When to Quit a Writing Project

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Writing a novel is hard. Some days, it’s slow going. It might even feel like you’re Sisyphus, pushing the boulder uphill. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the wrong path. I usually find that the beginnings of a new project are harder because I’m getting my bearings with the characters and plot. In time, I speed up because I can’t wait to write what happens next. In short, just because writing is hard doesn’t mean you should quit.

Sometimes it’s different, though. Sometimes it never does get easier. Sometimes that boulder doesn’t roll down the other side of the hill. Or maybe you reach The End only to reread and find a mess on Page 1. Perhaps the characters have no reasonable motivation or the plot has so many loose ends, it’s threadbare. How do you know when it’s time to quit a writing project? Read on to find out if, like a relationship that no longer serves you, it’s time to move on.

Sunk Cost Fallacy

It takes so much time and effort to write a novel in your nonexistent spare time that it can feel impossible to imagine letting it go when it’s done or even half done. You might think: but what about those 5 am wakeup calls? What about the events I said no to in order to finish? What about the time I’ll never get back? How can I stop now? Doesn’t that make me a quitter?

If something really isn’t working, it is more rational to stop doing it and pivot to something else. It doesn’t feel like that, though. It feels like you’re flushing all that effort down the toilet. Ah, but this is a fallacy. There’s even a term for it: it’s called the sunk cost fallacy. It means that it’s common to double- and triple-down on projects, people, investing strategies, etc, even when they are proving to be losers. We cannot get over the wrongheaded feeling that if we just keep on trying, the outcome will somehow change.

We miss out on new opportunities when we don’t back out of dead ends.

Nothing Makes Sense

Some people get their spark of inspiration by imagining a character. Others, a plotline. Me? I’m a concept person. However, I’ve learned the hard way that concepts are not the same things as novels. Back in 2009, I wanted to write a book about greed. Obviously, I was inspired by the Great Recession. I imagined a cabal of entities that controlled Earthly beings (the banker analogy was ham-handed, but I was inspired). I still like the concept. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it work. I never found the plot. I couldn’t figure out how to utilize my characters. It was a mess. I wrote and rewrote that baby, but I never was able to solve the problem.

Sometimes you can’t make it work. Maybe you need more practice. Maybe your concept is flawed. Maybe you wrote yourself into an immovable brick wall. It’s also possible that your main character is so awful that no one would want to be with them for four-hundred pages. It happens. Just because you thought something would work, doesn’t mean it will. It doesn’t make you a bad writer! Learn from mistakes and find success in something else.

You’re Not the Only One

Do you really think Michelangelo drew no bad sketches? Or that Hemingway never wrote hackneyed prose? No! They just threw away the stuff that didn’t work. You’re not the only one. If you need to put a project aside, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or that you’ll never be published. You are opening up yourself, your time, and your abilities for the one that will work. In the immortal words of Kenny Rogers, “you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em [and]when to fold ‘em.” Knowing when to quit a writing project can be as important as knowing when to persevere.

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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