5 Steps to Finish That Book Once and For All

    finish that book - finish line

    Do you want to finish that book?

    Do you have a bunch of first chapters tucked away in a drawer – for seven different novels?

    Is there a folder full of abandoned short stories on your computer?

    Have you left a trail of abandoned blogs around the internet?

    Did your ebook fizzle out after a few pages?

    Most writers have been there … again, and again, and again. When I began writing, I spent plenty of time starting stories. The problem was, I pretty much never finished them.

    Maybe it’s the same for you. You’ve got plenty of great ideas, and you just can’t resist throwing yourself into them. Unfortunately, your motivation seems to vanish … and you’re left with a bunch of notes, outlines and first drafts that aren’t going anywhere.

    No-one’s going to buy a half-written novel. No-one’s going to read a blog post that stops short after two paragraphs. So whether your writing aspirations involve hitting the New York Times bestseller list or living from the passive income from your ebooks, you need to finish what you start.

    Here’s how:

    Step #1: Stop Starting New Projects

    Believe me, I know how tempting it is to grab that new idea and run with it. But now’s the time to stop. Resist the urge to begin anything new – however cool it sounds right now. After a few days or weeks, that shiny new project is going to lose its appeal and end up in the unfinished heap along with everything else.

    Do it:

    Decide, right now, that you won’t start anything new until you’ve finished something off. Find a notebook, or create a document on your computer, to store any awesome ideas that crop up – you can always come back to them in the future.

    Step #2: Assess Your Current Projects

    Take a long, hard look at all your current works-in-progress. If your writing life looks anything like mine, you might well need to grab a sheet of paper and make a list – you may even want to hunt through your desk drawers or your computer’s folders.

    Is there anything that’s just not worth completing? Maybe the novel you started ten years ago isn’t the one you want to write now. Maybe that blog post draft was never going to go anywhere.

    Rather than keeping old projects hanging around, ditch any that have died on you:

    • As with all dead things, holding onto it won’t keep it alive or change the fact that it’s useful time has come and gone. Hanging onto dead stuff has a higher psychic cost than most of us realize; in time, dead stuff does what trash and dead things do – it stinks. ~ Charlie Gilkey

    Do it:

    Make three lists:

    • Active projects that still excite you and have a purpose
    • Dead projects that you’re ready to let go (even if you feel a little bit reluctant)
    • Dormant projects that you might come back to in the future

    Step #3: Choose One Project to Focus On

    Now it’s time to pick one project. Just one. Because, when it comes to down to it, something has to be your priority.

    This doesn’t mean that you can’t work on anything else. It just means that this particular project – whether it’s a blog or an ebook or a newsletter or a novel or a poetry collection – is the one that’s going to win out if you’re short on time and energy.

    So what should you choose? You might like to start with:

    • Your smallest project: aim to finish that 2,000 word short story, not that 100,000 word novel.
    • The project that you’ve put the most time into: it’s probably getting close to finished.
    • The project that will have the biggest impact for you: if selling an ebook means you can cut down your hours at your day job, that might be a higher priority than getting a brand-new blog off the ground.

    Do it:

    Choose a single project as your priority – one thing that you’re going to see through to finished. (And tell us about it in the comments.)

    Step #4: Decide What “Finished” Will Look Like

    How will you know when your project is done?

    This might seem like a rather stupid question – but it’s worth thinking about. Many writing projects don’t have a totally clear end point.

    If you’re working on an ebook, for instance, “finished” might mean that you’re ready to launch after:

    • You’ve written an ebook that has a start, middle and end
    • You’ve written an ebook that’s 50 pages long, and you’ve proof-read it
    • You’ve got feedback on your ebook and revised it

    Any of those could be right for you, depending on your goals. A short, free ebook is obviously going to require a very different level of polishing from an ebook that you hope to sell for $49.

    Without a clear definition of “finished”, you risk your project dragging on … and on … and on …

    Do it:

    Write down, clearly, what needs to happen in order for you to check off your project as “finished”. Feel free to share this with us in the comments.

    Step #5: Set Some Milestones (And Start Hitting Them)

    Some small writing projects don’t need milestones: write a blog post, for instance, is something that you could realistically accomplish during one or two writing sessions.

