“Don’t give up.”
“Just get it done.”
As writers, so much of our energy is spent desperately clawing toward THE END. We cheer on other writers who moan, complain or struggle. And rightly so, because writing is hard business, full of anguish and self-doubt.
Supportive writing communities like NANOWRIMO (the National Novel Writing Month) are essential to curbing the temporary urge to throw up our hands in defeat. Together, or alone, we lift our chin and march on.
But…and this is a big BUT…
Often we don’t stop to consider if we SHOULD finish a novel.
Because, honestly, sometimes we should quit.
That’s what this post is about: why you should quit, why you shouldn’t, how to know if you should really quit and a simple, step-by-step process on how to go about quitting for good.
By the way, I should mention that Tim Ferris just released a powerful “round table” style podcast episode on quitting. It inspired this post. Listen to the full podcast here (Episode #254)
“Age wrinkles the body. Quitting wrinkles the soul.” – Douglas MacArthur
See that quote?
The thing about the quote is that it is both powerful and revealing. As a pithy statement pinned up next to my “Don’t Quit” cat poster, I love it. As a life motto without exception? That’s where I believe so many of us wordsmiths go astray.
The MacArthur quote is indicative of how society (and writers included) look down on quitting. But I ask you: Why does quitting wrinkle the soul? Does it ALWAYS wrinkle the soul?
I’m not sure. I don’t think so.
But MacAurthur is right about one thing: quitting is hard on the mind, body and soul. Why is that?
Why It’s Hard To Quit
- We don’t (seriously) think about it
- There is a stigma around quitting
- We would feel inadequate if we quit
We talk about quitting all the time. And why not? Writing is hard. Writing well is even harder. Yet, most of the time all our talk of quitting is just that: talk, and nothing more. We aren’t serious about quitting; we are just expressing the pain and stress and natural floundering of our creative struggle.
For most of us, quitting is not a real option. It’s a nice thought, sure, like the fantasy of selling all our possessions and traveling the world. But we never book the flight.
Added to lack of real commitment, there is the painful stigma that quitters are somehow “less than”, as if quitters wouldn’t have quit if they had the talent, skill or character to go on.
Yet, remember, some people DO sell all their belongings and travel the world.
A location free lifestyle is not just a fantasy for everyone. Some people live it. And neither is quitting a current project, work or pursuit a fantasy for everyone.
Some Lots of people quit. In fact, lots of highly successful, powerful, influential and dominating figures throughout history have quit.
“Letting go has nothing to do with ‘quitting.’ Ask yourself, ‘Am I sticking it out or am I staying stuck?’ You know yourself best.”
– Alex Elle, author
So quitting really is hard. No argument from me there. We double or triple think, doubt ourselves and trap ourselves in limited thinking. Is there really another way? Is there a compelling reason to quit?
Why You Should Consider Quitting
- Successful people quit often
- Save yourself time
- Save yourself energy
- To refocus on another more promising or more fulfilling project
Most of the time we focus on how successful people didn’t quit. There are myths and legends among writers about bestselling authors who persevered despite racking up a mountain of rejections. J.K. Rowling is just one (quite inspirational) example.
Persistence IS a huge trait of successful full-time authors. However, it’s not perseverance in everything. It’s not never quitting a story no matter what. That’s where confusion sets in for many aspirating writers because black-and-white thinking is often our default mode – especially when such thinking resonates with a commonly held belief like “quitting is bad.”
But what if it’s not so cut-and-dried? What if there are critical exceptions that can shift our perspective, lift us up and free us with infinitely more options?
The truth: It’s not that these bestselling authors of legend never quit; it is they never quit this ONE time on this ONE story.
The truth is that they likely quit many other projects many times before. They probably had to quit lots of other things to make room in their life to passionately persevere with the novel that eventually made it.
What does that mean for you?
- It means that quitting is on the table
- It means that quitting is an option
- It means quitting might be the BEST choice
- It means that quitting ONE thing might lead to a BETTER thing that changes EVERYthing.
When you think about it, someone could easily argue that blindly pursuing a goal is just as “bad” as quitting a good project too early. In other words, maybe quitting isn’t ALWAYS bad and maybe not quitting isn’t ALWAYS good.
That brings us to the question of, “How do we know the right time to quit and the right time to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and get back to the story?”
While each person and project is unique – so there’s no easy answer that fits for everyone in every situation – there are patterns to notice and guidelines to follow.
Here are 20.
“If you fail, try again. If you still fail, quit. There’s no reason to be foolish.”
– Mark Twain
20 Reasons To Quit Your Book or Novel
- Quit if your gut tells you to quit
- Quit if you aren’t making progress
- Quit if it isn’t working
- Quit if someone beat you to it
- Quit if you don’t care anymore (hate it? Quit)
- Quit if you don’t believe in the mission (the idea or an associated vision)
- Quit if you are lukewarm (It’s either “hell yes” or it’s no)
- Quit if another, better opportunity comes along
- Quit if the world or market has changed (context matters)
- Quit if YOU have changed
- Quit if YOU aren’t ready
- Quit if it’s unethical
- Quit if it costs too much (the cost of time, money or energy outweighs the benefits)
- Quit if you’ve already tried your best
- Quit if it’s toxic (hurts you in some way)
- Quit if the timing isn’t right
- Quit if there is a higher priority
- Quit if your fans want something else (that you also love)
- Quit if you are only doing it for other people
- Quit if fear is the only reason to continue (fear is rarely, if ever, a good reason to continue a WIP)
There you have it: 20 good reasons to throw in the towel, scrap your story and get that dreaded day job at Kinkos.
But before you hit send on that resume, the next logical question is, “When don’t you quit?”
