Last week, I completed a big writing project. I finished working on expanding and updating a small eBook on email marketing that I’d written several years ago and turning it into an in-depth online course. (I’ll be releasing it soon!)
At the same time, I’ve been working to wrap up the first draft of a novel that I started writing at the end of last year. I’m not at the finish line yet, but this week I reached 52,000 words total.
Working on both these projects has tested my endurance. A big writing project comes with many more challenges than writing a blog post or a short story.
It requires far more motivation, especially on those days when it feels like you’ll never make it to the end of the project.
It requires far more time because you have to devote months to the project, not just a handful of days or weeks.
And it requires far more planning up front so you don’t end up overwhelmed and unsure how to move forward from one day to the next.
In today’s article, I’m sharing six strategies that have helped me overcome these challenges and work diligently on big projects from start to finish.
I hope these strategies will help you whether you’re working on a novel, a nonfiction book, a college thesis, an in-depth digital product, or any other type of big writing project.
Let’s dive in.
1. Fortify Your Motivation
If your motivation ebbs, it can prove fatal to you successfully finishing a big writing project.
You need to build a rampart around your motivation so it’s safe from worries, discouragements, and self-doubt.
Here are the three steps I take:
First, I make sure I’m clear on my why. What’s the reason that’s driving me to complete this big project?
Usually, we are driven by either extrinsic or intrinsic motivations (or both).
An extrinsic motivation means that there are outside circumstances making it urgent for you to achieve your goal as soon as possible.
For example, you might be ghostwriting a book for a client. You are working towards your goal in order for the monetary reward you will receive and probably not out of an intrinsic desire to write the book. In other words, if you took the extrinsic motivation away, you probably wouldn’t write the book.
An intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is one that is within you. You do not need any external rewards. Your passion drives you forward.
Maybe you’ve dreamed of writing a novel ever since you were very young, and you’re determined to finally follow through on this goal.
Or maybe you want to write a memoir because you have an important story to tell that you’re sure will help countless other people.
Think about why you want to complete this big project. Do you have extrinsic or intrinsic motivations (or both)?
List the reasons that are motivating you. Refer to this list when the going gets tough. Remembering why you wanted to achieve the goal in the first place will help you keep moving forward.
Second, I try to keep my thinking positive by collecting encouraging quotes. I display them at the top of my daily schedule in Evernote so I see them each morning before I sit down to my work.
For example, I have this quote from Ernest Hemingway:
Once you are into the novel it is as cowardly to worry about whether you can go on to the next day as to worry about having to go into inevitable action. You have to go on. So there is no sense to worry … As soon as you start to think about it, stop it. Think about something else. You have to learn that to write a novel. The hard part about a novel is to finish it.
It reminds me that even the greatest writers struggled to finish big projects.
I also display several encouraging messages from readers of my blog. (If you’ve ever left a kind comment or sent an email about one of my blog posts or short stories, thank you! I’m not always able to respond, but they motivate me to continue writing.)
If you’re a blogger, have you ever received a comment or an email from a reader thanking you for your work? Or if you’re an author, have you received any positive reviews of your books? Or if you’re a copywriter or freelance writer, have you received glowing testimonials from any of your clients?
Select a few (or all of them if you’d like) and keep them in a place where you can read through them whenever you’re beginning to doubt yourself and your current work-in-progress.
Third, and finally, I try to find someone to keep me accountable and cheer me on with my project.
My brother Michael writes fiction so he’s been keeping me accountable while I work on my novel. Often we will meet at a certain time during the day to work on our fiction projects. When I start worrying over whether my first draft is terrible or not, Michael tells me, “Just finish it.”
Your accountability partner could be your significant other, a friend or a sibling, or even your mom or dad. They don’t even have to be a writer. Maybe they are working toward a different goal, and you can both encourage and inspire each other.
Or maybe you just keep them updated on your progress, texting them your word count total each day or at the end of each week.
2. Plan Your Project
I plotted my novel in advance and drew up an outline for my online course before I dove into writing those projects. This definitely helps me know what to work on each day.
Of course, how you plan out your project will depend on what kind of project you’re working on and how you work best creatively. Many fiction writers like to create a detailed plot before they begin writing a novel, but others prefer a more spontaneous approach.
However, I recommend at least breaking your project down into short-term goals with deadlines attached.
For example, after writing for a week or two, I was able to evaluate my writing rhythm and how many words I could churn out each day.
This allowed me to set a deadline for when I wanted to have my first draft completed. Then, I broke that goal into short-term goals. I gave myself a total word count goal for each month and a daily word count goal.