    Most projects, though – especially ones that have been hanging around unfinished for ages – are more complex. You won’t be able to finish them in a day, in a weekend, or even in a week. You’ll want to set some milestones to keep you on track.

    Good milestones could be:

    • Completing a major section of a novel
    • Completing the first draft of a short story
    • Getting the outline for your ebook finished off
    • Writing a certain number of posts before your blog launch

    I’d suggest having between two and ten milestones for your project (though you can break these down further if you want). It’s often useful to set a deadline for the nearest milestone, too, and hold yourself accountable.

    Do it:

    Write down several milestones that will get you from where you are currently to the finished project. Give yourself a deadline for your next milestone – e.g. “Finish first draft of ebook within the next three weeks.”

    Over to you … I’d love to hear about your writing projects (whatever state they’re in). What’s currently languishing in your project-pile? And what will you pick to see through to completion? What are your suggestions on how to finish what you start?

    About the author

      Ali Luke

      Ali Luke’s free mini-ebooks Time to Write and The Two-Year Novel are for any writer who wants to fit in some extra writing (and enjoy it more)! You can download them here when you sign up to her weekly email newsletter – which includes writing tips, discounts, and more.

    • Lorelai says:

      Good post! I’ve been sitting on my novel for, oh, hmmm, about a year and a half. I’m ashamed to say. I always intend to work on it, but then something needs cleaning, meals need to be cooked, children need my attention, and let’s not forget, something interesting has a way of popping up on the television as soon as I plan on writing. If none of the above requires my attention, there is always fatigue to blame my procrastination on. I need to be harder on myself. I must set some goals. Thank you!

    • You just hit me right there—shoot it. So true.

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    • A.M.Burns says:

      Great post. I keep a note book nearby at all times for ideas. There are years worth of ideas in that notebook, for both current series I’m working on and new ones that I haven’t done anything more than write the idea down in. It helps with the focus, like others have said, once the idea is down then it stops gnawing at the back of my brain. Having two projects going on at the same time, or one writing and one editing job going helps for when the bog down times happen, switch gears for a bit then go back to work.

      AM Burns

    • Barbara says:

      Love Zenhabits, just started reading your book The Power of Less and have just subscribed to this blog. Very much enjoy reading Leo’s work.
      Thank you.

    • G. Baker says:

      with the piece I am currently working on (one of a handful of what I call “major works”) it has been quite effective for me to write out my inspiration for it in script-like form, and when I lose energy for it I go a rewrite it all into novel form. By the time I have the novel form caught up with the script form, I have more energy to use as inspiration once again.

    • Andrew Nevis says:

      My project that has the most attached to it is my feature length script for my senior thesis film at College. I have 45 pages done for the 1st draft and I want to have at least 85 pages to be done.

    • Jaya says:

      I’m only 12 and i have 5 folders on my computer overflowing with first chapters.My friend has written a novel-a novel!- and is already starting the next book!I am HOPELESS.

      • G. Baker says:

        we all have times when we doubt ourselves, and so my only advice for that is to push through it. You are not hopeless; and when you think you are, there is more of a reason to write than ever before – turn the negative energy into the form of a plot twist or dramatic moment.

        as far as multiple first chapters go, maybe botch them up a bit and combine a few different stories into one. If you have two similar plots, alter one so that it instead becomes a second character for the other – and voila! Instantly you have two chapter where you previously had only one!

    • Liz says:

      Oh, I am so glad I’m not the only one who starts and never finishes project after project. This November, instead of doing NaNoWriMo and starting yet another project, I’m going to finish a novel I started two years ago. I’ve also been forcing myself to sit down and write short stories in one sitting, that way they’re done.

      These tips are really going to help me stay on the track I’ve started. Thank you!

    • Martin L. Shoemaker says:

      This dovetails nicely with Heinlein’s Rules:

      1. You must write.
      2. You must finish what you write.
      3. You must not rewrite except to direct editorial order.
      4. You must send what you write out to an editor who can buy it.
      5. You must keep sending it out until it sells.

