The stages of a writing project

Something that’s helped me when taking on a longer writing project is understanding the natural ups and downs of the writing process. Now when I know I’m in an “up” or a “down”, I don’t take either one too seriously and just forge ahead.

But in the past, I’ve made the mistake of thinking that if I’m having a hard time or if I’ve “lost interest” in a project, that it means something about the project, like:

  • It’s not the right project for me.
  • I’ve blown it and I don’t know how to fix it.
  • It’s time to ditch the project and move on to another one.
  • I’m not capable of solving a particular problem or of finishing.
  • The idea I started with wasn’t actually good enough.

Now that I’ve been through this process a few times, and I’ve worked with more than a few writers and observed them going through their own stages with their writing projects, I’ve come to see the experiences we have as natural patterns that are part of any project. And “getting” that I’m having a normal experience helps me make the decision not to take it too seriously and to continue on, even if I’m having a hard time with it.

The stages of a writing project

So let’s talk about these stages we go through, shall we?

Here’s what I’ve observed about the natural stages of a writing project. I’m sure they apply to ANY kind of creative or other resistance-triggering endeavor. If you have other stages you’ve recognized, please post them in the comments.

  • The idea! — “Ooh! I have an idea for a project, this is great! I can’t wait to get started!”
  • The joyful beginning — “Yay, I’m starting today, this is so exciting, this project is going to be amazing! It’ll be my best project yet!”
  • The crash of reality — “Oh, wait, I really actually have to show up and do this now for real? Like every day? I don’t even know where to start or what happens next!”
  • The commitment phase — “Okay, bit by bit, I can do this. I’ll figure it out. I can make this happen.”
  • The dreaded middle — “Wait, what’s supposed to happen here? Where am I? What’s this about again? Why am I doing this?”
  • The downhill side — “Okay, I’m past the midpoint, it’s all downhill from here, I can see the ending from here, I can make it!”
  • The 80% mark — “This is so boring, I’ve lost interest in this project, I’m over it. I don’t even know why I was interesting in this idea in the first place. That other project sounds like so much more fun.”
  • The recommitment moment — “I’m not falling for that, I can do this, it’s not that much longer, I’m not falling for that Bright Shiny Object (the other project), I’m going to keep going.”
  • The almost to the bitter end stage — “This is terrible. What was I thinking?”
  • The last push — “I just gotta get to the end, then I can see what I have.”
  • The end — “I made it! This was so worth it.”

And then, of course, we start all over again.

Notice the creative blocks

What’s particularly useful about this is noticing how creative blocks like perfectionsim (“This’ll be my best project yet!”) and apathy (“I’m over it.”) can show up. They are resistance in disguise. The key is not to fall for them, but to keep going until you get to the end. THAT is the time to evaluate what you have and decide what happens next with it.

An epidemic of incompletion?

I see an epidemic of not finishing all around me. Perhaps it has to do with the short-term gratification culture we’re raised in these days (a favorite quote from Carrie Fisher, “Instant gratification takes too long!”).

What I know is that personal strength, self-confidence, and self-worth is deeply grounded in commitment, doing the work, and making the hard choices.

Your turn

My best experiences of my life so far never have come from taking the easy way out. What about you? Leave a comment on the blog and let me know.

Warmly,

 Jenna

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Comments

  1. Lee says:

    I completely agree with you about the ratio of challenge and reward, in that I believe that how hard something is, is usually the amount of joy, pleasure and relief I get when I have finished it. Re. to writing, I just started a writing project that has been a lifetime in the making … I have learned to allow myself to have at least one or more drafts … the first which I’m working on now I call “the kitchen sink venting with a structure version” … and this has helped a lot! And thank you, thank you , thank you for this post … I’m going to print it and put it on my wall above my computer.

    • Jenna says:

      I love that “kitchen sink venting with structure version”! That’s a nicer idea than a “vomit draft” that so many writers talk about. :)

      I’m so glad this article resonated for you and I’m thrilled to hear you’ll be putting it above your computer!

  2. I tend to have the ‘what was I thinking?’ crisis near the end of a work-in-progress, where I’m ready to toss the whole thing in the circular filing cabinet or better yet–consign it to the flame of… Well, you get the idea. But for the most part I love writing and the honeymoon shows no sign of coming to an end.

    My challenge is to stay in a positive frame of mind. Sometimes I can circumvent the toss and burn sentiment altogether. A day ago two science fiction fans enthusiastically said they wanted to read my latest screenplay. After that finishing was quick and easy.

    • Jenna says:

      Yes, that makes sense! I know that “what was I thinking?” comes up for me at various stages along the way. :) I love writing too, and I don’t see any signs of the honeymoon coming to the end either, isn’t that a treat?

      Are you saying you have trouble staying in a positive frame of mind when you’re writing or just in general? I know you’ve been through a lot lately. VERY cool to have such an enthusiastic response from those two fans. I can imagine that finishing was a breeze after that. :)

      • As a creative person my nemesis is boredom. Bad things happen when I get bored. If I spend too long on a project it can start to bore me. Perhaps that’s where the toss or burn feeling comes from…

        • Jenna says:

          Yes, that makes sense. I think of boredom as being a sign of unconscious fear about our writing project, and it makes sense to me that that would trigger the toss or burn response (fight or flight).

  3. Oh, So Helpful! Thank you, Jenna, and to my friend, Christine, for sending me this link. :) Yes, right on. The creative process is so creative and for those of us who live and breathe this process we can really benefit from your wisdom here. I’m printing this for support and inspiration. :)

    • Jenna says:

      Excellent! Glad you liked it, and thank you to Christine for sending you this way, Amy!

  4. Jenna, I love this post and thought you might like to read mine along the same lines as well: The Seven Writing Stages and How to Survive Them Thank you for sharing–I love reading your emails and sharing them with my followers!

    • Jenna says:

      Thank you, Valerie! I will check it out!

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