How To (Finally) Finish Your Book or Thesis

Adapted from an article on hillaryrettig.com, where you’ll find many other productivity-related articles and resources.

Anyone can start a book—and thousands of people have.

The trick is finishing the book you start.

As someone who has published hundreds of articles, I faced this reality head-on when writing my first book, The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way (Lantern Books, 2006). I worked on it for a year, and while the work was fun, it was also grueling. At times, like any marathoner, it was all I could do to force myself to put one foot (or word) ahead of the other. At other times, I was sick to death of the whole endeavor and wanted to ditch it and work on something else.

But I didn’t: I stayed the course and was able to finish the book. I had the advantage of being a coach who specializes in teaching activists and artists about time management, project management and getting past blocks. The techniques I teach were extremely useful to me as I worked to finish my own book project. Here are some of them:

1.Choose the Right Project

When I said The Lifelong Activist was my first book, I lied. It was my first finished book—an important distinction. I have at least four unfinished novels and nonfiction books resting-in-pieces in various desk drawers and computer hard drives.

One reason I was able to complete The Lifelong Activist and not those other books was because The Lifelong Activist was a much simpler and less ambitious project. It was based partly on a curriculum I had developed and a topic I had been teaching for years, so I had the subject matter down cold.

Your first book should likewise be as on as simple and familiar a topic as you can come up with. It doesn’t have to be nonfiction, but if it’s fiction it should be a story that you are very familiar with—perhaps a fictionalization of a real-life incident. This eliminates one huge barrier to finishing your book: the need for extensive plotting and/or organizing of your material.

Is it a waste of time to write such a simple book? Absolutely not. Even a “simple” book is a huge project. Because I had taught the subject matter I was writing about for many years, I naively thought that writing the book would be an act of mere dictation. I couldn’t have been more wrong: the material still needed lots of shaping and editing. So, it was a big enough project.

Another reason to start with a simple book is that the experience and insight you gain from “pushing through” to the end will help you later on as you tackle more ambitious projects. But if you start with an ambitious project, you may never finish it, and thus fail to learn what you need.

So, your first book shouldn’t be War and Peace. It should be the simplest and most familiar idea you can come up with.

2.Set the Right Goal

When I began The Lifelong Activist, I didn’t set out to write a brilliant book or a best-selling book.

I just set out to write a book.

Setting too-high goals is a classic form of self-sabotage. When we set too high a goal, we often get scared when we feel ourselves falling short, and then we get blocked. Eventually, we bail out of the project.

So I was careful to set the humblest goal possible for my work: just to finish it.
Of course, in the back of my mind was still the notion that I wanted to write a quality book, one that would help people and that I would be proud of. But whenever I felt myself get nervous or panicky over the project, I told myself, “Relax: your only goal is to finish. It’s okay if the book is crappy—so long as you finish, you will have succeeded.”

And so finish I did.

3.Forget Your Audience

While writing your book, don’t worry at all about selling it, or who is going to read it, and what their reaction is likely to be. Those kinds of concerns will, at best, distort the artistic process, and, at worst, derail you.

That’s why Flaubert wrote: “Success is a consequence and must not be a goal.” And why Erica Jong wrote of her first novel, “I wrote…Fear of Flying…telling myself no one would ever read it.”

Remember, your goal for now is simply to finish the book, not to sell it or have it be a best seller or get great reviews. Selling is an entirely separate process from writing, and you don’t have to worry about it right now.

If you write a book that you truly love and consider important, chances are that others will love it and consider it important, too. In the unlikely event that that does not happen, you will probably have better luck with your next book. (Lots of successful writers have one, or two…or five “starter” books stashed away that didn’t sell.) But if you don’t finish your book at all because you’re too nervous about its reception, you’ll never find out, will you?

4.Work in Community, and Find a Critique Partner

Despite the myth of the tortured “lone ranger” writer who spends years in a solitary struggle with his manuscript, most successful writing and other art occurs as part of a supportive community. Every writer must create his or her own creative community, and that is most easily accomplished by meeting other writers at writer’s groups or classes, as well as at readings and other events. If you do join a group or class, be sure to choose a compassionate and supportive one. (In other words, shop around!) Look also for one where the emphasis is on publication, and where at least some of the writers have already finished and/or published books, as those writers will be able to provide support and advice that the less experienced ones will not.