When NOT To Quit
- When you are making progress but it’s slow
- When it’s hard
- When you are blocked
- When YOU do still believe in the mission
- When it gives you joy
Hard work, struggle and setbacks are not necessarily signs from the universe to pivot. Every great writer stumbled along the way.
So how do you really, REALLY know when to quit?
4 Step Process To Know When to Quit
- Decide on Your Metrics (preferably prior to beginning)
- Periodically Reassess: ask yourself the Quitting Questions (see below)
- Get Feedback from Trusted Mentors
- Try Quitting
Let’s take each step one at a time.
Decide On Your Metrics
First, decide on your metrics. Choose upfront how to measure your “success” so that temporary emotions don’t trigger permanent decisions.
So, how will you measure success?
- Words written
- Books published
- Book sales
- Facebook likes
- Email subscribers?
- Helping others?
When you decide beforehand, you can gauge your progress (or lack thereof). And even better – give yourself a timeline to reach your metrics.
That way, if you reach them, you have a clearer sense that you are on the right path. If you don’t meet them, readjust your metrics OR move to step 2.
Take time to assess your current WIP at regular intervals. Maybe once a week, once a month or every few months.
How do you asses yourself?
- Get somewhere by yourself
- Start with the metrics you came up with in Step 1
- Ask the QUITTING QUESTIONS
- Then move to Step 3 & 4
Get Feedback From Trusted Mentors
After your personal gut check, now it’s time to check in with others. Let me save you some time: your (mom/dad/best friend) will love you no matter what you decide and people who don’t write will offer you vague generalities about not giving up.
Now that we have that out of the way, go find a trusted mentor. Someone wise and who, ideally, has achieved their own measure of success (however they define it).
What do you do or say when you meet with your mentor?
- Lay out your situation, your feelings and thoughts up to this point.
- If they are willing to listen, go through the Quitting Questions with them, explaining your answers.
- Pause occasionally to see if they want to inject a response.
- Ask for their honest feedback. Say, “If you were in my exact situation, what would you do and why?”
If you still are not yet sure if you want to quit or not, move to Step 4.
Most people think of quitting as permanent.
But it’s not. Just ask any pro athlete who quit only to un-quit several months or years later. The truth is that quitting is only as permanent as you make it.
So why not TRY quitting out for a awhile? See if you like it. If not, you can always quit quitting.
Here’s a helpful framework for your quitting:
- Give yourself a specific time frame (3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months, etc).
- Decide what you are going to do with the free “space” in your life (perhaps more time with the family, traveling or experiment with a new writing project)
- At the end of the trial period, reassess with the Quitting Questions.
QUITTING QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF
Is my gut telling me to quit?
Am I making progress?
Is it working?
Did someone beat me to it?
Is the opportunity gone?
Do I care?
Do I believe deeply in the mission?
Is it “hell yes”?
Is there a better opportunity? A more promising WIP?
Does the market still want/need this?
Have I changed? Am I still the right person for this idea?
Am I ready?
Do I have the experience, expertise and talent?
Is anything about it unethical?
Does it give me joy?
Does it cost too much (costs of time, money or energy outweighs the benefits)?
Have I tried my best?
Is it toxic?
Does it hurt me mentally, emotionally, spiritually or physically?
Is the timing right?
Is there a BETTER time?
What matters most right now?
Does my audience want or need something else?
Why WOULDN’T I quit?
Is fear my only motivation?
Am I doing this for others or myself?
After your trial quitting period, you should be 100% certain (or as close as possible) if you want to return to your project or quit for good. If you want to go back to your WIP, by all means, go back.
Quitting isn’t the right choice every time. But at least now it is a real choice.
It really is about choosing your beliefs and behaviors. Another great example of bucking the status quo by choosing to believe differently (and more accurately) is in Jeff Goin’s newest book, Real Artists Don’t Starve. Read this post about the belief behind the book.
But let’s say you decide you really do want to quit for good. It’s over. You don’t want to go back and you’re wondering how to go from trial quit to permanent quit. Don’t worry. I have your back. Here are my suggestions on how to quit for good.
How To Quit For Good
- Take Time to Mourn the Loss. Even if you feel a rush of relief from letting go, there is still a loss involved. Nurture the loss, embrace and allow yourself to feel it until it naturally passes through you. This can help prevent procrastination, writer’s block and (in more extreme cases) bouts of depression.
- Take a Symbolic Action. Quitting this WIP may be a huge shift in your life. Mark it with a symbolic action, like locking the manuscript in a certain box or trunk. Perhaps toss the story notes or burn them. This kind of ritual can help solidify your decision and help in the process of moving on.
- Throw a Quitting Party. While there may be loss involved, there is also bound to be joy, relief and excitement about the future. Why not mobilize that positive energy into something fun? Throw a party. Invite your mentor, friends and family. Believe it or not, this kind of event can help those in your inner circle accept your decision to quit without feeling like a “failure” for not pushing you to “follow your dreams”. Just for fun, here’s a free Quitting Party Flyer you can use.
- Give Yourself Space. Take time to settle into quitting. Don’t trade one creative cage for another. Brainstorm, experiment, free yourself up to all the different possibilities for a new project.
- Go Slow. Don’t rush into your next project with abandon. Be thoughtful. Think it through. Don’t turn a good thing (quitting) into a bad next thing (jumping the gun). Your options are endless. Take your time. Play around with different ideas until something clicks with you. Make it a “hell yes” project. Make it fun and meaningful. Get feedback from others you trust. Design your metrics, give yourself a timeline, schedule self-assessments and – when you are ready – pull the trigger.
If you’ve read this far, the irony is that you haven’t quit a long article about the benefits of quitting. Does that mean the post worked or didn’t work? I’ll let you be the judge.
Me? I’m quitting.
At least for now.
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