As children, we’re taught that quitting is bad. We grow up believing that quitting is somehow associated with failure. The truth is, only through learning how to quit successfully can we discover how to evolve as writers and, ultimately, succeed.
Ask yourself this: How many times did you have to stop doing something because it didn’t work, only to discover a marvelous solution moments later? You wouldn’t have found this solution if you had insisted on banging your head against the proverbial wall.
Here’s another example, funnier and even more revealing: Imagine you’re driving in an unfamiliar area and, taking a wrong turn, you find yourself on a dead-end street. Would you wait there for a magic portal to suddenly appear so you could continue driving? Obviously not; it’s absurd.
The truth is, we quit things all the time and don’t even think about it much. That’s because quitting—at the right time, the right way, and for the right reasons—is an integral part of success.
Why should a writing project be any different?
Quitting a writing project can be what stands between you and the fulfillment of your writing aspirations. That is, as long as it’s done properly. And so, in this post, I won’t be telling you not to quit; I’ll show you why, when, and how to quit a writing project, in a way that actually brings you closer to success.
Any endeavor—driving in an unknown neighborhood, baking a cake, or completing a writing project—can be quit, either successfully or not-so-successfully.
To start with the simpler example, to unsuccessfully quit baking a cake is to cry in despair over your lack of baking skills and forget the oven is still on, setting the house on fire. It can’t get much more unsuccessful than that.
A more successful way to quit baking a cake—and this happened to me—would be to acknowledge you forgot to add baking powder, realize it’s too late to undo the mistake, and promise yourself you’ll be more careful next time.
When it comes to writing, the procedure isn’t really all that different. Of course, we’re dealing with many more moving parts and far greater abstractness, but the core is the same: To quit successfully involves quitting for the right reasons, quitting because it’s the most viable—or even only—choice at that point, and quitting in a way that teaches you something.
It’s basically a matter of why, when, and how to quit that defines success in quitting, so let’s take a look at them one by one.
I have completed more writing projects than I can ever count. I literally wouldn’t know where to start. But guess what: No matter how big the number of my completed projects, I can guarantee you that the number of projects I had to quit must be double, at least.
It was only rather recently that I realized there is a connection between the two: I seem to have completed many projects because I was able to quit even more. So, let’s see how to quit in style, in a way that actually helps you achieve your goals.
Remember the cake example, and how I quit when I realized the cake was in the oven sans baking powder? Same thing applies here.
A writing project doesn’t involve baking powder—if only it were that easy—but it does involve other ingredients: an initial motivation or purpose, a structure, an acquired form, expectations, and an estimated time of completion.
Some writing projects start because we felt something that is no longer present. Alternatively, there was perhaps a specific purpose, such as the promise of a new job opportunity, or an attempt to pitch to a major publisher.
Then it feels as if the writing project is going nowhere, sapping your energy. You think that even if you completed it, you wouldn’t have much to gain, either because you no longer feel excited about it or because the specific purpose is no longer applicable.
In some cases, you begin to realize that the writing project is unlikely to be completed in a satisfactory way due to deep structural problems, and it is therefore unsalvageable through editing.
These elements are major indicators that you should consider quitting the project.
Here’s one of my many “why I’ve quit a writing project” examples:
Several years ago, I considered writing an interactive-fiction crime novel, taking advantage of e-books’ anchor-linking capabilities. My idea was that the reader could click on links according to how they wanted the story to continue.
I was excited about it (I wrote some 15,000 words), and then I realized something: For the story to be engaging and interactive enough, I would have to write dozens of alternative storylines, plot twists, and whatnot in a genre I wasn’t too excited about. I smiled at my naivety, decided to quit, and I’m happy I did so. Nowadays my interactive fiction is in the form of modern text-adventure games, which are far easier to create.
This is a very interesting aspect of quitting successfully, because it’s a bit counterintuitive. Generally speaking, it’s easier to quit a writing project during its early phases, when you haven’t invested much time and energy yet.
However, that’s also the worst time to do so.
After the initial honeymoon phase, which is when we’re excited about a new idea and can’t wait to start giving it form, writing projects inevitably hit a snag. The Next Great American Novel you envisioned isn’t moving forward, that blog post seems lackluster, and as for the deadline of your freelance task, the less you talk about it the better.
