The #1 Reason You’ll Never Finish Writing Your Novel

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Woman frustrated

Feeling frustrated at how long it’s taking to write your novel–especially that all-important first draft?

Some writers can bang out a novel in a manner of weeks, but for most of us, it’s a long and arduous task.

If you find the process taking longer than you want, and you’re beginning to lose motivation to finish, consider if you’re making any of the following choices that affect your writing:

  • Are you stalling to correct typos, spelling mistakes and grammar?
  • Do you feel the need to perfect a passage of writing before moving on?
  • Are you obsessing over whether to delete things you might not use in the finished product?
  • Do you find yourself constantly interrupting your writing to conduct research?
  • When you re-read passages you’ve already written, do you stop to criticize yourself?

What do these 5 behaviours have in common? What is the #1 reason you’ll never finish writing your novel?

You Aren’t Actually Writing

Making corrections isn’t writing. Conducting research isn’t writing. Re-reading, criticizing and tinkering aren’t actually writing. The ugly truth is that you’re actually procrastinating.

If you’re engaging in these 5 behaviours, you’ve become your own worst enemy. You’re not allowing yourself to move on. You’re not letting yourself get the first draft written.

And (at the risk of sounding obvious) if you don’t write, you can’t finish your novel.

How to Get it Written

Don’t get in the way of your own success. Follow these tips to help you get back on the road to finishing your book:

  • Don’t self-edit. Don’t worry about making minor technical errors, or spend time fixing them. That’s what revision and proofreading are for. Besides, you’re more likely to notice these mistakes once you’ve given your first draft some room to breathe.
  • Use a writer-friendly program. Writing a novel in a regular word processor seems like madness to me–only, that is, after I discovered a number of wonderful writing programs. Scrivener is my choice because it makes it easy to organize my scenes and chapters. When I wonder whether I should delete things or hold onto them, I simply create a new text file and paste in the passage. That way it’s easily accessible whenever I want to refer back to it. No obsessing needed.
  • Research later. The major research you need to do for your novel should be done ahead of time. But, when it comes to minor details or fact-checking, simply highlight, underline, or otherwise mark areas that need to be researched. You can then continue writing, uninterrupted, and not forget to fill in the details once you’ve got your first draft completed.
  • Get down the bones. Some writers make the mistake of worrying about getting every scene perfected before moving on to the next. Spending too much time perfecting means you’ll be moving along at a snail’s pace–hardly good for productivity. If you know a scene must appear at a specific time, but you’re having trouble writing it, simply jot down some dialogue or description that indicates what will take place when you flesh out the scene. Move right along to the next scene, and come back to the difficult one a bit later.
  • Be kind to yourself. What are the chances you’re going to write perfect prose in the first draft? Not likely. Instead of looking back at what you’re written and beating yourself up over its lack of refinement, give yourself a pat on the back, and remind yourself of how far you’ve come. Remember, you’ll probably be making significant changes later.

If you’ve committed to writing a novel this year, quit procrastinating and get it written.

In what ways do you prevent yourself from writing? What other tips to you have to share for finishing a novel?

{ 25 comments }

Shang Lee January 15, 2010 at 2:40 am

I guess that’s why Nanowrimo was such a great exercise! Never thought I could actually write, let alone finish a novel… :)
.-= Read Shang Lee´s last article ..Dealing with limited information =-.

suzannah January 15, 2010 at 5:33 am

Shang Lee,

You’re right-about Nanowrimo. For some people, it’s just about learning how to write without interruption, and with dedication. And quickly! It isn’t about turning out a publishable novel in 30 days, but getting a first draft that can be fleshed out later on. Glad you took part in it.

jennifer blanchard January 15, 2010 at 2:54 am

Great post, Suzannah! I’m glad someone else finally said what I’ve been saying! There’s a common myth in the writing world that anything you do relating to your novel–research, planning, etc–is writing…but that’s SO not the case (as you’ve clearly pointed out in this post). Procrastination is the enemy of finishing. That’s why it’s important to believe in yourself and your writing–even if you have to fake it at first. Just tell yourself “I’m a fabulous fiction writer” every time you sit down to write. Then start writing. No judgment. No criticizing. No inner editor.
.-= Read jennifer blanchard´s last article ..Sign A Writing Goals Contract With Yourself (part 2 of 2) =-.

