Have you ever worried about finishing your manuscript? a student asked me recently. He should have completed his reworking of a first draft in March 2020 and it was now October. He’d started writing at the beginning of 2019.
The intervening months of this year had been spent researching, adding text, deleting text, moving text around. The project had grown from an early draft of 60000 words to a massive 87000 words. It desperately needed to be reshaped as the story wasn’t worth a book of that length. Publishers would turn it down on length alone.
And then one day he confessed that he was anxious about finishing. Had he done enough research? Should he perhaps include longer quotes from the letters he’d found? What if he moved a section higher up and added an epilogue?
These were questions which took days and days to resolve. Until the day he confessed his anxiety about finishing the manuscript.
The endless rewrite
In the early days of my journalistic career I was terrified to hand in copy. I would rewrite and rewrite and rewrite to delay the moment. Inevitably, once I filed the story, the news editor would ask for changes. Inevitably he would point out that my last paragraph should have been the opening paragraph. Over the months I became inured to the give and take and learnt how to write news and feature stories.
When I eventually sat down to writing novels, the fear of finishing had gone. Thankfully.
By then I had collected a large box of rejection slips and realised that the only way to get published was to keep on writing and to keep on submitting. That pushed the fear of finishing into the background.
Over the last twenty years of supervising writers and teaching creative writing, I have come to realise that there are perfectionists who never get beyond the first chapter and procrastinators who write most of the book – sometimes even all of it – but can never bring themselves to finish.
Margaret Atwood has a phrase for it, she calls it ‘completion fear’. Her advice is ‘barrel on through’ – and it really is the only advice on this topic. You can’t tell if anything is wrong with your book until you’ve finished it.
Here’s a metaphor I use about writing: it’s like surfing, and I once surfed a lot. When you’re on the wave you have a great time although you risk being wiped out at any moment. That’s part of the thrill of surfing. The fear comes in taking the wave. But if you don’t take the wave you don’t get the thrill.
A suggestion: if your have a fear of finishing a manuscript
Finish your draft and set it aside for at least a month, you then have enough distance to reread it. At that point you fix what needs to be fixed. Then you give it to a reader. Preferably two readers. Preferably not a family member or a friend. Assess their comments and make changes if you think their comments are valid. By now you should be over the fear of finishing. Start writing another book. When you are a good way into the new one, send the first manuscript to a publisher.
Get more out of your writing.