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Leave Unfinished Projects in the Drawer

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Almost everything I’ve ever written will never be seen.

I have hard drives and drawers full of files, each housing what I once thought was the seed of a story.

This used to depress me. The excitement and momentum of a good idea turning stale in front of me, and my dancing fingers slowing despite my efforts to keep going. Maybe one in ten ideas turn into a complete story, and maybe one in five complete stories might be worth sharing.

Piles and piles of the stuff…

But if I could go back in time and give my younger self advice, it would be this:

Stillborn stories and projects are essential to the process.

The digital publishing revolution brought many changes, most of them great for readers and writers. One that isn’t good is the perception of eternal scurrying. You hear stories about successful independent authors writing 10,000 words a day and publishing a book a month. There are books about how to smash out thousands of words her hour.

It’s important to remember that these people are the exceptions, committed and astute businesspeople who don’t have time for “high art” and naysayers. Despite the prevailing advice that “anyone can do it too”, I would wager that these people are productivity monsters who are just wired that way.

I think almost nobody can match that pace without sacrificing quality. If I wrote 10,000 words a day and published a book a month, those books would be subpar at best.

There’s some great advice on how to survive in the new digital world, such as Joanna Penn’s website or David Gaughran’s bestselling series Let’s Get Digital/Visible.

However, the visibility of these prolific creators has further entrenched the idea that if you’re not producing something visible all the time, you’re not doing it right.

I mean it’s really everywhere…

Your path is determined by your goal.

If you’re a businessperson supporting your family, your goal is income. Your priority is to research what’s selling, get words on the page, and release ASAP.

But there are lots of other valid goals when it comes to writing stories, or creating anything.

You could just be trying to get the demons out, or might be trying to connect with people who like what you make (even if only a handful of them exist). You might — god forbid — be trying to have fun without turning that fun into a side hustle. (For more on rejecting side hustles, see Jason Gurley’s newsletter or Austin Kleon’s blog.)

I’m somewhere in between, and I’ve spoken before about how I write often just to clear my head and be a functional human being. If I’m going to put something out into the world, I need to be selective.

My process consists to a large degree on filtering.

Ideas aren’t the problem, because ideas are cheap. Creators can’t look at a carton of eggs without having a dozen ideas ricochet around their heads.

The hard part is spending time working on an idea, knowing ahead of time that you’ll be going against the grain of good business sense, and putting that idea away forever.

I can say without doubt that, for me, it’s best that way. If everything I wrote ended up out there for people to see, I’d be mortified. I am capable of writing supreme dreck, and I do it regularly.

But I need it to be that way.

Writing rubbish is part of my process.

The piles of paper and bottomless digital folders are not a testament to my laziness, but to my pursuit of the handful of things really worth buffing up for the world to see.

Published inWriting