      Your step 4 (Define “Done”) ties in to Heinlein’s 2 and 3. A lot of people have trouble with 3. They want to rewrite endlessly. I think you’ve got a good answer: define ahead of time what “done” means FOR THAT PROJECT, and then stop when you get there,


      • Liz says:

        I need to tattoo #4 on my arm. I have a first draft that needs to be edited and all I can do is stare at it because I want to rewrite it before having it edited. I am now going to repeat #4 over and over until I get it through my inner editor’s thick head.

        • Martin L. Shoemaker says:


          There are a lot of people who dispute Heinlein’s Rule #3, but it works for some people. It seems to work for me. But Rule #4 is just as important, in my opinion. I never met Heinlein, so I can’t tell you what he meant by it; but I know what it means to me.

          What it means is: it’s not my job nor is it in my skill set to edit my work. That’s what the editor’s job is. I should make a good faith effort to do quality work; but I can’t do the editor’s job.

          For one thing, different editors have different goals, different audiences, and different tastes. So even if somehow I could make my story perfect for Editor A, it would be wrong for Editor B.

          For another thing, writing is communication: and only another person can tell you whether you’ve successfully communicated or not. Communication is a loop, not a pipeline.

          And for another thing, they DO have skills. They know their markets, and they have read a lot of material. On my first fiction sale, my editor made a lot of small changes in comma placement; but she also made six small changes in word choice, sentence structure, and paragraph breaks for my first person narrator. And in every one of those cases, her change made the character sound MORE like the voice in my head. Yes, she made my own words sound more like what I intended than what I wrote. That taught me to respect editorial skills.

          #3 and #4 together are important for me because otherwise I would do what I did on my non-fiction book for nearly three weeks. Every day I reread what I had so far; and every day, I rewrote chapter 1, page 1, paragraph 1, line 1. Eventually I had to realize: my rewrites weren’t any better on any given day, just different. I was a different person that day, in a different mood. #3 and #4 give me a push to let good enough alone.

    • Hi Ali,

      Love this blog and this article in particular–will add it to my Friday ‘awesome blog reads’ post! I prefer to work on one project at a time–which also means my backlist may be ten years in the making, lol. Great insight. Thanks so much.

      PS: I also found this via a tweet from @LiaFairchild–thanks for passing this on!

      Joanna Aislinn
      Dream. Believe. Strive. Achieve!
      The Wild Rose Press

    • Great points. And I like very much the way you approach them.

      Very interesting post. 🙂

    • Oh my goodness was this ever a great post to find! I got here from a tweet by @publishingguru (aka Todd Rutherford). I had just posted a comment earlier about struggling in this way and poof, there’s a link to this awesome article! Hallelujah! I can finally give myself permission to only work on one project at a time! My fiance gets frustrated with me for losing momentum on one project when another one comes along or I get stalled on the current project. Not sure what I’m going to work on first but I have definitely started my list and will be back to share my progress. GREAT tips!

    • Nice list…thanks for posting it!

    • I swear to God, I am so pissed at you for looking over my shoulder and seeing all my–my–uh…I don’t have a word for it.
      But I do have a plan and a process, and it’s remarkably similar to what you’ve drawn out. Let me tell you what it took:
      I’m now on medication for ADD.
      The focus I have now is almost insane, ironically. I used to put the “pro” in procrastination. Now I have a sort of hyper-tenacity. It was important to me that it didn’t change my personality or creativity, and it didn’t (as far as I know) although in the adjustment period I was cranky.
      At first it did keep me from writing, but that’s because I had to put some things in perspective, like home and car repairs, my day job, and so forth. Now I am back on writing.
      I took my creative folder on my flash drive and looked at it. I have 47 projects in various states of undress. I didn’t get rid of anything, but I whittled it down to about 10, then four, then really analyzed them and picked one–
      Then changed my mind and picked a different one–
      And I’ve been working on the outline and characters and notes, getting ready for NaNoWriMo. I encourage everyone who has never finished anything to look this up and get involved. It’s just motivation, and that’s what we need. NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. Every year in November. The goal is to write. Don’t edit, don’t re-write–that comes later. Don’t worry about getting published–you can’t until you write it, anyway. Just write. You have time to sign up and get ready. (It’s free, but they take donations.) I’m going to do it, and I’m damned excited about it. I can’t believe I just did a commercial for something.
      BTW, my fiance sent me this link to your site, so blame her for my long-windedness. But a writer writes.
      Thanks for the affirmation that I was headed in the right direction. Peace out.

