers out there are terrified that they will never be successful—or even halfway decent—because they have a lot of trouble finishing things.

There are three types of writers who have trouble finishing things, and rest assured, not one of them is destined to fail. In fact, all of them have a great chance of success.

See for yourself:

Type #1 — the Writer Is Still Young
I get a lot of panicked emails from writers in their 20s who are just beating themselves over the head to finish their novel, or even a short story. I didn’t go through this experience myself because when I was in my 20s I had barely even scratched the surface of writing. I was too busy trying to get myself to even write one line of anything down, much less finish something resembling a story. What’s happening here, in my opinion, is that too many young people are being pushed to accept this idea that everything happens on a schedule. You finish school, get a promising internship that leads to an awesome job, and then you set about the process of building a life. I kind of skipped this part too as I went straight from college into alcoholism.

However, the truth of the matter is that life actually doesn’t happen on a schedule, and neither does writing. The creative process keeps its own schedule and you’re only along for the ride. I get the whole “sit your butt in the chair and just do it” advice, but that really only goes so far. You can push yourself to commit to the work, but you can’t force your deepest pieces out into the light. They’ll come when they’re ready. Your job as a writer is to cultivate courage so that you’re ready for them when they show up.

True perspective:
Your life experience is inextricably intertwined with your work as a writer. You can’t expect either to unfold on a schedule that meets your personal expectations.

Type #2 — the Writer Is a Highly Creative Person
As obvious as this sounds, you would be surprised at how many writers don’t identify as highly creative people. Most writers picture a highly creative person as this Jackson-Pollock-type artist, crazy drunk and madly splashing paint on canvases. Or as someone like Steve Jobs, who knows exactly what he wants and how to get there. The reality is that highly creative people are often reserved, self-doubting, and constantly confused. A highly creative person usually thinks in circles, instead of straight lines, so they don’t often know all the steps in the process before the steps happen. They will also pick things up, put them down, and then pick them up again. They are circling back because working in a circle brings out their best.

The other side of this is that highly creative people generate a lot of ideas—so many that they often feel overwhelmed at what their minds can produce over the course of a single day. It takes a lot of practice to figure out how to discern an idea that has sticking power from an idea that isn’t sustainable. Again, a writer who is on the younger side of the spectrum is probably going to be more challenged by this because they don’t have as much practice with their creative process, although older writers do still struggle with it too.

True perspective:
Working in a straight line is not “better,” it’s just more popularly accepted. Circles are rooted in the harmony of the universe. If you’re an artist who works in circles, honor that truth about yourself.

Type #3 — the Writer Doesn’t Realize the Work Is Not Yet Ripe
The energy of this one is closely tied to the “Young Writer” problem described above. Both are very similar to picking green apples off the tree and then getting upset when they turn out to be inedible. A lot of us read articles online that urge writers to turn out a book “at least every year” in order to stay current and maximize popularity with readers. But for some writers, this just isn’t workable. If you are a writer dealing with subject matter that is deeply personal, or material that is tied into energy coming from your subconscious, then it’s just about flat out impossible.

Yes, I know that thousands of people crank out a novel every November as part of NaNoWriMo, and I think that’s awesome. But what I’m saying goes deeper than that. Much of the time, the work you do as a writer that means the most to you in this life will be slow in coming. It will be governed by its own seasons, its own storms, and its own droughts.

True Perspective:
Instead of focusing all of your energy on trying to push things along, your work will be much better served by you practicing patience and acceptance for the timing of the emergence of the piece.

If you’re a writer who has trouble finishing things and you’re slightly worried about it, all is good. You’re cool. Read the above and chill out. If you’re a writer who has trouble finishing things and you whip yourself mercilessly every day for it, then it’s time to do some inner work. Specifically, why are you being so hard on yourself? Slowly, let go of your need to control and take a few steps back. Realize that everything is unfolding as it should and you really are doing your best.

It sounds weird, but once we let go, we tend to feel way more powerful.

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8 Comments

  • Reply Bethany Reid 9 August, 2017 at 2:20 pm

    Lauren, this is so awesome. I’m not “young” any more (except at heart!) but I love your line, “Your job as a writer is to cultivate courage so that you’re ready for them when they show up.” That never ends!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 9 August, 2017 at 2:38 pm

      Thank you Bethany, I’m so glad this resonated with you. 🙂

  • Reply Laura Probst 9 August, 2017 at 5:11 pm

    I’m almost afraid to admit it, but I believe I’m a #2 type writer. Not because I think I’m highly creative, but it’s the only one which describes accurately the sensation of running in twelve different directions without having a clear idea of where I’m going. I’ve always berated myself for never having found that singular passion in life so many others are able to lay claim to, whether it’s playing the violin, solving math equations, or developing the next AI. I have so many things which interest me, it often frustrates more than excites. I will say, though, I’ve stuck with writing the longest and most consistently, yet even there I have reams of story ideas, only a tiny fraction of which I might – MIGHT – be able to explore in my lifetime. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s nice knowing this problem isn’t simply me being scatterbrained or unfocused. Which makes me feel a great deal better about my chances as a writer. Thank you.

  • Reply Gabrielle Massman 10 August, 2017 at 6:26 am

    Thank you so much for this, Lauren. I definitely fit in the young writer category, but when people tell me that I am pushing too hard and don’t need to pressure myself with a timeline, I tend to ignore it. Also, there is so much pressure for young people to succeed– well– young. Your post was so honest and personal, that I could not ignore your advice. Thank you for the encouragement!

  • Reply J Rose 28 August, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    This was super helpful Lauren, thank you. Types #2 and #3 really resonated. And you’re right, circular thinking is not really prized in many societies but so useful in the process of creating. It’s true that doing the inner work supports the creative life beautifully.

  • Reply Travis Reilly 30 August, 2017 at 8:15 pm

    Lauren, #2 really resonated with me, but I would never consider calling myself highly creative. I have a hard time finishing projects because I will be working on something and then something else pops in my head and then I start working on that or reading something different. I get cases of shiny object syndrome and before I realize it 2 hours went by and I haven’t done anything. I just counted the number of tabs open on my browser and its 13.

    My question is, how do I embrace the circle process, or use it to my advantage to actually get something done ?

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 31 August, 2017 at 9:15 am

      Hi Travis, here’s another post from the archives that might be of help to you: http://laurensapala.com/why-pushing-ourselves-makes-us-less-productive/

      Good luck!

      • Reply Travis Reilly 3 September, 2017 at 2:30 pm

        That post makes so much sense ! Thank you ! If I push myself I find I do less and am not appreciating what I have accomplished. Since I read this post about doing things in a circular fashion, I have kept two things open that I am working on, and when I get stuck on one, I switch to the other, and get something done , even if its only a paragraph or ends up being 10 pages. Before I would keep just one project open and the other closed to avoid multitasking. Its like I don’t know what mood my brain is in till I sit down and start typing.

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