Writing: Crossing the Finish Line

Writer's blockSo far, I’ve attempted to debunk the concept of writer’s block to help you get started and examined what happens when you get stuck in the middle of a piece. In part 3, let’s wrap it up, so you have in your hands a writing project that you’re happy about sharing with the world.

If you’re content writing stories, essays, poems, or in a journal and plan never to show your creative efforts to anyone, then it really doesn’t matter whether you finish or not. But, if you’re already a working writer – or want a long career as a writer – then finishing is what makes you a Writer (as in formal title and job description) or Author (with published works to your name).

So, let’s address some of the reasons why writers struggle to finish and get you on with your work:

You can’t think how the piece should end – This sounds like a bigger problem than it is. Before you think I’m being flippant, I’ll go on record and admit that while I don’t suffer from this in my professional writing life, I struggle immensely with endings in my creative writing. So, what’s the answer? In many ways, it’s the same for both kinds of writing: Learn from the masters.

In corporate communications, PR, marketing, advertising, and journalism, there are tons of examples of completed pieces that went before yours. Whether you’re writing a press release, website content or an ad campaign, go back and look at: 1) great examples that cover a subject similar to yours, and 2) the work that inspires you and exemplifies best-in-the-practice. Before you get too absorbed in all that admiring, jump to the ending. How did these previous pros close the deal? Did they reiterate overall goals or messages? Let a distinguished figure do the talking with a closing quote? Tug on your heartstrings? Make you laugh? Or did they focus on something meaningful to the intended audience? Figure out why that particular ending worked for that piece of writing for that audience, and you’ll be halfway home; now, look at your own goals, messages and audience, and choose the approach that’s most meaningful for your readers.

If you’re writing PR or journalism, reading coverage of topics similar to yours is invaluable. For PR people, you’ll learn what angles work in a pitch – or are perhaps already overused. Similarly, journalists can see how the story was covered previously and decide whether they want to utilize an effective format or try a new direction or style.

This process of analyzing stories similar to your own is just as helpful for creative writers. So, you’ve got a story with characters, plot, themes. Examine the works of other writers and how they got to a conclusion. Does each character in your story have a complete arc or did you leave the heroine’s old boyfriend in Idaho somewhere, putting on his shoes one morning? Is there a gaping donut hole in your plot? Are all the strings of your themes playing together in harmony by the time you reach The End?

writer's blockBe wary, as I mentioned in Part 1, of setting aside your work while waiting for inspiration to strike. In a way, writing is not all that different from sport – you’re just exercising a different set of muscles. No good comes from letting your brain go slack. Be disciplined about regular practice: this is where skills are built.

If analyzing other works doesn’t inspire your own imaginative ending, then try brain puzzles. This is apparently what Joel and Ethan Coen did when writing their first film, “Blood Simple.” The Coen brothers deliberately wrote themselves into corners, where characters were seemingly trapped – frequently at gunpoint. They didn’t let themselves or their characters off the hook; they created the challenge of writing believable sequences that took characters and plot to the next inescapable corner. And the next. And the one after that.

Here’s what critic Roger Ebert said about the writing of this plot:

“The genius of ‘Blood Simple’ is that everything that happens seems necessary. The movie’s a blood-soaked nightmare in which greed and lust trap the characters in escalating horror. The plot twists in upon itself. Characters are found in situations of diabolical complexity. And yet it doesn’t feel like the film is just piling it on. Step by inexorable step, logically, one damned thing leads to another.”

The successful writers I’ve met in Hollywood have one common trait: They set challenges for themselves – whether around characters or plots – and they write themselves out of them. And they work at these challenges every day, whether at their computers or while waiting in line at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

You’re not willing to put in the time – Some of the advice I’ve offered in this three-part series involves extracurricular activities, whether mapping out a writing schedule or doing certain exercises. Like writing, it’s the doing that gets you to the end result. For example, in Part 1, I suggested an exercise that involved rating your expectations of writing assignments from 1 (“could’ve done it in my sleep”) to 10 (“unbearably awful”) and then rating the assignment again, after it was done. You can dismiss the suggestion out of hand or assume it won’t work for you or even figure you “get it,” so you don’t need to actually try it. But, in this particular case, as with suggestions that involve practice writing, it’s your own accumulated experience that creates in you a solid foundation of confidence and skill, and that’s what will enable you to ward off this thing that’s keeping your hand from the keyboard or pen – call it writer’s block, ennui, depression, procrastination, stress, obligations, discouragement, lack of faith, whatever, but when you’re haunted by these specters, trust me, you’ll want some inner ghostbusters you can call upon to make them go away, so you can get back to your real work.

You’re having issues at work/home and failing to complete writing assignments – When you’re having problems, they can interfere with meeting writing deadlines. Ultimately, though, failing to meet deadlines will compound your problems. Whatever’s going on at work, you need to formulate a way to address it and even proactively discuss your plan of attack with your boss. It’s likely your manager is already concerned about missed deadlines. Demonstrating an awareness of the situation, concern for meeting goals, willingness to redress the problem and seek advice will give you some traction, as long as you follow through. Likewise, once the air is cleared, stay late if you need to, but finish those writing assignments and turn them in. (If your home life is bleeding into your work life, this will become a much bigger problem a lot faster than you ever imagine. Get the two separated immediately and start practicing compartmentalization. Leave the emotional issues of home at home and don’t give yourself time to think about them once you cross the threshold of your office.)