      • Ali Luke says:

        Glad you enjoyed the post!

        I did NaNo in 2007 and it was a great experience — fantastic for getting me into writing regularly, back when I had a 9-5 “day job”! And lots of people become pretty evangelical about it. 😉

    • Laura says:

      This is great help for tackling ANYTHING: writing, cleaning, homework, err, writing…
      Truly – minimal and accurate points, here!

    • Based on my experience, the most important of all is not to start a new project to keep your focus on that project.

    • Ester says:

      This is a very good article that is full of truth. Every busy online worker can be overwhelmed when projects keeps on piling up until they cause confusion. You have observed a very widespread problem and has helped me and many other people who do not know where to start picking the pieces. I love your article. Keep up the good job.

    • Thea says:

      Thank you. I currently seem to be writing three stories all at once, and it’s not going well, so milestones might be a good idea.
      I already have a notebook that I take everywhere, and then scowl at people if they try to read it 😀

      And can I ask a favor? Could you please proof read my posts, so I can make my book quality higher. Thank you.

    • This was really a post I found at the most opportune time. I do have quite a few projects that I have had laying about for a while, and I just committed to step 1 earlier this month. I have had a few new short story ideas, but decided to jot them down for later use and development.
      Thanks for sharing this with us. ^^

    • Loved this post Ali. I have a whole list of projects…some writing, some just other things. The taking on new things is the tip that really hit me. I just need to finish some things before saying yes to a bunch more. Or just get them off my plate. Delegate to someone else or decide they are unimportant. Thanks for opening my eyes.

    • Deborah says:

      Ok been inspired will get back to my novel although it was just for rainy day fun, it is sitting only 2 chapters in and the story is buzzing in my mind.

    • Riss says:

      This article was fantastic. You make it sounds easy when everything is laid out like that. I currently have three projects (Two novels and One Blog). I have decided to put the blog as number one. Milestones are simple enough, and because it’s my blog the inspiration is consistently flowing. And I know it’s done when I’m done with my first year of Community College.

      This article was just… amazing.
      Thanks for sharing!

    • Betsy says:

      My stall on a possible book is because I don’t know about its viability. How can I find out without just asking friends? I don’t want to spend any more time on it if it’s not a good possibility in the first place.

    • You have some interesting ideas here, but I’m not sure I agree with calling your stalled projects “dead”.

      Of course if you think of them as such, logic follows to say they would “stink” after some time. But that’s assuming it’s correct to call them dead in the first place.

      Sure, the overall project might be stalled. But I often find great seed ideas in my old unfinished things, and those seeds often grow and produce fruit.

      If I had discarded them, that never would have happened.

      Take those stalled projects and put them somewhere you can look at them later.

    • Ann says:

      As I think your idea is great. yes we have more things. I hope to do like this says…
      thanks for your steps..
      good luck..!!

    • Abi Ridaught says:

      I’m struggling to finish a novel I just started up on, and I literally “stumbled upon” this article yesterday. I saved it immediately. I’ve already set my milestones and made a list of what “finished” will look like. I’ve had over 20 projects die on me (I started writing when I was around 11 or 12 and many of the stories I wrote were juvenile and I abandoned them later on in life), and I’m determined to make this next project a lasting one. Anyway, thanks for the incredible advice. I especially like removing the clutter from your collection and kind of wiping it free, like a fresh start. 🙂

    • What a genius post! I agree with Alison–your points are so clearly defined there’s nothing left for me to do but get started finishing. 🙂

    • You don’t often see blog posts with actionable steps so clearly defined. This is what we need more of on the web! In fact, this motivated me to get off my tail end and do something, as opposed to just say, “Yeah, yeah yeah, I know I need to write more blog posts.” Now, I’ve got 5 posts lined up and ready to go for the next week! Thanks for kicking butt, Ali. We do so appreciate it.