If you haven’t yet invested much, you might think it’s not only easier but also more logical to quit early. You might think that the sooner you quit something that seems to be going wrong, the sooner you can start something else.
The answer is no, you shouldn’t quit then. If you do, you’ll be left with what-ifs and regrets, and that’s a horrible feeling to be left with.
On the other hand, quitting a writing project when it’s almost complete isn’t right either, and for the same reason: You’ll be filled with regrets later, wondering why you didn’t hang on for a little while longer to see the project finished. Here’s a personal example, though thankfully one of the “that was close” variety.
Just before the successful completion of my doctoral studies, I came close to quitting. My dissertation had been ready for over a year, but it kept getting stuck in the preliminary examination stage for all kinds of bizarre reasons—including examiners going AWOL, stalling the process. But I remained patient and stayed the course, and before long the whole affair reached its happy conclusion. I can’t imagine how I would feel today if I had quit then.
The right time to quit does depend a bit on the project and your individual circumstances, but I’d place it somewhere in the middle: after the initial hurdles I talked about earlier, but before it has reached the “I might as well finish it” stage. In my earlier cake analogy, you wouldn’t quit while still mixing the ingredients, and if the cake has just come out of the oven, you might as well try it.
In a way, this is the most important one of the trio, and that’s why it comes last. Knowing why and when to quit are the foundation of quitting successfully, but the actual building comes with knowing how to quit.
The most integral aspect of knowing how to quit has to do with what quitting teaches you. If you learn nothing from the experience, it’s a total waste. Therefore, to successfully complete the quitting process, you should understand the reasons behind quitting it.
A good idea would be to debrief the project with the help of a trusted, knowledgeable person—a skillful editor would be the obvious choice, but another writer is also an acceptable solution. Whether you debrief with an editor, another writer, or just by yourself, it’s crucial to understand and acknowledge what transpired: what led you to quit, why you decided it was necessary, and what you can do better next time.
As with many other things in life, knowledge is power. Don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself regarding the reasons the writing project didn’t go as planned. The worst thing you could do would be to ignore what happened because it makes you feel bad, playing on your writing insecurities.
After all, the more honest you can be with yourself, the better you can recognize why the project didn’t go as you intended. Which, in turn, means you can be better prepared next time around. At this point you can also salvage what can be salvaged for other projects, and let go of the rest, not looking back.
The key is to be able to have no regrets when quitting, because quitting the right way is not a sign of weakness or failure but a step closer to success.
Once, as a child, I witnessed something that made quite an impression on me. I was on the bus, and an old lady pressed the stop button. Once the bus rolled to a stop, she realized it was the wrong place. She said out loud: “Well, I pressed the button, so I must get off the bus now,” and the driver and other passengers spent several long seconds convincing her it wasn’t a big deal, and she didn’t have to get off the bus.
The moral of this little story is that not quitting a plan merely because of stubbornness, personal convictions, or other such reasons never leads to anything good.
Sometimes things don’t work the way we envisioned. Writing projects—or cakes—begin one way, with one set of intentions and expectations, but become something else that isn’t viable. It’s not only OK to quit then; it’s necessary.
Quitting successfully is not something that takes you away from your goals, but something that brings you closer to them. Quitting successfully is not a sign of failure but of success.
We all make mistakes, all the time. Whether you accidentally break a glass or start a writing project that isn’t going anywhere, we come face-to-face with decisions and diverging paths on a virtually daily basis. Not only is this not a problem but every mistake is actually an opportunity to come closer to your goals. That is, if you acknowledge it.
As I showed you in this post, there are certain things you need to consider before successfully quitting a writing project. In a nutshell, you need to know why, when, and how to quit. But there’s also a grand unifying concept connecting them all together: You need to be honest to yourself.
Acknowledging that something doesn’t work isn’t easy. Besides the extra work involved, it also plays on the insecurities we all have, with impostor syndrome lurking in the shadows. However, postponing a difficult decision doesn’t make the problems go away, which makes it all the more crucial to face the situation with honesty.
Quitting something properly and trying again is part of the process. It’s a skill, and it’s one that you can practice and get better at.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops programs focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general. Chris is a senior content editor for Craft Your Content.