suzannah January 15, 2010 at 5:30 am

Thanks Jennifer–i appreciate your support. Especially since you have a whole blog dedicated to Procrastinating Writers! Definitely, the first thing that has to get done is the actual bulk of the writing. All the other stuff can wait until you have a solid first draft. Thanks :)

Christopher January 16, 2010 at 9:44 am

I needed this post right now! I recently challenged a friend of mine to a writing duel – to write a novel in 2010! We’re documenting the duel at the blog above, and as of now we’re half way into January and I really haven’t written much of my novel. I’ve THOUGHT about it a lot, and done plenty of brainstorms and note-taking and stuff like that, but not much actual writing…

That’s got to change!

Thanks for the (very timely) article Suzannah!
.-= Read Christopher´s last article ..Writing in the Name (feat. ‘Smedley’s Categories of Evil Nomenclature’) =-.

suzannah January 16, 2010 at 11:18 am

Christopher,

I know exactly what you mean. I wrote an article yesterday called, “How to Write a Novel in the Middle of the Night,” because of baby-induced time constraints! I’ll be posting it next week probably. And you’re very welcome for the ‘very timely article.’ :)

Andrea January 20, 2010 at 4:37 pm

I have to disagree with this a little bit, if only because there’s an exception to every rule. No single strategy works for every writer. For example, I’ve heard author JD Rhoades say that he polishes his work as he goes. I’d think that would be maddening, but it works for him.

As long as you’re making progress, it’s okay to edit and research in addition to writing. But when these things get in the way of making progress, that’s when they become a problem.

suzannah January 20, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Andrea,

You’re right that one strategy doesn’t fit everyone. Each writer must do for him or herself what works best. I only suggest that most of us aren’t content to spend the kind of time on a piece necessary to perfect it as we go along–that is, without getting frustrated and giving up. In the end, finishing it is what counts–whether that’s sooner or later. Thanks!

Tricia January 21, 2010 at 2:28 pm

The #2 reason for not finishing my book is because I just discovered your wonderful blog and want to read all the posts back to the beginning. Someone thank Nathan Bransford for alerting me to this site.

suzannah January 21, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Thanks, Tricia! It’s not procrastinating–it’s research, right? ;)

Lady Adellandra January 21, 2010 at 11:10 pm

These behaviors do seem like me, to a tee. Only one problem with the solutions, though. I have Adult ADHD, and when I ‘research’, I tend to get carried away by the flashiness of the internet. Somedays, as all writers do, I have good days where I just tap away and the flow just goes. Other days, it’s just the opposite. Those are the days I take a break, or I end up just staring at the page for hours with a “What am I doing again?” look on my face.

Oh, is there a writer-friendly program like that of Mac for a PC Windows? I believe the Mac one would be perfect — if I had a Mac. It looks as if it would help my organization of information skills.

Great Article and tips. I’ll keep them in mind.

suzannah January 22, 2010 at 9:11 am

Lady Adellanra,

I think your research problem isn’t unique to those with ADHD–we all have that problem! It’s so easy to get sidetracked by all the wonderful things to read out there. One thing I get sidetracked doing is looking for blog photos on Flickr. I could spend hours doing that!

Not sure about programs for Windows, but there is a free one (very, very basic) called Y-Writer that could do the job. There are no bells and whistles, but perhaps that’s better for you if you are easily distracted.

Check it out: http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter.html

And here’s another recommended by another commenter after you: http://www.baara.com/q10/

Thanks!
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..6 Ways to Hook Your Readers from the Very First Line =-.

Helen Buckley January 21, 2010 at 11:13 pm

Oh you’re so right… and I’m guilty of all five points.

Thanks for the kick ;)

suzannah January 22, 2010 at 9:13 am

We’re all a little guilty, Helen :) And you’re welcome for the kick. I seem to do a whole lot of kicking around here.
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..6 Ways to Hook Your Readers from the Very First Line =-.

Pam Hauser January 22, 2010 at 12:57 am

Thank you so much for this article! It’s easy for me to get caught up in the editingvorocess and being criticke of my writing. One of the best things I did for myself was National Novel Writer’s Month this past November. I only completed 43,000 words but I completed 43,000 words in a month! This helped me to just write and not edit along the way. I did find the need to correct misspellings picked up by the spell checker, but that’s it.
Thank you so much for valuable information and inspiration!