    • susan says:

      Timely post. last week I went through my blog draft folder (6 pages) and deleted those that had lost their original interest. I am now down to 4 pages. I will go through that list again this week and be more brutal. And then take one of those topics to write on until it’s done.

      No new projects? That’s a toughie, but an idea I need to embrace. Because even if I DO finish the new writing project I still have a sense of unease because of the other 40 something posts sitting in draft.

      Thanks for sharing.

    • Kati Rynne says:

      Good article; nice site! I help a lot of writers to finish what they’ve started. Get in touch if you want a bargain-price writing coach who genuinely cares!

    • meghan murphy says:

      Thanks for the advice abbi! As a young writer, I always have the problems of starting projects and abandoning them! Thankfully i’ve come across this when i’m starting my summer break before fall quarter 🙂 Thank you again!!


      -Meghan Murphy

    • Sue says:

      Hi Ali,

      I can’t tell you how relieved I am to find out that I am NOT the only person who is haunted by a trail of unfinished writing projects. I suspect that sometimes life gets in the way and then something else catches our attention, and the next thing we know, weeks or months have gone by and we haven’t touched the project that had us writing hours a day at the height of our enthusiasm for the project when it was new. I don’t think it helps that in a culture that celebrates “instant everything” and seems to actively promote short/scattered attention spans, it can be difficult to stay the course and complete a time and energy intensive project with no guarantees of a successful outcome.

      As an editor who works mostly with self-publishing authors, one thing I’ve noticed is that often writers will stall on the project just as it’s getting close to being published. Instead of letting the project go out into the world, authors suddenly decide they need to do major rewrites, or they’ll stall on the last round of edits. Anything to actually avoid getting closure or completion. A really great resource on dealing with creative anxiety (whether it’s starting, completing, or getting the finished project out into the world) is Eric Maisel’s new book, “Mastering Creative Anxiety”.

      Looks like I’ll also be reviewing my list of half done creative projects–writing or otherwise.


    • Red Angel says:

      This was SO helpful!!! I can’t even begin to count how many parts of short stories and bits and pieces of scenes that I have stashed away. This was like…de-cluttering my writing project portfolio. 🙂 Thanks so much for these tips……I think I’m going to go ahead and create a schedule for this upcoming week on my first milestone for the project I’ve decided to focus on.


    • Prof KRG says:

      Thank you so much for this post! It was just what I needed to focus me on a 45-post folder on my Dropbox. I spent time gathering information and starting each of the posts, then I abandoned them. Many of them are good topics. I’m picking them back up because of your inspiration. I’m either going to write them or delete them, after reassessing the worth of each. I appreciate this motivation!

    • Mike Kirkeberg says:

      Great ideas on unsticking. More than that, I love the way you have it structured with actionable steps. Great job.

    • What a great post, one I’ve cheerfully linked to.

      Personally I recommend writers invest in learning David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” or Jim Benson’s “Personal Kanban” for long term productivity.

      Thanks to those two systems — they’re complementary — I get more written (and done generally — leaving me more time to write) by an order of magnitude.

      • Ali Luke says:

        I’ve got GTD and like it; I’ve used some of the principles in it to good effect, though I don’t follow the whole system. Haven’t come across “Personal Kanban” before — thanks for the suggestion!

    • Fantastically lucid and sympathetic as usual, Ali – and the recognition factor is strong! I’ve had past projects where I didn’t capitalise on them in the first flush of enthusiasm and later had to accept they were dead as a dodo – or, more gallingly, where I had a great idea and later saw others overtake me and write what I should have written in the first place! I like the comment suggesting we look ahead three years to decide how to prioritise our actions now – must try that!

      • Ali Luke says:

        Yeah, I should try it too … 😉 I’m sometimes better at giving writing advice than taking it!

        I’ve had projects die on me: I guess nothing is really wasted, as the writing itself always teaches me something — even if I don’t get a finished ebook/blog/etc out of it.

    • doug_eike says:

      Setting milestones is the suggestion that gets results for me. If I split difficult tasks into segments, I find I get more done. Thanks for the tips!

