Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
December 8, 2017

What Motivates You to Finish?

The blank page doesn’t scare me. I’m one of those writers who has dozens of story ideas, plenty of partially written projects, and fully drafted manuscripts in various stages of editing.

However, the daunting task of getting a book all the way to “done!” is more frightening than a weekend marathon of Wes Craven movies.

Maybe you can relate.

Unfortunately, my fear doesn't motivate me to finish.

In Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, author Jon Acuff speaks about how those of us who are great at starting projects can actually manage to complete what we start. As I listened to the book (yes, listened), one particular point struck me: that we are primarily motivated either by fear or reward. Knowing which category appeals to you, and then figuring a specific incentive within that category, can spur you forward—all the way to the finish line.

Now we might all think that reward sounds much better than fear. But fear is a very useful tool for many. Here are some ways that fear could be a worthwhile motivator for writers.

  • You finish writing the chapter before critique group, because you fear the disappointment or judgment of your fellow critique partners.
  • You push yourself to meet your novel deadline with your editor, because you fear that poor performance will affect future contract opportunities.
  • You finally finish and publish your book, because you fear not having anything to report in your annual What's Up with Us holiday letter.

Fear here doesn't mean you're cowering under your office desk or making the Edvard Munch scream face. Rather, you're motivated to avoid a negative consequence.

I'm sure you can think of times in your life that fear has proved to be a very effective motivator—whether it was studying like crazy for a final exam so you wouldn't fail a class or rehearsing what you'd say before asking someone on a date so you wouldn't come across like an idiot. If the end result was a good one, the fear worked. It did its job in motivating you.

But as I said, while fear motivates me in other areas of life, it doesn't get me to finish novels. If that's you, then maybe you're more inclined toward reward. How does reward work for writers?

  • You finish writing the chapter through a series of group writing sprints, where word counts are rewarded with encouragement and congratulations.
  • You push yourself to turn in your novel to your editor, and reward yourself with a night out to celebrate meeting your deadline.
  • You finally finish and publish your book, and experience the reward of sending your family and friends copies as holiday gifts.

Most of us are probably motivated by a combination of fear and reward.

Once you set up incentives that work for you, you can break those down even further into smaller goals and smaller incentives.

It can be something as small as not allowing yourself to watch a TV show tonight unless and until you finish the chapter (fear). Or keeping candy bars in your desk to enjoy each time you complete writing a scene (reward).

Maybe you're like me and just happen to have a Wonder Woman cape in your closet, and you reward yourself by putting it on after every finished scene.

The point is to think about your personal history of when you've finished tasks. What motivated you to finish? Was it a fear? Was it a reward? Was it a combination? What kind of fear or reward?

And then re-create that approach with your writing.

But since a lot of what I'm talking about here comes from Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, let me add another important point from the book: You won't finish unless there's a fun factor in there somewhere.

Yeah, we're all supposed to say that writing is the fun part. But while writing can certainly be fun (or we wouldn't do it), it can also be grueling.

I don't know why. Perhaps once it's the task you should be doing, it loses a little of its spit-shined gloss.

But I do know that wearing a Wonder Woman cape while writing makes it a little more fun. (Seriously, am I the only one?)

What's your fun factor? It could be connecting with other writers and getting to share your story with them. It could be writing a few random scenes that will never show up in your final book but are a blast to pen. It could be reading your current chapter aloud to yourself in a foreign accent. It could be getting a cover designed before you finish the book, so you can imagine what it will look like when you're done.

Be intentional in contemplating what incentives you can apply that will prod you toward completion and success.

As for me, I just finished this whole post, and I feel a reward coming on. Excuse me while I go locate my Wonder Woman cape.

What motivates you to finish? Fear? Reward? And what's your fun factor?

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Julie

Julie Glover writes cozy mysteries and young adult fiction. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®. When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.

Julie is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. You can visit her website here and also follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

26 comments on “What Motivates You to Finish?”

  1. Great post, Julie - I never really thought about it this way. But mine: glass-shattering fear. That's why I stay organized, and have a word count goal every day. And it worked great, until this book. Now I'm doing a massive revision, I'm having failure dreams, and I forgot to brush my teeth yesterday.

    Rewards are pissanty compared to FEAR.

    1. Yeah, it's true: For some, that fear really works. (Drill sergeants have known this for a long time!) But it shouldn't be paralyzing fear; that's where intentionally figuring out how to make the fear an effective motivator is important.

      Best wishes with the massive revision! And I'm still going to give you an attagirl when you're done. 🙂

    2. I'm fear motivated too. I never thought about it until this post, but I usually see a reward for work as monetary and writing doesn't give me that. At least not yet.

  2. I'm like you, Julie. I'm great at starting things and I have lots of ideas. Right now I am working concurrently (but not very intensively) on a TV pilot, two film scripts, a series of memoirish reflections that I intend to release as weekly audio posts on my blog, and then yesterday all the pieces for a new novel fell into place in my brain.

    I've finished three novels (four if you count the drawer novel) motivated solely by the idea of future reward--publication. But as publication looms, I feel fear creeping in--I have to keep writing, I don't want to get behind, I need to write things that will appeal to the audience I will be building, I have to stay ahead of my work because soon I'll have to be thinking about marketing and selling, etc. I think that's why my brain has felt a bit scattered for the past few months. The fear doesn't motivate me. It sucks the joy out of me and shackles me to the whims of others. It makes me anxious and ends up depressing me in the long run.

