Recently, a writer friend told me she’s decided to set aside a large project she’s been working on for years. For almost as long as I can remember, it’s been the project she’s worked on. Sure, she wrote a few smaller things here and there, but this one book was the thing she was always also working on. She dedicated notebooks to it. She committed hours of writing time to it. And more than anything, she gave herself wholeheartedly to it.
Then, she simply stopped and moved on to something else.
The book isn’t published, and in fact, it remains unfinished. There’s still a lot of work needed to form it into the book she’s envisioned and planned for. And she might return to it someday. Probably will, in fact. At least that’s what she told me when she broke the news. But for now, she’s moving on.
I have projects like that. Mostly books but also articles and essays I’ve been toiling away on for a long time. Some of them have been pitched and rejected. Others aren’t even that far along. To be honest, I haven’t even looked at a few of them for a while … but I also haven’t decided to abandon them. They exist in a literary limbo, and I am suspended right there with them. After my friend’s bold move, however, I’ve decided I need to cut a few of those projects loose.
But which ones? When is it wise and necessary to persist with a work that isn’t coming easily or quickly, and when should you set it aside, even if it’s only temporary? This could apply to writing topics as well as writing projects. If you’ve written about parenting or social justice or home decorating for years and are wondering if you should keep going or move on to another topic, how do you decide? Here are a few criteria I’m using to evaluate these decisions myself.
- When the passion is gone.
Let’s face it: writing is hard. It takes a lot of time and energy. If the project you’ve been working on no longer keeps you awake at night or gets you out of bed in the morning, maybe it’s time to quit. That’s not to say you won’t tire of your subject from time to time or won’t have days when you just want to quit and shouldn’t. But if day after day, week after week you’re just no longer feeling it—and you aren’t under any obligation to finish it, maybe it’s time to set it aside. If only for a while.
- When the work has already done its job.
Sometimes, you begin projects that connect very personally with what you’re going through. Maybe you write about parenting when your children are young, or about aging when you start to care for your elderly parents. During a certain political season or following a horrible tragedy, you may feel compelled to write about topics of injustice or suffering. But after you write and write for a while, suddenly, you feel like you have nothing else to say. Maybe it’s because the writing was more for you than an audience, even though you were sure what you were writing would connect with others, too. Don’t dismiss the importance of self-reflection in your writing even if you are a professional writer. And when you no longer connect to the issue or the project personally, maybe it’s time to be done.
- When other projects have to take priority.
So, this one is particularly apropos to me right now. I have a writing project in the works that I desperately want to work on, but when I received back an edited manuscript that needs several major revisions before it can be published, and it’s scheduled for release this year, I knew what I had to do. I set aside the other project and got to work revising. That’s how it often works. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Eventually, the project I’m really excited about will have its place on my high priority list, but for now, it’s on the back burner. Sometimes, the reason for setting aside a project is as simple as that: something else is more important or urgent.
- When a new opportunity arises.
The project I talked about above in #3 could also fall into this category. A year and a half ago I was given the opportunity to write this new book, and at the time I said yes, I knew it meant setting aside other things. These are the choices we make as writers: we have only so much time and creative energy. We choose some projects and reject others, knowing every time we say yes we are necessarily saying no to other things we could be writing. Whether the opportunity is worth it depends on what we have to give up.
- When you’re not ready to write this story.
Sometimes, you begin writing about things happen to you before you’re ready to. This is particularly true of memoir or personal essays. Events happen, and as writers, we process them through writing. But sometimes we begin writing before we’ve sat with the story long enough to really know what it means or how to tell it. I’ve worked on manuscripts for years, only to realize I still didn’t have the critical distance necessary to write about the events. I’ve seen other writers struggle with the same issue: they were still too bitter or too wounded to tell the story well. What emerged from the writing sounded more like a rant than a reflection. Knowing when you’re ready to write a story takes maturity and self awareness. But once you realize you aren’t ready, maybe it’s time to set the story aside until you are.
- When the story’s not ready to be written.
Sometimes, the writer is ready, but the story isn’t. Maybe another person in the story can’t handle it being written. Or maybe the story itself is ongoing, unfinished. In our 24/7 culture, it’s tempting to process everything that happens in near real time, which sometimes can even mean chronicling events over several years but still too soon to understand their impact. Quick reactions often miss the nuance and wisdom of a measured response. Think about the difference between a Tweet, an online newspaper article, a printed news magazine article, and a book. Not only is the content more in-depth as you travel along the continuum, but it’s also more vetted and considered. If you’ve been trying to tell a story too soon, you may need to stop until the time is right.
- When someone else beats you to it.
This one is painful when it happens, but the publishing industry is a competitive business. If the idea you’ve been working on for years gets written by someone else, then it’s probably time to put to bed your dreams of publishing. There are some exceptions, of course. Sometimes, one book about a topic creates an audience for more of the same. A different publisher in a different year, or another magazine or journal might want to take their stab at the issue with your work. Also, if you have a different voice or perspective about the same topic, you may still find a place at the publishing table. Of course, it might also be worth acknowledging that setting aside your work for a while increases the risk that someone else will swoop in and write a book similar to yours. But it’s not the only reason to keep working on a book that otherwise should be set aside.
So how do you know when to stop working on a project? It’s not easy. But it might be just the right decision for now.