Also, try to find at least one “critique partner,” another writer who is also working on a book and whom you can call on for ongoing support. A partner is someone you can call whenever your writing is going well or badly, and whom you can share your experiences, hopes and fears with. She is also someone who will help you set deadlines (one chapter every month, say), and who will call you up and ask what’s going on when your work doesn’t arrive on time. At the same time, you’re doing the same for her.

5.Write Fast

Forget stories of Flaubert agonizing for days over his mot juste: you should strive to write quickly and easily. Just get the words down, knowing that they are bound to be highly imperfect. Then, go back and revise them (again, quickly) until they say what you want them to say.

Contrary to all the “tortured artist” hoopla, your writing should not be a struggle. It should be a pleasant, fun and low-stress activity. If you struggle, you are much less likely to make it through a long project.

6.Expect Problems

Two sailors plan to sail across the Atlantic Ocean.

One tells herself, “It’s going to be smooth sailing all the way!”

The other tells herself, “I’m likely to hit some storms and squalls.”

Which is most likely to be right? To be prepared for trouble? To finish the journey?

Look, writing a book is difficult, even for highly experienced writers. And the first time you do anything, it’s going to be twice as difficult as it would be for someone more experienced. So why would you expect your first book-writing project to be “smooth sailing all the way?”

There are going to be times when your book will seem out of control and misconceived, and times when you question your very fitness as a writer. And there may be still other times when personal problems interfere with your ability to produce.

Anticipate these kinds of problems, and when they strike don’t waste time putting yourself down. Remind tell yourself that nearly every book project hits snafus and snags: now, it’s your project’s turn. These kinds of problems are not a reflection on you as a writer, or on your work; they’re just an inevitable part of the book-writing process.

Talk yourself through problems, in other words, the way a kind and supportive parent or teacher would—or, the way you yourself would to a fearful person facing a serious problem. Deal compassionately and patiently with any problems you encounter, anticipating that, once you’re over the hump, you’ll be able to return to work.

7.Learn to “Write Past the Wall”

Just as many marathoners hit a “wall” of pain and exhaustion at some point during a marathon, so, in the course of writing your book, will you probably also hit a wall, or many walls. It may be because there’s a problem with the text, or that there is some information you need but don’t have. Or, it may be simple boredom with your long project. Whatever the reason, you may feel depressed, frustrated or tired—but, most of all, unmotivated.

Fortunately, you have many methods for getting past your wall. Here are some:

If there’s a problem with the text, open a separate window in your word processor and journal around the problem. Just state what it is and your thoughts and feelings about it, and keep writing until you feel you have characterized the situation, and your response to it, as precisely as possible.

Be as compassionate to yourself as possible – the way you would to a friend or (especially) a young person who isn’t able to do what she or he wants. The reality is: (1) you’ve chosen a highly ambitious and worthwhile project, so why wouldn’t you run into problems along the way; and (2) you probably have perfectly good and understandable reasons for not being able to write at that moment. “Fear of failure” and “fear of success” are totally understandable, and even reasonable, when in the midst of a huge project, and you probably have other stuff, good or bad, going on in your life as well that is interfering with your ability to produce.

If the problem is a lack of information, just leave a hole in the text and move on. You can look up the information later and fill it in.

If the problem is that you’re bored, frustrated or tired, try to “write past the wall” by writing for just five minutes longer. You may find that the wall disappears and you’re able to continue. If not, this action will still help you build up your “zitzfleisch” – i.e., your ability to sit still for long periods and focus on your work – so that, over time, the wall should pop up later and later in a writing session.

If you aren’t able to do that, then set aside whatever section of the book you are working on and start working on another. Again, aim to write for just five minutes more.

And, finally, if none of these tactics work, take a break. Get up out of your chair and do something physical to burn off some of your accumulated energy. (A bit of stretching is great.) Or, you could do something sensual, like prepare yourself a fragrant cup of tea or coffee and take a few minutes to savor it. The important thing is to enjoy it as fully as possible, without shame, blame, guilt or remorse!

The important thing to remember is that blaming, shaming or inflicting guilt on yourself does nothing to solve the problem – only compassionate, self-understanding does – and will likely only make the situation worse.

If you’re going to have a professional writing career, you’re going to need to learn how to write past the wall. Keep practicing, and eventually you’ll be able to do it more easily.

8.What to Do When You’re Blocked

Blocked means you can’t write at all. Sometimes a block is caused when you’ve chosen the wrong subject matter to write about, or are writing to someone else’s subject matter or ideals or standards, or when you haven’t fully thought out your subject matter. But often the problem is the fear and anxiety many writers feel around their writing. Call it fear of failure, fear of success or something else: whatever you call it, it’s a problem.

