The Fleeting Transience of the Writing Flame and How to Keep it Lit

How can we return to half-finished writing more efficiently and effectively? Here's 3 things to try.

The Fleeting Transience of the Writing Flame and How to Keep it Lit
Coming back to writing can be a challenge.

I better write this quick before the flame is extinguished.

If you are anything like me you’ll have so many half-finished pieces of writing, it’ll be enough to fill a small library of books. Although I do have a small amount of strategy when it comes to what I write, a lot of it is what inspires me at the very moment in time my fingers hit the keyboard.

Having lots of moments of ‘finger-fire’ is partly what ensures I feel the joy in writing. As a thing I do on the side, this sense of joy is essential. Yes, there is some amount of pushing through the pain — for example I publish a lengthy newsletter every Monday — but on the whole I have to keep the flame burning on low consistently.

If I suddenly get the urge to talk about workflows or how we don’t think about soil enough, or the mechanics about doing a PhD or a 6am-inspired creative piece, my mind isn’t settled until I write about it. Irrespective of subject matter, what each of these have in common is they are a spur of the moment urge to write about something in particular on my mind.

But then comes the trouble. I don’t finish most of this writing because spur of the moment writing requires me to have a certain mindset to write it.

As I very often have to abruptly end my writing session — oh good morning small person, you’re up early🤦‍♀️ — the inspirational spark extinguishes in an instant. There’s no slow down, rounding off or turning down the gas. Nope. It’s a ‘poof’ and it’s gone.

With that spark gone, by the time I can return to the piece at least 23 hours later, the writing is no longer easy and flowing, but like wading through treacle. So I start again and again and again as fast as those moments of inspiration strike. And before I know it I have enough half-finished pieces to fill a library…

It is in this current moment of finger-fire, I wonder what I can do about the predicament. I need options which don’t involve barricading a door. Because there isn’t one. And it would also involve barricading the bathroom which is not the best thing to do in the morning. 

This article I’m currently writing is a great example of a piece which could end up half-finished, so I’m going to try an experiment. What can I try?

Note down the inspiration I felt and the resulting thought processes I had before I start writing

If I could bottle inspirational moments up and spell out what inspired me to write a particular piece wouldn’t that be wonderful? I think it’s very hard to put into words the what, why, where, why and how of inspiration, though I do love a challenge. 

Lets document the idea spark and thought process for this article. Maybe when I come back to it, I can trigger the same thought processes and inspirational moment again.

“I was inspired to write this piece because:
I’m moving my writing from Obsidian to OneNote and it shocked me how many half-finished articles I have…
I wondered why…is there a relationship between these pieces?
I am also writing a piece about the joy of writing. I’m really enjoying this. I’m adding to it every day and I can’t wait to publish it. 
Joy is essential in writing. When I feel the joy as I write, I suspect my readers will too.
I realised I hadn’t written a creative, off-the-cuff, piece of writing in a long time.
I realised such pieces required moments of inspiration and required a sense of urgency to say what I needed to say before I forgot/changed my mind/got distracted/got interrupted …
Therefore I sat down and started to write about one of the reasons I think I have so many half-finished pieces; the spark felt in a moment of joy for more creative work can be easily lost. Is there a way I can relight it again?”

That felt surprisingly good and efficient to write. I didn’t need to think about any of it. It’s just how things happened. So now, I’ve documented my thought pattern but it doesn’t tell me where I’m headed with my current line of thinking. It doesn’t tell me the approximate path I wanted to take the writing.

Identify the lighthouses I need to guide me for when I return

Seasoned writers will tell me I need a writing outline before I start. For many more structured, less creative pieces I write, I create one. But sometimes I just like to write without structural constraints. I like the open road of discovery and adventure. Yet this comes with a certain amount of risk.

I realise it’s still good to have a end game because something will run out in the end; fuel, money, energy, enthusiasm … but I reckon I can still work this in with plenty of wiggle room.

So lets put some lighthouses into place to guide this work for when I return to it. Lighthouses come about as inspiration from this conversation between Ryder Carrol (creator of the Bullet Journal method) and Nick Milo (of Linking Your Thinking). I’m basically going to set some bumper bars to guide me through the story I want to write, without defining specifically what I want to write. Lighthouses provide the inspiration to guide me rather than the structure into which the writing must fit.

“Here’s the lighthouses I need to keep lit and in view as I navigate this article:
Why do I have so many half-finished articles?
How I can finish half-finished writing pieces easier?
Lay the groundwork to see if my ideas work for this article because I know I will have to return to it/won’t finish it in one sitting.
What about my unfinished articles?
Test it out.”

Finish off a session with a description of the final chain of thought rather than an unfinished sentence

I find it very easy to become buried within my writing. At this point just coming up for a breath of fresh air — a loo break, some refuelling — are enough to put me off track.

Cogs and wheels with a man contemplating them
What am I writing about? What is the prompt? What is the chain of thought?

I’ve tried leaving half sentences before, but they just don’t seem to work for me. I genuinely don’t know what I was about to say. So instead this time I’m going to leave a prompt for future me to latch onto and ease back into what I was thinking. Funnily enough I was writing this prompt when someone decided to emerge from her duvet den so I had to write this one as a quick note.

“Here’s my interrupted chain of thought for this article:
I am writing about how I need to leave something unfinished enough that I can pick up the chain of thought, but finished enough I can understand what it was I was about to say.”

At this point I left the article, flame extinguished, chains of thought interrupted and with much less enthusiasm to continue than I started with.

“Mummy I want my breakfast.”

Did anything above actually work?

For this article, yes, it absolutely did.

We’re now 26 hours later. I’ve read through everything I have written above. I feel happy I am able to continue writing and editing this article until its end and if you are reading this, it made it. But in the scheme of things, this is a relatively small amount of time between sittings. And only a small amount of additional writing was required to finish the work. 

It’s a set of techniques I’m going to use going forwards, not only in my scientific and my creative writing, but also in my reading. I’ve already started adding thought patterns, questions and prompts into my notes in both OneNote and Obsidian; open questions in the former and answered ones in the latter. 

Tame Your Note-Taking System In Obsidian by Building It Around Questions
Questions help build focus, purpose and direction of ideas in your multi-faceted, ever-expanding sea of notes.

And some of the inspiration for this article came from how useful I found this process as I accumulate information across new sources. It helps me understand why I read something, what I was hoping to find from it — was I disappointed? — and where it might take me next.

The real test will be heading back to those half-finished articles; can I now go back and retrospectively apply the above framework?:

  • Note down the inspiration
  • Map the lighthouses
  • Leave it with a prompt to re-initiate chain of thought

Lets find out. For every old piece of writing I finish using this method from March 2024 onwards, I’m going to link it down below. Bear in mind some of these pieces are getting on for 18 months old! If the list is long, it worked, if not, it didn’t. But I will be applying the framework to all new work I do.

I’d love to know if it works for you.

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