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21 Ways to Not Finish a First Draft

August 5, 2013

Writers can come up with a lot of reasons for not finishing a first draft, and some of them even sound plausible. I’m going to share the real reasons. Here are twenty-one ways not to complete a first draft:

  1. Fall in love with the thrill of new ideas, but don’t fall in love with the work it takes to execute them.
  2. Need to begin at the beginning and make it perfect before you move on.
  3. Wait to find the time to write.
  4. Leave the work before you can get through a difficult patch of writing.
  5. Abandon the current writing project for a new and better writing project.
  6. And then abandon that project for another one.
  7. Seek praise from others, show embryonic work, and then be broken by how people react to it.
  8. Write as if you’re being watched.
  9. Decide too soon what the piece is about, and don’t allow yourself to wander off the trail you’ve set.
  10. Compare your writing to the writing of others.
  11. Judge and discount your work prematurely—early in the draft or even before you get anything down on paper.
  12. Talk about it instead of writing it.
  13. Think  about it and don’t write.
  14. Think you need to write in a certain order. “I can’t write the next scene—chapter, line, paragraph—until I write this one.”
  15. Think it should be easy.
  16. Think it’s easy for other people but not you.
  17. Think you’ve got to get it right the first time.
  18. Think you’ll run out things to say.
  19. Think your writing doesn’t matter.
  20. Think you need to know in the beginning how it all turns out in the end.
  21. Romanticize writer’s block.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I have, at one time or another, taken just about every route on the list.

The last one–romanticizing writer’s block–is delusional. We might feel we’re members of some cool writer’s club, even when we’re not producing work, if we have writer’s block. (Heck, movies are made about it. ) But we don’t feel quite so cool when we admit to what writer’s block really is—crippling fear and anxiety.

All the behaviors I’ve listed above are based in fear and anxiety.  But once you cop to being scared and understand that it’s normal to feel anxiety about a writing project in development, it can get easier to move forward in spite of these feelings. It would be healthier, I believe, if writers would talk honestly with each other about how scary writing can be, instead of romanticizing the idea of writer’s block.

Here’s the road to finishing that first draft: Get comfortable with discomfort.

When you start a new writing project, you can’t be sure how it will turn out. No one is, even the pros. Uncertainty is inherent in the writing process. Accept the discomfort of uncertainty, make friends with it, invite it to sit next to you as you work, but don’t let it grow into the kind of fear and anxiety that stops you from writing what you are meant to write.
Mary Ann de Stefano is the editor of The Florida Writer, the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association. She is also a writer, editor, and organizer of writing workshops with 30 years of experience in publishing and writing consulting. Besides working one-on-one with writers who are developing books, she builds websites and advises on e-marketing. Mary Ann does business at MAD about Words, named as a play on her initials and love for writing.

  1. August 5, 2013 8:47 am

    Great post, Mary Ann. Everything you said is so, so true. The reasons you listed make up a minefield writers need to stay clear of. Thanks for reminding us.

  2. August 5, 2013 10:12 am

    I’m familiar with a few of these myself! The other day I went DEEP in a chapter that took on a life of its own. And I started to fret about the content for an entire day, then realized I just need to keep writing and not worry so much about the process. Either I’ll use it or I won’t. But this is a learned lesson. Great list. Thanks Mary Ann.

  3. August 5, 2013 12:51 pm

    “I just need to keep writing and not worry so much about the process. Either I’ll use it or I won’t.” That’s so good, Maureen. I love how you put down the fretting and approached your work with equanimity. It’s not easy to adopt that attitude, I know.

  4. August 5, 2013 5:54 pm

    Despite having already published one full-length novel and several shorter works on Amazon, I’ve been terrified for the past three weeks of not finishing my latest project. This terror caused moments of deep depression, as you say ‘anxiety’ and a true sense of fear I’d fail to complete yet another project I’ve started. So many of your reasons hit the nail on the head, Mary. Apart from the successes, I’ve so many projects started but not finished.

    For me, it’s now a case of getting all the past projects finished too.

    Oh and I finished my first draft of my latest novel (2nd full-length novel) on Sunday, and boy did the anxiety levels life… well, at least until I started contemplating the dreaded EDIT!


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