When you’re blocked, get a kitchen timer and set it for five minutes. Work on your book until the bell goes off and then take a break for as long as you want. Don’t just sit around and mope: do something fun or useful. Exercise, walk the dog, clean the house or meet a friend at a cafe.

Then, when your fear and/or anxiety have dissipated and you are eager to once again start writing, sit back down at your desk. DO NOT RUSH THIS—don’t return to your desk until you are completely refreshed and re-motivated.

Then set the timer for another five minutes and repeat the process.

Once you’re adept at writing for five minutes, try setting the timer for eight, ten or fifteen minutes. Eventually, you’ll be able to write for an hour or more without fear or anxiety and won’t need to use the timer at all. Then, you will rediscover the joy and fun that brought you to writing in the first place!

By the way, if you can’t sit down and write for five straight minutes, don’t worry.

Set the timer for 2.5 minutes, or 1 minute, or 30 seconds. Don’t worry about
starting small: you’ll quickly work your way up.

9.Deal With Your Non-Writing Issues

Although there are plenty examples of dysfunctional writers out there, it’s a better idea to live a relatively stable life. As Stephen King puts it in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “When I’m asked for ‘the secret of my success’…I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy…and I stayed married…The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible.”

I myself went through some personal difficulties, midway through the writing of my book, and my productivity dropped way down until I could get myself settled again. So, try to maintain a steady, stable lifestyle where most of the drama occurs on the pages you’re working on. As our man Flaubert says, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

10.Ergonomics Absolutely Matters!

By declaring that you wish to write a book, you have declared yourself a marathoner. You need the right equipment, both for reasons of safety—you don’t want to get carpel tunnel syndrome—and productivity.

My husband kindly built for me a simple writing table whose surface is exactly 25.5 inches high. At that height, I can sit in my (ergonomic) office chair with my feet flat on the floor and my keyboard at elbow level, where it belongs. With this table, I can sit and type comfortably for hours. (All it took was some particleboard and some dowels for legs. The whole thing cost $10 and took about an hour to build.) Having a table built exactly to my specifications is not just a huge luxury and a huge productivity boost; it also makes me feel more like a serious writer.

While I’m at it, your writing computer should ideally NOT be hooked up to the Internet. This not only minimizes distractions, it also minimizes the chance of a computer virus attack. And it should also have all the games and other distractions erased from it.

11.Pay Minute Attention To Your Physical Body – Intercept Feelings Of Restlessness or Fatigue Early On And Deal With Them

Procrastination often begins in the body, since even a bit of twitchiness or fatigue is enough to degrade our productivity. Moreover, if not dealt with, the twitchy or tired feeling almost inevitably grows, often causing us to abandon our work altogether.

Writing is more physical than many people realize. Sitting still for long periods may not qualify as an Olympic sport, but it is still surprisingly hard for many people to do, as those who do Buddhist can attest.

Work, therefore, to become more attuned to your body and its signals. When your body tells you it’s restless or tired and needs to take a break, then deal with that need. If you do so effectively, the chances are you’ll return to work sooner than if you hadn’t.

Proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise are all important to keep your writing “machine” in tip-top shape—especially exercise, as it helps calm the body and mind.

12.Track – and Reward – Your Progress

Remember how thrilling it was, when, as a little kid, you earned a gold star at school? Well, there’s a gold-star-lovin’ kid still within all of us. So break down your huge book into smaller pieces (chapters or parts of chapters), make a list of those chapters, and reward yourself for completing each one.

I use a spreadsheet, on which I track the number of words written per day and the number of number of chapters completed. “Words per day” is recorded both numerically and in a colorful bar graph—I enjoy choosing a new color each day. And I LOVE putting an “X” next to the name of each chapter I complete. I especially love watching those X’s accumulate.

Now, go back and take a fresh look at your unfinished tomes. Which one would be the simplest and easiest to finish? (If none catch your interest, than choose another one—but keep it simple!)

And start writing.

By Hillary Rettig, www.hillaryrettig.com, hillaryrettig@yahoo.com. Hillary is author of the forthcoming The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: How to Overcome Writer’s Block, Finish Your Projects and Enjoy Your Life (2011) and _The Lifelong Activist_ (Lantern Books, 2006), a primer on mission, time, fear, and relationship management for political and social activists. This article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license, which means you can freely copy, alter and distribute it noncommercially, so long as you include the Title, Authorship, and License statements.