      • guest says:

        Thanks Doug! I find that splitting things into steps works well for almost any task (not just writing…)

    • Eric C says:

      The timing on this is serendipitous. I don’t have this problem, but my co-writer does. I’ll be forwarding this post to him.

      • guest says:

        Fab — hope it helps him! 🙂

    • Alicia says:

      I’ve been trying to finish a screenplay with my best friend for a couple of years and it’s SO hard to motivate myself when I have to work full time at other things. These are great tips, though!

      • guest says:

        I think joint projects are incredibly tough (I’m working on one too) because you tend to need *both* people to feel enthusiastic and motivated at the same time! Glad these tips helped, and good luck finishing the screenplay. 🙂

    • Jeff Goins says:

      Love this list, Ali — very helpful and challenging. Thanks for sharing it. I’m seeing your name all over the place! Well done.

      • guest says:

        Cheers Jeff! I’m on a bit of a guest-posting spree right now…

    • Linda says:

      Great advice. I especially appreciate #4 about deciding what “finished” looks like, and #5 about milestones. Very helpful. Thanks!


      • guest says:

        Thanks Linda, glad to help!

    • Shyxter says:

      Very nice article, Ali! Thanks for your tips. Owning all of your time as a freelancer sometimes has its disadvantages because it lets you wander off with no exact target to achieve or deadline to meet. That’s why it is very important for a writer to set specific goals and deadlines before even starting on a project. I agree with your advice to set certain milestones for a project, have a deadline for each milestone, and religiously follow what you have set for yourself. Writing is pretty much like life; without a purpose or a goal, you go about aimlessly and never achieve anything ;-).

      • guest says:

        Thanks, Shyxter, glad you enjoyed it! And yeah, having total control over your schedule can be a bit of a mixed blessing … clear goals and deadlines absolutely do help.

    • Karen says:

      I like the idea of finishing the project that has the most impact for you. I recently read (I forget exactly where) that if you’re having trouble prioritizing you should look three years into the future and predict which project will have the biggest benefit for you. Then finish that first. With that in mind, I’m off to finish my children’s novel. Being a published novelist will have more of an impact on my life than the other half finished projects I have on the go.

      • guest says:

        Good luck with the novel! I like the “look three years ahead” idea — that seems a good timescale to work on.

    • Sanmi says:

      I have a completed handbook, published also, which I would be rediting and hoping to get reviews on, it will be finished in my perspective, after it’s selling as a bestseller.
      I am working on having it officially launched.
      I have really dropped it for a while about 3 months, thanks for your tips, they were helpful

      • Ali Luke says:

        Glad to help, Sanmi! Best of luck with the handbook — sounds like you don’t have much more work to do on it, so definitely worth getting it finished and launched!

        • Sanmi says:

          can i send you a copy for review?

    • P A Wilson says:

      You mean I can’t keep playing with bright shiny new ideas and still complete a project? Say it isn’t so. 🙂

      • Ali Luke says:

        Well, if you figure out how, let me know! 😉

        • Brenne says:

          Actually, having two going at one time can be good. As soon as you get stuck on one, immediately switch to the other, and when you get stuck on that one, go back. You’re still working on both but instead of getting stuck and giving up, you’re changing gears.

      • Nettie says:

        Can that be true? That doesn’t sound right at all? I come up with shiny new ideas all the time and I have completed … oh wait, nevermind. Good post. I wonder how many of us are right now thinking, “Please, God, let me follow this advice and change my wicked ways.”

        • Jon says:

          Looking back on it, I’m pretty sure that my most productive days as a writer, the ones where I finished the most projects, were the days when I was writing down Page 1 of about four or five different ones every week and then never coming back to them. I never did anything more on these “secondary” projects, but writing them down got them out of my head and let them quit distracting me, and oftentimes I was later able to incorporate bits of these ideas into my primary project in constructive ways. Nowadays I’ve been trying too hard to stick to one project, and I think that’s what’s been holding me back from getting anything done, as I feel confined. Thanks for writing this article– it reminded me to get back to my roots!

        • Dapper says:

          At least one of us.

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