Pam

suzannah January 22, 2010 at 9:15 am

Pam,

Nanowrimo is definitely a good exercise in writing without distraction. I guess the key is that you’re not looking to write a book in month, but a first draft. A first draft can be disjointed, messy, riddled with typos and poor characterization because in the end, you’re going to go back and do a second (and far superior) draft. And perhaps a third or fourth or fifth after that!

Knowing it doesn’t need to be perfect the first time means you can get it down much more easily, and quicker. :)
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..6 Ways to Hook Your Readers from the Very First Line =-.

J.W. Gustin January 22, 2010 at 2:32 am

My very first post on WIS! I’ve fallen head over heals for this blog in a very short time, it’s fantastic.

So, I guess it’s safe to say that reading blogs about writing all day isn’t really considered to be writing either, huh? What about writing comments on blogs about writing?

((sigh)) Okay, okay…

suzannah January 22, 2010 at 9:16 am

J.W. Gustin,

I’m so glad you’re enjoying the site, and I hope you’ll stick around. That is, when you’re not supposed to be writing! ;)
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..6 Ways to Hook Your Readers from the Very First Line =-.

Paige Bruce January 22, 2010 at 3:20 am

Great article! I noticed you mention Scrivener – I don’t have a Mac, but I’ve heard really, really good things about the program and I’d love to try it one day!

But what I *do* use on my PC, because I find Microsoft Word too distracting, is Q10. (http://www.baara.com/q10/) It’s got minimal frills, and it’s nothing but a blank screen and your words on it. Even takes away the start bar, so you’re not wondering what’s happening in that Firefox window. It’s awesome. I used it for Nanowrimo too. I find it really helps me focus on JUST writing, not the “research” and other procrastination. ;)
.-= Read Paige Bruce´s last article ..Best. Writing Advice. Ever. =-.

suzannah January 22, 2010 at 9:18 am

Paige,

Thanks for recommending this program. There’s another very basic one called Y-Writer that I told one commenter to check out:

http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter.html

I’m going to paste your recommendation in my reply to her as well. Thank you!

Oh, and Scrivener rocks. It really does–just so easy to use.
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..6 Ways to Hook Your Readers from the Very First Line =-.

Veronica Purcell March 10, 2010 at 10:39 pm

I’m really loving the advice in your blogs as it’s helping me sink what I need to do. I have finished my precious. I’m up to the tenth edit and still finding little things I need to fix up. I’ve chosen to share my story an online fiction series because I’m eager to have it out there rather than stuck in a draw or rotting in slush piles. I’ve used yWriter5 (provided by Spacejock software) for some of my mapping.
.-= Read Veronica Purcell´s last article ..Scene 8-03 =-.

suzannah March 11, 2010 at 2:18 pm

I tried out yWriter and it was okay–got the job done. But sorry, I’m in love with Scrivener! And all things Mac. My husband converted me ;)

Jennifer Daiker March 13, 2010 at 3:44 am

This is brilliant! Honestly what I needed today, I’ve been behind on reading but you always give the best advice, and today it was exactly what I needed, this week has been rough with writing, because I’ve been procrastinating! I’ve spent way to much time wondering where to go from here, what to do, what’s misspelled if the scene actually fits where I have it, but no more, I actually wrote 2,000 words yesterday and it was thanks to getting out of my head!!!
.-= Read Jennifer Daiker´s last article ..FUN-tastic friday!! =-.

Kyle May 18, 2010 at 3:30 am

I definitely agree with the tip to use a writer friendly program. The first time I tried to write something of any length, I used Microsoft Word, and I found myself going insane because of the way it is set up, eventually causing me to abandon the project. Now, I have a free program called ywriter (because I am a poor college student) and it has helped my writing incredibly. I have since picked up the previously abandoned project and restarted it. Because of the program, I can now go into the individual scenes and write short notes about what I want to happen in each, as well as pulling out characters from a master list of characters who are involved in the scene, as well as locations from a list of locations. If someone is not using a program designed specifically for writing something of any length, I would suggest it above anything else.

Suzannah May 18, 2010 at 7:56 am

I tried yWriter before Scrivener, and thought it could probably get the job done, just fine. Scrivener has more bells and whistles, but I think I paid around $40 for it. It’s worth the investment if you have a Mac, but maybe wait until you’ve paid off those school loans! ;)

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