Finding time to writeIf the problem at work or home is that you don’t have enough time to write, then you’ll need to print out your weekly schedule and share it with your manager, spouse, roommates – whoever’s impeding your ability to get your writing done. Whether you need to assure your roommates that the new Gotye song sounds even more profound when appreciated through headphones instead of blasting out of their stereo speakers from 2 – 3 p.m. on Wednesdays or you suggest to your manager that your weekly one-on-ones could be bi-weekly or literal “standing meetings,” where you don’t sit down and do a quick 5 minute run-down of anything that’s pressing, what you’re looking for is a positive negotiation that will result in realistic and manageable blocks of time where you can write and the people around you are comfortable.

You don’t see how your missed milestone impacts everyone else down the line – Whether writing in the corporate world or hoping to see your short story in Glimmer Train, if you want to be a working writer, money is on the line and people are depending on you.

There was a very specific moment in my professional writing life when I stopped procrastinating. It’s as distinctive a memory for me as the decision to quit smoking. I was communications lead on a $300 million initiative that, for the first time in the company’s history, was going to use project management tools to map the work and deliver against plan. There’s nothing like seeing your communications work itemized on MS Project as a dependency linked to other pieces of work performed by dozens of colleagues downstream with multiple business functions dedicated to the effort and millions upon millions of dollars on the line.

Most, or at least many, corporate assignments aren’t this intense or costly. But the point remains: Your work is part of a longer chain that starts with a business leader or client needing to message, sources pulling together information and donating their time to you, reviewers who make time to approve the piece, and your manager and the newsletter team who’re looking to you to complete the assignment. Each of these colleagues has their own work and limited amounts of time to dedicate to supporting your work. The same goes for the people at publications to whom you make promises about delivering completed assignments, rewrites or creative work.

Honoring other people’s time is a matter of respect, and when you demonstrate that kind of respect, people naturally want to work with you (and publish you) again and help you achieve your own goals. (And that is always a good place to find yourself no matter what kind of writing you do.)

They keep changing the goal line – This happens frequently in corporate communications, and it can throw your entire piece into question or a major part of its messaging. This is why sitting down with your clients or manager with an outline, key messages and recommended sources is so valuable at the beginning of any project. Getting agreement and sign-off on the goals of a piece doesn’t mean the assignment won’t change along the way, but it can buy you additional time to deliver if you need to conduct a whole new batch of interviews to support the new direction. If you work in an organization where goal lines move a lot, then you may also need to adopt a different approach: news briefs on the intranet, for example, instead of feature stories for the e-newsletter or addressing with your manager the ROI of constantly abandoning writing assignments (in terms of what it costs to pay a writing contractor) and get a sense if she or he has any control over the situation.

You’re afraid of succeeding – I watch a lot of professional tennis and, over the years, you learn to spot the players – even ones at the very top – who struggle to win a match. The place you often see this play out is in the serve. It’s the one and only stroke that a player has complete control over; it’s also the moment when a player feels most alone and exposed. Players have practiced for this moment since they were shorter than the racquets they use – a million practice swings to get it just right when the game is on the line. Andy Roddick always delivers. So does Serena Williams and Roger Federer. If it was all about skill – or talent – then Andy Murray and Amelie Mauresmo and even Maria Sharapova would have a lot more trophies on their shelves. It’s about finding a level of belief that exceeds skill.

The late John Wooden, the revered UCLA basketball coach, put together something he called the “Pyramid of Success,” and it’s worth studying – for writing and life (or tennis). You’ll note that ambition is balanced with qualities like industriousness, friendship and loyalty. Enthusiasm measured against poise and self-control.

writer's block“Success,” said Wooden, “is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” Wooden doesn’t confuse self-satisfaction with ego; he sees it as a direct correlation of working your hardest at being your best. The real competition is inside you to better your skills and your self. There are very few good writing books that will tell you any different.

Ultimately, writing is something you do alone, like standing at the service line. Writing comes from inside you, which is why it can feel so exposed on the page and why we encounter difficulties with it along the way to expressing ourselves or getting writing assignments done. If you’re struggling with issues around success, then print out Wooden’s pyramid and consider where you might be out of balance and which attributes or practices might bring you greater balance in your writing life, and really practice them, and you’ll find you’re getting your writing across the finish line, however you’ve defined that success for yourself.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“He gave me a little pearl-handled .38 for our first anniversary…Figured I’d better leave before I used it on him.”
~ Abby, “Blood Simple” by Joel and Ethan Coen

4 thoughts on “Writing: Crossing the Finish Line

  1. Thanks for including the link to John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. After reading the building blocks of his pyramid it’s easy to understand why he was revered as a coach and respected by his players.
    And thanks for including the link to my blog as well!

  2. Vickie, I’ve been looking forward to part III of this series and “Crossing the Finish Line” wraps it up perfectly! Though I don’t write professionally or for money (yet) your suggestions and examples apply to my journaling and blogging. And I appreciate the sports analogies—at this point I’m getting up early every morning for a full body work out, then in the afternoon I sit at my computer with a cup of tea and exercise a different set of muscles. You’re right—finishing a piece of writing requires time, discipline and balance, and your excellent suggestions are propelling me toward the goal line.

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