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How to Declutter Your Writing Ideas and Finish More Projects

by | Mar 31, 2016

A new writer recently asked me, “When you have several half-finished projects, how do you choose which one to start working on again? I look at my writing folder and feel overwhelmed!”

I know the feeling.

One of the most frustrating things about being a writer is having too many ideas. Given how hard it is to succeed in the business and how many of us seem to suffer from debilitating writer’s block, “too many ideas” might sound like a blessing.

But think about how many aha! moments you’ve had. How many brilliant stories you’ve conceived. How many shower thoughts you’ve scribbled into notebooks.

You can’t write them all.

But you feel a lingering duty to these unrealized ideas. They sit in the back of your mind like an anchor when you try to move on to the next project.

How do you prioritize?

What to do with half-finished writing projects

I don’t have a perfect solution. My writing folder, too, has loads of half-baked ideas without a clear destiny. I sometimes find myself paralyzed at my computer, unsure which project to focus on.

But I’ve figured out a few steps that help me clear the clutter and work on what matters.

1. Know what to let go

First, you’ll reduce a ton of overwhelm by deciding which projects are lost casuses.

Give yourself permission to let them go.

Abandoning projects is scary. You loved the idea once, and you’ve put so much time or energy or passion into it.

What’s really scary, though, is you’re afraid you’ll never have another good idea. Don’t worry; you definitely will.

New, better, stronger ideas will always come along. And the effort you’ve put into old projects is never wasted. Consider it exercise that strengthened your writing skills for new ideas.

You don’t have to completely trash these projects if you’re not ready. I have a folder in my drive called “archived projects” for the stuff I’ve stopped working on. Within that folder is a folder for each year (I told you the ideas never stop coming).

2. List the steps needed to finish each project

Once you’ve cleared the roughage, you can start to make sense of the rest.

Look at each unfinished project, and make a quick list of the steps you need to take to finish it.

For example, if you’re sitting on a completed manuscript, it may need a few rounds of edits, to be pitched to agents, or to go through the self-publishing process.

Partially-written books, stories or essays may need a stronger outline, feedback, more research or just time to focus on writing.

3. Determine which projects are nearest completion

Now use those project-specific to-do lists to determine which projects are nearest completion. If you focused only on one project, which could you finish soonest?

This could be as simple as finally submitting an essay you’ve been afraid to act on. Or pitching an article idea you outlined months ago. Or publishing and promoting a forgotten blog post idea.

4. Pick something near completion and finish it

In general, I recommend picking up the project that’s nearest completion, and finishing it.

Try to find something you can accomplish pretty quickly — this week or this month. The accomplishment is motivating, so it’ll be nice to do it soon. Checking off one task makes it a little easier to work on the next thing.

Be aware as you choose a project, though: Do you dread working on it? Do you find yourself stuck again because the project nearest completion turns out to be something you hate working on?

Don’t be afraid to let go of more projects at this point.

If you’ve got a five-year-old, almost-finished project you hate sitting at the top of your to-do list, it’s going to be a roadblock to getting anything done. Archive it, and move on to the projects you love and want to dedicate your time to.

5. Prioritize what’s left, and make a timeline

Once you’ve finished a quick project, start to prioritize what’s left (after celebrating, of course). Continue to work on the tasks you can finish quickly, but also set goals for the longer projects.

The quick projects are nice to finish, because they help you clear the clutter. But if you have a novel that’s five years away from publication, you probably don’t want to keep pushing it off for a year to finish essays, for example.

Set some reasonable deadlines for yourself. Do you want to have a novel published in the next five years? Ten? How many short stories, poems or essays do you want to submit in a year?

Create timelines with these goals and project to-do lists in mind, and find time to work on them accordingly.

Why this system is totally flawed

Walking through these steps periodically has helped me keep my writing life under control. It keeps me moving forward, instead of getting stuck on useless projects.

But it’s imperfect.

The problem is that the ideas never stop coming.

You won’t go through one spring cleaning and organization of your writing projects and be set for life. You will continue to have new ideas you absolutely love, and you’ll constantly have to re-organize and re-prioritize.

Keep these steps in mind as you do it, and I hope you’ll be a little less overwhelmed.

What strategies do you use to prioritize your writing projects?