Can you write your way out of a lost cause?
How long do you stay stuck before abandoning your work?
Many writers or content creators ask themselves these questions sooner or later. Do you try to salvage a project gone bad? Or should you drop it and work on something “more productive?”
Picture this: you start writing something, an ebook, a blog post, or story. You believe you have a great idea. You dive in, maybe even devote a week or two to the project before it begins to dawn on you… It’s not working.
Very soon, the curtain of gloom falls over the whole thing. You start thinking, “This is never going to work.”
Then self doubt sets in. You begin to wonder what made you think it was a good idea in the first place…
You can’t get the thing to stick together. No matter how many angles you approach it from, it just won’t gel! You even have an outline or a mind map guiding your creative process, but when you put the words down, it falls short. Either it feels hollow, like something’s missing; or your draft is uncontrolled, as if you have a tiger by the tail.
The Problem: Three Common Reasons Writers Want to Quit
Where did the love go? Let me count the ways. These are the most common situations in which I second-guess the quality of my article, and my ability and desire to finish it. Can you relate to any of these?
You decided the project wasn’t needed anymore. You started researching, and discovered that the topic had been covered thoroughly. You can’t see the value in adding your voice to the lexicon of knowledge already out there, and you lost confidence in your ability to add newness or charisma to the subject. Maybe you realize the project is similar to another completed piece of content you already have. Why bother?
You got totally embroiled in it. At the onset, you believed it was an interesting topic you could write about, but then discovered it was a little too personally demanding. Your involvement pulled your life off course, as if you had embarked on a journey that was too long and required more commitment than you were able to give. Maybe your topic was too large; you had trouble breaking it down into do-able chunks, and couldn’t see the finished project in a completed form. No amount of editing could streamline this hot mess. It simply got away from you and you’re ready to cut the cord.
You had a fast start but you lost interest. You’re so bored, you can’t even stand to work on the project. You wonder how you can expect your readers and viewers or listeners to stay with you. Your distaste for the project rears up every time you sit down to your computer. Bleh.
If only it were easier to walk away! The thing that always gets me when I’m feeling any of the above, is the time I’ve invested. Even when you know a blog post (or a scene, or ebook, or an entire chapter of a book) is a lost cause, it’s natural to want to save at least some of your hard work. The words “Kill your darlings!” chants loudly in your mind, but dang, it’s difficult!
Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before Throwing In the Towel
What you may want to ask is “Should I cut my losses now and start something new, or am I just quitting?” Neither of those extremes is usually the reality, and neither of those questions is productive! Don’t go there yet.
Before you delete the whole shebang and walk away, or file it under “Ideas” somewhere deep on your hard drive, you need to get some perspective. Here’s my thought process when I get lost in the woods with my writing. Instead of feeling like a loser, and cowering to that voice saying you were never meant to write anything more involved than a grocery list, you need to ask yourself a few specific and constructive questions about your project. (Key word is “constructive!”)
Most of all, beware self sabotage that comes from a) abandoning a perfectly good concept before it’s complete, or b) wasting any more time on a pice of content that’s doomed to fail if you’re not objective.
Putting these ideas down on paper helped me get my arms around what feels like a desperate situation when I’m in it. I ask myself these five questions when I’m stuck in the muck. Maybe they will help you, too.
1. First, ask yourself if the “Good Idea” was legitimately good.
- What was it at the outset that made you think so, and what changed?
- What was the purpose of the piece in the first place?
- Was it a problem you identified that needed solving?
- Was it a story you wanted to share about an experience you had, or that your company or customers had?
- Was it an enlightening or heartwarming tale, or groundbreaking expose?
- What was it about the project that had you excited about it when you started?
- Do you still believe in these kernels of inspiration?
Get back to that place where it all began and ask yourself if you still feel it.
2. Whom does it serve? You, or your readers?
Has this ever happened to you? You want to solve a problem, so you assume it’s a problem others need solving, too. (I’d say about half of my good ideas start from problems I’m having in business or in life.) The investigator in you wants to get to the bottom of the issue, so you dig in to find the answers. This, you think, is something you should write about. As long as you’re discovering the truth about fill-in-the-blank, you will share the wealth of information with your readers.
Not so fast! If a topic has easy answers, then you may not be adding to the common good by writing about it. Instead of writing, perhaps you should simply read about it, take stock of the solutions for your own personal use, and then get back to the business of adding value for your readers and clients. Regurgitating information from dozens of well-read articles doesn’t help anyone. There’s no harm in linking to these articles, however, as you write content that includes your personal viewpoint on the issue.
Also, save the more introspective pieces for your journal, or at least until you have enough distance to provide wisdom and perspective. To write about problems too soon just takes you swirling down to that icky place. You need to resolve certain issues before you can be any help to someone else. You’re probably not ready for publication when your feelings are too raw, or if you are currently in the heat of the battle.
3. Do you know enough about the topic to write about it?
If you answer NO to this question, don’t worry, it’s not a deal breaker. Sometimes the best articles come about because you’re curious about a subject and decide to learn about it. (See above.) The question that matters is, are you willing to do the research?
Furthermore, how does your knowledge or interest affect the tone you want to convey? If you know a lot about a subject firsthand, you can write without doing much research. It comes from the heart, like this article did for me, in fact. Sure, you might have to find supporting articles to link to, but the original idea rolls out easily for you.
But if you need to go looking for answers from other experts, then you’re in for a double whammy. Not only must you find resources, but make sense of them, and compile facts and ideas into a cohesive piece of writing. It takes more work and time, but I’ve found so often it’s worth it. If you’re naturally curious by nature, as most writers are, it’s a good fit.
Other times, when you find you’re having trouble writing about something, you need to assess whether your curiosity is enough to keep the fire lit until the very last word. When a project isn’t working, it could be because you just don’t know or care enough about it. Sad but true.
You get to choose what to write about! That’s the good news. Assuming that you’re not freelancing for businesses and industries you hate; or only writing on assignment for a job, then you do have some leeway on your topics. If you’re writing for your own business or pleasure, or if you’re involved in the content editorial process in any way, then you definitely need to evaluate the purpose of your content piece before you start writing. Your time and resources are an investment, so spend them wisely!
Every business owner has pet projects they want to finish, but the content you are creating for your own business really needs to achieve some end. Either it must draw new readers; teach or entertain your current readers; or it must move your business forward in some way. If your work does none of the above, and you begin to sense that it’s wasting your time, then you’ll find it difficult to stick with it when the going gets rough.
You want to see that your work meets your goals, either professionally or personally. If not, then it’s easy to become resentful of the time and effort it’s taking to finish it.
You’re far more likely to abandon work if you can’t see the point of it. Now that I’m working on a novel (my first attempt after decades of writing nonfiction), I ask myself all the time if the scene helps a character achieve his or her goals or if it has any purpose to move the story forward.
This is the question every business blogger or content creator should ask, too.
In a business, each piece of content should have a distinct purpose. Does this ebook or blog post further your business goals? Does it contribute to the “plot,” or story of your business in any way? If the answer is no, you should probably ditch it. If yes, then find the first thing about it that has meaning. You might even write that down and keep it front and center while you’re writing.
What is the end goal? Don’t lose sight of it. If you have to put a sticky note at the top of your screen to remember it, then do that. Some examples of content goals you might write:
- This article, (Title), will attract the ideal client to my website because it solves this initial problem and helps them see that I am the obvious solution to their woes. An appended web form will invite them to learn more.
- This ebook will convince a reader that my method of doing (whatever you do) is clearly the way to be successful. They will naturally want to attend my next class or read my next book, and these links will be included in the ebook.
A content calendar or roadmap clarifies topic ideas. If you’re stuck, your mind should be clear on one overarching thing … the health and growth of your business. Every choice you make, including how you spend your writing time, contributes or detracts from your success. If your writing time is wasted, then your business is probably not going to do very well.
When you stumble, stop and ask yourself, if I had to feed this baby (this blog, this business, my readers) one more day to keep it alive and help it thrive, what one thing would I do, write, or post? What is the goal?
5. Is your project time sensitive?
Time is the great equalizer; everyone is working with the same 24 hours. When you’re stressed about time constraints, your heart palpitates every time you look over the cliff of your failing project. Ask yourself these questions to help you decide whether to continue working on that difficult project. Trendy topics can be the most interesting to your readers, so add some weight to your consideration if the content is trending. (In other words, don’t miss out on a hot topic!) If you’ve already put in some good energy on a topic people are currently talking and reading about, then consider giving that last push to the finish.
- Are you on a deadline?
- Is someone else depending on you to finish?
- Does completion of this project impede the progress of the next one?
- Does your project cover a topic that is trending now, or does it have sticking power for the long term?
Shoot your sights far ahead of where you are today, this week or this month. If you can let the project simmer, even for a few sleeps, then do so!
But if you are on a deadline, or if the topic has a definite shelf life, then you have a decision to make; whether it is better to start over, or if you can work with any original kernels of greatness and restart your engine.
Sometimes you don’t have a choice but to pour it on. It’s the old college effort… just write something you can turn in.
Ok, so your content idea may not seem to be working now. Step back and ask yourself these five questions I shared with you, and don’t lose hope… That great idea you were so gung ho to work on, may only need some tweaking.
The next blog post addresses how to mentally regroup and rewrite your content – if necessary. It’s all part of the content writing process. Don’t give up!
Ever notice how some people always seem to crank out interesting content that appeals to their readers and customers? If you want to write content more easily, head over to the Content Quiz and find out how you can streamline the whole content creation thing. Click the image below to get started.