    My biggest motivator is reward (with a little friendly competition with myself on the side). The scripts are just for fun, to see if I can do it and do it well, a time filler when I wasn't sure what to write next. The reflections that will become audio on my website are super fun, and it's a different kind of writing. No narrative thread, just a pastiche of neuroses and observations. In both of those realms, I have no fear because it's not my main thing. I'm doing it for fun and for my own satisfaction, and for a potential reward in the future (who knows?). But now I have that new novel idea, I'll focus in on that and do the scripts on the side. My motivation swings back to reward and I feel far better.

    Laura can have her fear. I'll take my reward, thank you. 🙂

    1. I hear you on the joy being sucked out. Once all the expectations of others came in, I found that fear crept in as well. And sometimes it's overwhelming. We have to figure out how to silence the fear voices and intentionally set up incentives that work for us.

      And I love that you do some side stuff just for fun -- which are still in line with your primary goals. Well-done. You can go put on your Wonder Woman cape!

    2. Oh Erin, believe me, I'd love to give up the fear! Now, if I could just find that damned Manual of Life that I misplaced after Kindergarten...

      My fear is usually very manageable - but then came a broken leg, loss of hearing, and, I'm beginning to think, old age. My process has changed, I HOPE only for this book.

      There would be a reward, right there.

    1. Meanwhile, I've always related to author Douglas Adams saying, "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by." But I'm glad you know what lights a fire under you!

      And you're right: Making writing a habit is also a motivator. We get comfortable with routines, and it's the one thing all writers seem to agree on: You have to have some kind of writing routine to be able to finish books. Thanks, Debbie!

  3. So true, Julie--we all respond to one or the other at various times. I find the "fun" factor is the best way to get myself back into a story I'm struggling with. When it gets really tough, it's only when I can get past the fear and the hope for rewards and the "shoulds" and achieve the mindset of "play" that I finally get going again. Sometimes it's difficult to find that place in the brain because this business requires so much from us that we get into the "accomplishment" mindset—and because struggling on a story is scary ("can I still do this?")—but once I do get there (hey, let's try yet another approach to telling this story...it will be fun!) it always works! Thanks for a good post. :O)

  4. A much bigger influence on the ability to stay the course than fear or reward is enablement. Human neurology is such that activity is accomplished by the inhibition of opposing muscularity. Unfortunately, when one has so much they are mentally trying to prevent the inhibitory effort can cause cross-talk in the nervous system and put a general state of inhibition on everything, to some degree. We see this sort of effect in the case of Parkinsons patients that want to move forward but their muscles just wont do it. External placement of "targets", such as someone putting their foot in front of the patient's with the directive to Move your foot to mine, often enables the internal neurology to allow this movement. In the more mental case of conscious progress on a project a similar positive redirection can happen just by doing something of little or no consequence and completing it. The successful completion loosens the generally inhibited nature and one can then move on past a "stuck" point.

    1. Very interesting! But isn't there a built-in reward system with that approach you described? Once you meet a small established goal, getting past the stuck point, you see that progress (feeling that reward) and things loosen up to take the next step.

  5. I'm motivated by the success of my goal-shattering, word-warrior friends. When they beam and shine, I'm inspired to join their ranks time and time again. That's because we're so lucky...as writers...to have endless opportunities to key in "The End" on one book and move to the next. That set of voices in our heads have been brought to life and there are new voices lined up for their stories to be told! Fear? Not so much. Celebrating success? Absolutely!

  6. Ha, Julie! You're looking at someone who, when her friend said, "I'm throwing a congratulations party for publishing your first book," I asked, "Why?" Like, Laura, I'm fear motivated--and fear averse. Yep, a little bit crazy.

    1. A deadline is a bit like Samuel Johnson's reference to the noose: "When a man knows he is to be hanged...it concentrates his mind wonderfully." When you FEEL like you're going to be metaphorically hanged if you don't get 'er done, it can certainly make you concentrate and finish! Thanks, Bryan.

  7. I don't know - I don't think I'm either one. Maybe that's the problem. I need to pick one and see what happens. I like the reward option. I'm not prone to being fearful so that's sort of an interesting concept to me. Although I don't like to disappoint so perhaps I am fearful but I don't recognize it as for what it is. It's all so confusing. Maybe I'm just lazy when it comes to certain things. Yeah, let's go with that. Everything else is always more important than finishing my damn book. Now THAT is a true statement. And THAT has to change.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    1. Maybe you need a different KIND of reward or fear. Maybe the "usuals" don't do it for you. One time, I actually made a deadline because I promised myself that once I did, I would go ride a roller coaster I'd been wanting to visit. It was an unusual reward system for writing, but it worked for me! (And my 70-something mother came with me—my very willing partner in the amusement park adventure.)

  8. Perfectly-timed topic for me, so thanks, Julie. Knowing it's not just me who has a problem finishing is a huge relief. I'm not sure whether fear or reward motivate me, so I'm anxious to experiment tomorrow and figure it out. Oh wait, I think I just answered the question. Trying different incentives to write will result in the reward of knowing which one works. Reward it is. And making it fun again is a great idea! I'm going to make this writing stuff fun, even if it kills me! ?

    1. I'm right there with you: "I'm going to make this writing stuff fun, even if it kills me!" Lol.

      I do know you've had some lovely rewards with contest wins lately, and that's often another good thing that spurs writers on. Especially if you get a full manuscript request, and then you find yourself saying, "Wait, the whole manuscript? Um, I should write the rest of the book, I guess."

      Would love to hear how your incentive experiments go!

  9. Applause, Julie, for addressing two basic needs: the Wonder Woman cape and the interrobang. Fear drives, for sure. Works for writing just as it works for exercise.

    1. I love that you called my Wonder Woman cape a "need"! Lol. And yes, the interrobang is a much-needed punctuation mark. I'm just waiting for its long-overdue and rightful recognition. 😉 Thanks for reading, Jeanne!

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts





Copyright © 2024 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved