Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Adding Steps

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 21, 2015

This post goes out with thanks to my friend Derick, who taught me a type of Resistance I had never thought of (or at least had never given a name to.)

Usain Bolt. Resistance is always strongest at the finish line.

Usain Bolt. Resistance is always strongest at the finish line.

Derick had been working for months on two big projects of his own. He was getting really close to the finish of both, when all of a sudden job offers started coming in. He was offered a teaching post. A movie wanted him to come on board. Two other plum positions opened up, begging him to join.

Guess what happened to his two big projects.

A month later Derick and I were talking. “I let ‘em both drop,” he said, cursing himself. “Then I realized what I was doing. I was adding steps between almost-finished and actually-finished.”

I thought, “Wow, that’s a new one. Adding steps. I love it.”

Isn’t it strange, too, how the universe steps in to screw us up? The rule of thumb for the finish of projects is, “Resistance is always strongest at the finish line.” Somehow that diabolical force can even produce job offers and “opportunities” at just the right time to knock us off course.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this type of thing happened to me too. Or I should say, “I let it happen.” I accepted a research position once that I had no interest in. I’ve signed up for movies that had nothing to do with my vision for myself. Right at the finish of Something Big of my own. Arrrgggh.

My first literary agent, many years ago, was a gentleman named Bart Fles. Bart was over ninety when he started representing me and very wise in the ways of the lit biz. He used to ask me, as I approached the end of a manuscript, “How close are you to finishing?”

“Close, Bart. I’m really close.”

“Close is good enough,” Bart would say. “Give it to me now.”

I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now I see how wise Bart was. He knew from decades of representing crazy writers (and what writer is not crazy?) that, as they neared the finish line, they’d inevitably begin tweaking and retweaking, doodling and noodling, and, in Derick Tsai’s phrase, adding steps.

Delivering late could be fatal. That perfect editor that Bart had been priming for months … she might move to another job, acquire a book similar to ours, get married and take off on her honeymoon. Anything could happen. We could torpedo the whole submission.

How much better, Bart knew, to get a manuscript in to an editor (even if it wasn’t 100% perfect) on October 20, when the publishing business was still functioning, than on December 10th, when everyone in the business had mentally checked out for the Holidays.

To be clear, I’m not lobbying for turning in sloppy work. When we ship, we better ship a product that works. But there’s a big difference between pro-level and super-duper-perfect.

Perfect can wait.

Added steps can wait.

Take a lesson from Derick and don’t let Resistance trick you.

When you’re close, push hard and get it done.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

10 Responses to “Adding Steps”

  1. October 21, 2015 at 5:43 am

    “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”, GEN George S. Patton.

    Sadly, Patton would likely have been fired as a CPT in today’s Army.

    Which just made me think of an interesting discussion I had with a buddy a few weeks ago. He’s a USNA 2002 graduate. He became a Marine Infantry Officer. In his words (which I totally respect and laughed my ass off to), “In my mind, and most of my buddies, there were two types of Officers: Marine Infantry Officers, and everyone else.”)

    I asked him how many of his classmates were still in…not a single USNA graduate that opted for the Marine Corps. This is rumint, not researched fact-but the truth must be pretty close. That is a scary statistic about the state and future state of our military.

    Love the post. Reminds me of advice from both soccer and basketball coaches, “Follow the shot.” Point is I may miss, and there is always a chance for a rebound and another easier bucket.
    bsn

  2. Mary Doyle
    October 21, 2015 at 6:05 am

    Thanks for exposing yet another of Resistance’s diabolical tricks.

  3. October 21, 2015 at 7:45 am

    This hit me right where I’m living right now. I cranked through half a manuscript over the summer, and have been inching my way through the final five chapters since September. It’s amazing how visceral the “slowdown effect” becomes once you actually get closer to the finish line. Thanks for bringing my attention back to the central issue here: sit down, get it done, worry about the rest later.

  4. October 21, 2015 at 8:45 am

    “what writer isn’t crazy?” indeed

  5. Sonja
    October 21, 2015 at 11:43 am

    As usual, resistance! We could also say we add “extra steps” at the start of a new enterprise. That’s been a folly of mine too.

  6. October 22, 2015 at 12:27 am

    Hello, Steve.
    I couldn’t agree more. Same has happened with me twice in my life. I was about to be more creative and was about to finish my own work and one offer came to leave it and join them. :)
    Now I knew what it happened!
    Best regards,
    Waqar

  7. October 22, 2015 at 4:35 am

    Oh, this one gets printed out for my kick-in-the-pants notebook, Steve! Good one…

    Yesterday I was talking to a client who is a truck driver as well as a web designer (NOT while driving…) We both admitted having the red light/green light syndrome about some of our important decisions. Part stop, part go. At that point he said, “I think I’m having the flashing yellow light instead.” To me, adding steps is like getting stuck at the flashing yellow light.

    It’s easy to get side-swiped at a flashing yellow light.

  8. Stacy
    October 22, 2015 at 6:31 am

    Wow. Just… wow. I do this a lot–and not always near the end of a project, either. Sometimes I’ll do it right at a project’s inception. I’ve never thought about this being a type of Resistance, but it makes perfect sense now. Thank you, Steven!!

  9. Nathan
    October 24, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    In the world of management, “adding steps” goes by a number of related names: mission creep (especially in military and peacekeeping operations), scope creep or requirements creep (in project management), and feature creep or function creep (in software engineering).

    Writing coach Hillary Rettig applied the phrase to writing in her blog post “Scope creep will poison your projects” where she wrote:

    “‘Scope creep is poisonous’, a client of mine recently said after finally finishing an academic paper he had been procrastinating on for more than three years. He had a full spaghetti snarl of reasons for not getting it done… but after he worked through them and started to write he encountered one more obstacle: a frequent temptation to add new bits and pieces. This is called scope creep, a huge problem for many programmers, engineers, and others. Sometimes, as in the case of my client, we do it to ourselves, while other times others do it to us. (Bosses or customers often tack on extra bits to projects, all the while expecting you to finish it on the same deadline and using no extra resources.) Thankfully my client was able to recognize and resist the temptation to expand his paper’s scope. That’s not always easy, particularly when ‘the creep’ is whispering at you, ‘C’mon! It will only take a few minutes to add that, and without it the work will be incomplete!’ But just as you should never listen to the harsh voice of perfectionism, you should also never listen the seductive voice of scope creep. One reason is that its ‘it will only take a few minutes’ message is not just antiproductive, it’s almost certainly a lie: everything takes longer than we think it will…. Instead of succumbing to scope creep, use your interesting tangential or digressive ideas as seeds for other projects. (You did say you wanted to be prolific?) My client also cleverly summarized his extra ideas in a speculative ‘Recommendations for Future Work’ section that didn’t require much analysis, detail, or discussion. Used in that way, the new ideas bolstered his original paper’s thesis instead of detracting from it…. I think scope creep is a huge cause of procrastination, partly because perfectionists reflexively set too-high goals and partly because they distrust success when they think it has come too easily. Both tendencies would naturally lead to scope creep….”

  10. GA
    October 28, 2015 at 6:14 am

    I loved this post, Steve. I “shipped” last week, and let me tell you, it was pretty damn hard. It feels great now, but it felt terrible at the time. No high fives and celebrations for me. I didn’t even realize how much resistance there was until the very last days of the final push. I think that writers often need external pressure or an outside incentive that will enable us to push through this resistance and avoid adding steps, especially for big projects that have been with us for a long time.