Writing The hard work of finishing

The Half-Life of Joy

I am bad at finishing.

Many of my pieces I write start out like the morning when I began this article: an early morning caffeination session where I’m bouncing aimlessly around the Internet when I discover a thought. An exciting thought appears out of nowhere and not only is it intriguing, but I can instantly see how that thought could be expanded and built into an article.

The majority of the time I find whatever pen or keyboard is nearby and pound out 100+ words as quickly as I can. The majority of the time I will never finish the piece. The Rands slush pile is deep with half-started ideas, and while a slush pile is a point of pride for me, I’m certain there are great half-written pieces that I will never finish.

The thought that started this piece was this image of a graph that helped explained the reasons I am bad at finishing, and it looks like this:

joy-graph

The horizontal axis is elapsed time; the vertical is joy. Elapsed time is the current amount of time spent on the the piece. Joy is how much I love the work at this particular point in time. There are four distinct states within this graph:

Peak Joy. Ohmigosh. Ohmigosh. Ohmigosh. Such a good idea. Must write it down somewhere quickly because this idea is precious, it’s unique, and if I don’t write it down quickly, it will vanish from the universe forever. This is a steep and satisfying part of the graph, but it quickly bends into our next phase.

Building Depth, Giving Shape. The reality is after capturing the original joyful thought that I only have 10 to 20% of the piece. I usually have a bit of the middle, but no beginning or end. Sometimes the thought is the title, often not. The second most important phase of writing this piece is when I’m building a form for the thought – I’m giving it shape. While the joy per second is decreasing over time, I still have a head full of residual energy from the first phase. The words are still pouring out of my fingers, and it’s in this phase that I discover whether or not the original thought has depth.

This phase is also the one where most pieces die. It has to do with the slope of the curve. I always start building depth full of vim and vigor, but after I’ve written a couple of hundred words, how am I feeling? How much of that original energy still exists in my head? Is the original idea still producing additional smaller supporting exciting ideas? Do I feel I have more to say? How close to done do I feel?

My sense of the current half-life of joy regarding this new piece determines whether or not I’m incentivized to finish. What I’ve learned in the past decade of writing is that even with 1000+ words written, I’m not even 50% done, and if the joy isn’t there, I won’t finish. I’ll explain.

The Slog. The good news about entering the Slog is that I’ve entered this phase. The Slog is the part of writing where I believe I am filling in the unimportant parts. The bones – the depth – of the piece are written, and I’m filling in the gaps with obvious connective tissue, so the piece makes sense. Boring.

The Slog is an essential part of finishing a piece, and while the joy per second is lower, the work here can result in new original work within the piece. For example, while I had a good idea about what to call each phase of the graph before I started writing, I didn’t find the final title until I was slogging through the words.1

The slope of the curve doesn’t change much during the Slog. If I’ve started the Slog, it means that I’ve decided there is enough potential in the piece that I’m willing to slog through the middle and perhaps begin the laborious process of finishing.

The Endless Finish. The reasons I am bad at finishing have evolved. When I started regularly blogging, I was bad at finishing because I simply didn’t do it. The third edition of Managing Humans was just published, and I am still rewriting and finishing chapters in that book that I firmly believed were done years ago.

Getting through the Slog is work, and Old Rands used to believe the reward for getting through that phase was hitting the publish button. This practice resulted in poorly written half-thoughts littered with grammar and spelling errors. Thanks to the hard work of a great many individuals who have helped edit pieces I’ve discovered the last 10% of the work is the difference between a good and a great piece.

This leads to the current reason I’m bad at finishing. Take a look at that graph again.

joy-graph

While you should be suspect of this graph because it is solely drawn to support this article, what I’ve learned in the past decade of writing is, “When you think you’re done writing a piece, you’re only 50% done.” It’s that math that I’m weighing as I finish adding depth. Do I see enough value in a piece that I’m willing to double the amount of time I’ve already spent on a piece to finish it?

On Finishing

Whether it’s writing an article or building a feature in software, the work of finishing is both the most important and the least interesting. My early reluctance to engage with an editor is the same gripe engineers have with building unit test, fixing bugs, and documenting their code. We told ourselves the same story, It works… it’s good enough, but what we were really saying was, the interesting work is done.

If you’re shooting for good enough, not finishing is a great strategy. If you’re shooting for great, then you need to finish. You need to find an editor or a code reviewer who will take the time to rigorously critique your work. You need to listen carefully to that critique and not react with emotion, but understanding. It’s that understanding that will give you a better picture of your strengths and weaknesses so that next time around you’re aware of where you are likely to make mistakes or become lazy. Repeated useful critiques are how you become better at your craft.

The time spent finishing feels intolerable because it’s the hardest work. Joy can sustain you through the hard work of finishing, but here’s the secret: there’s a whole other source of satisfaction that arrives when the results of your hard work are appreciated by your audience…

Therein lies the real joy.


  1. Fun fact: this piece was originally called “The Creative Curve.”