How to Start AND Finish a Project

by Naomi Kinsman

“The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” 
― Mark Twain

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” 
― Benjamin Franklin

I often find myself frozen at the intersection between these two truths. Should I make a plan? Should I simply start? I know I’m not the only one. In fact, this conundrum is so common, we categorize ourselves into camps. “I’m a pantser!” “I’m a plotter!”

If only it were as easy as one approach or the other being the right way. Unfortunately, no. But, I don’t think throwing up our hands and giving in to the chaos of our process (whether the chaos comes from over-planning or over-improvising) is the way to go either.

Who I am to say so? As an author and the founder of a nonprofit, with a visionary personality (you might even swap in the word “addiction”), I’m a serial starter. As an educator, mentor and consultant, I serve as a trail guide for many other starters. I’ve seen my fair share of beginnings, and along the way, observed many successes and stumbling blocks.

What I’ve come to believe is that the pantsers are more likely to start, and the plotters are more likely to finish. If you’d prefer to both start AND finish projects, being in one camp or the other creates problems.

Pantsers aren’t afraid of what they don’t know. In fact, they can’t wait for the surprise that’s around the next corner.  They can’t wait, that is, until the surprise that’s around the next corner turns out to be a dragon. With no idea how to get past the monster, the pantser leans on her strength and starts over. Maybe the next idea will be problem-free.

Plotters gather information and plan, plan, plan. They anticipate possible problems and create solutions. Committed plotters craft back-up plans for their back-up plans. Often by the time they finally feel ready to start, they’re exhausted. While they may push on despite their exhaustion, the process to the finish line (while well-planned) can feel as arduous as a long-term battle with a legion of dragons.

Is there a way to split the difference? Yes! I’ve seen it work, and while this approach stretches a starter in his or her area of lesser strength, in my opinion the benefits outweigh the challenges.

Here’s a road-map to try out:

1. Choose an idea.
2. Spend a few hours brainstorming, capturing thoughts, building a picture of what you know about your idea so far.
3. Look over your brainstorm and choose a starting place. Ask yourself, “What could I tackle today, in say, an hour or less?”
4. Imagine your starting place as the tiny loose end of a complex knot. Start untangling, and spend a week (or maybe two) following the loosening string in toward the heart of the knot.
5. Once you’re at least elbow-deep in the project, come up for air. Return to your brainstorm, and add notes. What do you know now? What do you wonder?
6. Use these informed notes to structure a loose plan. Imagine this plan as the framing of a house. You don’t need to choose the paint color right now, but you do need to define the size and shape of the rooms.
7. Once you’ve crafted a frame that you feel is relatively reliable, walk away for at least a day. Then, return, review, and revise.
8. Choose a “room” as a starting place, and return to the brainstorming process. That one room is now your knot to untangle.
9. From here, the process continues, alternating between pantsing and planning until you reach the finish line.

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, or a little of both, know that you’re not alone in facing dragons. Especially if you’re creating something beautiful, life-giving, and heart-changing, resistance is inevitable. Please don’t give up. Please wrestle your way through, no matter what it takes, because the world needs the beautiful things only you can bring to life. Here’s to a year filled with starts AND finishes.

Naomi Kinsman is an author, educator and creativity coach. She is the author of the FROM SADIE'S SKETCHBOOK series and recently collaborated with singer, Natalie Grant, on the GLIMMER GIRLS series. Naomi is also the founder and Executive Director of Society of Young Inklings, an organization that offers classes, mentorships and publishing opportunities for young authors ages 6-16.  Society of Young Inklings utilizes WRITERLY PLAY, the improv-based teaching methodology that Naomi developed, as the foundation for its programming.


  1. I'm in the midst of switching up my process right now. Before, I'd draft as quickly as possible--rip the Band-Aid off, even if it was a mess. Now, I'm revising as I go. (I never would have believed it, but revising as I go is WORKING.)

  2. Wow, Naomi - what a wonderfully expressed, concrete, do-able system you've provided for plotters and pantsers both. Love the opening quote from Mark Twain!


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