I try not to focus on the ultimate goal of finishing the entire project, but concentrate rather on the little goals and celebrating those. That helps me make sure the project doesn’t feel overwhelming and also gives me a way to gauge my progress.
You could promise yourself a reward when you reach a short-term goal. Maybe you will treat yourself to a little gift or allow yourself to do something fun, even something as low-key as watching the latest episode of your favorite TV show. This is a great way to keep yourself motivated to keep on working.
I wrote this article several months ago about the two journals I use to track my progress on different projects and boost my productivity.
I also like to use the SMART method to make goals easier to achieve. The letters in SMART stand for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound.
“Specific” means that you don’t write a vague goal on your daily schedule like “work on big project”. Instead, you put, “Write 500 words”.
“Measurable” means that you give yourself a way to track your progress.
“Achievable” and “Realistic” mean that you’re not challenging yourself to accomplish a goal that’s impossible for you. A five hundred-word goal is super easy for me to reach each day.
Finally, “time-bound” means that you set deadlines as I talked about above.
3. Schedule Time to Work
Evenings at 6:00 sharp I reserve for my fiction writing. I usually work for about an hour and a half, and then eat dinner (yes, I eat dinner late!).
My nonfiction writing I schedule during the morning or afternoon depending on what my schedule looks like for the day.
When you’re working on a big project, you need to invest consistent time to see it through to the end.
Before you set out, evaluate your schedule and see if you can reserve a specific time slot in your day to work on your project. Maybe it will be a different time on different days.
I wrote this article on how to make more time for writing.
4. Leave Off When You’re Going Good
I love this advice from Ernest Hemingway,
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.
It’s true! When I follow this advice, I’m never stuck the next day.
For my novel, I usually find that I’m going good when I reach about 500 to 1,000 words during a writing session. Often when I reach my daily word-count goal, I’ll stop writing, even if it’s mid-sentence.
Of course, every writer is different and every project is different so you might not want to stop mid-sentence. You might enjoy writing over your word-count goal when you can (I find when I do this too often, I burn myself out and get stuck).
Whatever you choose to do, make sure at the end of your writing sessions you have a clear idea of what you will work on the next day.
5. Don’t Edit Your First Draft
You’ve probably heard this one a thousand times. John Steinbeck advised,
Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm, which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
This was a difficult piece of advice to implement when I was first starting out. I was so tempted to go back and revise earlier chapters of the novel or sections of the course. But then I realized it was slowing down my progress.
Sometimes at the start of my writing sessions, I’ll let myself read through what I wrote the day before and make small edits as this helps me get in the flow of writing. But, other than that, I stay away from any major editing.
I find this actually helps me overcome self-doubt over my work. I tell myself I’ll have plenty of time to whip everything into shape after I finish the first draft and go back to edit.
6. Evaluate How You Work Best
Finally, it’s important to evaluate how you work best and what methods you can use to quickly get into a flow during your writing sessions.
I wrote this article about how famous writers awaken their muse with writing rituals. I try to write at the same time in the same room every evening, and I’ll play the same CD as well (thus, that music becomes associated with my writing time). As soon as I hear it, I’m eager to start writing.
In this article, I wrote about how to use a timer to stay focused during your writing sessions.
But keep in mind that what works for one writer might not work for you. For example, I’ve read advice from writers saying you must work as consistently as possible on your novel and try to never miss a day of writing. However, I’ve found that when I do that, I end up getting burned out.
Instead, I discovered that I work best when I work for several days straight, and then take a short break. For example, I might write Monday through Friday, and then take a break over the weekend. I spend the weekend thinking about what I’m going to write next and this helps me flesh out ideas.
Once I took a whole week away from the novel and worked on a short story idea instead. I’d been getting overwhelmed with the novel and was doubting whether my story idea was any good and whether I was bringing it convincingly to life on the page.
By the end of the week, I felt refreshed and was eager to get back to work on the novel. I worked furiously to make sure I reached my monthly word count goal.
Maybe you’re like me and will have to take little breaks to refresh your creative energy. Or maybe taking breaks derails your creativity, and you need to work tirelessly towards your goal for one hundred days straight.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how you meet your deadline and finish your project. It just matters that you do. So try to find the best methods to help you reach that goal.
Every person is different when it comes to what systems will best help them stay on track with a big project. Feel free to tweak and adapt the strategies above to the unique nature of your project and your personality as a writer.
The bottom line is to have a way to break the project down into small steps to make it easier to tackle and to have methods you can use to keep your perspective positive.
As John Steinbeck wrote,
Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page a day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
Are you working on a big writing project? What strategies are helping you? Let me know in the comments.
And if you enjoyed this post, please share it on social media or with a friend who you think might find it helpful too. Thanks for reading!