Shiny Thing Syndrome: A Writer’s Malady

10 minute read
Author: Jo
Image of text on an orange background: Shiny Thing Syndrome: the inability to finish a writing project because another idea seems so much more appealing right now.

We’re here today to talk about a serious condition that afflicts hundreds of thousands of writers across the world.

It’s called Shiny Thing Syndrome (STS).

Shiny Thing Syndrome can strike at any time, but is a common symptom of writers who are mid-way through a work-in-progress and who will do almost anything to avoid putting in the work and finishing their project.

Let’s say you have this novel idea, right? It’s a great idea. You’re really excited about it. You want to write it. You’ve made a start, or at least started thinking about starting it. Maybe you’ve written a whole first draft and are at the editing stage. And then – a sudden and inexplicable attack of STS.

You get the tantalising spark of an idea for a new story, just begging to be written. It’s so shiny. Fresh as virgin snow. It’s calling to you like a siren, luring you away from your existing project with its fancy peacock feathers and new book smell. Surely it won’t do any harm to put your WIP on hold for a little while and explore this tantalising new idea…? You can go back to the old one any time, any time you like…

So you start the fresh idea and it’s like the first few weeks of a new relationship: shagging like bunnies, going on romantic dates, discovering one another’s hidden secrets and dreaming of the rest of your life together.

But then… Oh, look, another shiny thing!

Gif of a cartoon mermaid sitting on a rock beside a crab-like creature, saying "I love shiny things!"

Another story, battling for attention. Gosh, new beginnings are the best part of writing, aren’t they? So much potential! Freedom! Inspiration splurging all over the shop! Why can’t writing always be like this?

Aaaand as soon as you hit the hard-work-and-drudgery stage, STS rears its ugly head once more.

And on and on until the end of recorded time and we all die having written nothing but twelve thousand story beginnings.

Here’s something interesting: I’ve had the premise for this blog sitting on my to-do list since last year. STS is something I’ve always struggled with but somehow managed to reframe as a positive thing: “I’m just so prolific, I’m bursting with ideas, my creativity knows no bounds!” When really I’m just a procrastinating twat who never gets to the end of anything.

Our whole ‘Beginnings’ blog series was, in fact, tailored around the concept of Shiny Thing Syndrome. It was the very first thing on my list of blog subjects. But instead of starting with this, I wrote two others, sub-edited four more, re-categorised the blog landing page, updated the submissions listings blog at least six times (ooh, shiny things!), planned out blog content for next month, wrote 8,000 words of fan fiction (instead of my novel), listened to the sound of cricket song in slow motion (and then fell down an internet black hole to discover if it was a hoax (it probably was), dug through my Tumblr archive to find a stupid picture of a pissed off woman holding a sword to make my business partner laugh, considered my life choices, and still failed to begin writing this blog.

Image of a painting of a grumpy looking queen holding a sword.
Ughhh. I *could* go slay this dragon but I just had a really cool new idea…

Now, most of the things on that list can be put down to plain old procrastination (do as I say, not as I do) but Shiny Thing Syndrome plays a significant part of my delay tactics, too – the grass is always greener… The next task or project or idea is always more appealing than the one at hand. I’d planned out this blog in my head about twenty times already so in a weird way the physical act of actually writing it down felt like going backwards. Writing it down would be making it tangible. And it would always be much funnier, much more succinct, much safer to leave it simmering in my brainpan where no one else can see it.

Because what if I make it real and it’s shit? What if, when I finally write the thing, and finish the thing, it’s not as good as I imagined?

Image of Van Gogh's Starry Night painting with the title: story idea in your head, and an image of a poorly drawn copy in mspaint titled: story idea when you tell someone

This is how STS tricks you into putting things aside. The NEW idea feels sooooo much more appealing because it doesn’t exist yet, and therefore cannot be criticised. It’s not yet subject to the harsh inner critic that lurks in our heads, waiting to judge and condemn and cut our aspirations to ribbons.

And here’s where it gets meta. Shiny Thing Syndrome is often applied to a single project, so even though you think you’re being productive by focusing on the same WIP forever and ever, you’re still not getting anywhere. For example: I’ve re-written the opening chapter of my current novel, oh, only about sixteen-gajillion times. Most of the rewrites have been minor. A bit of structural shuffling. Some added backstory and foreboding. Tightening up the pacing. Fiddling, basically. Pointless faffing. All the stuff that shouldn’t really be done until the first draft is out and editing can begin. And yet, I’ve spent more time on my first chapter than the rest of the draft combined.

Why? Whyyyyy do I do this to myself? Because STS says: “If you start it again, it’ll be better. If you start over you’ll get excited about it again. If you focus on the beginning you’ll distract yourself from the great big enormous task ahead of you – i.e. finishing the fucking thing.”

STS, you absolute bastard.

I know all this to be true. And I still fall into the same old trap every time. So I’m gonna take that first step. I’m just a girl, standing in front of the internet, saying: “My name is Jo, and I suffer from Shiny Thing Syndrome.”

Let’s put an end to this horrific, debilitating disease: SAY “NO” TO STS

Gif of Doc from Back to the Future pointing a finger at Marty sternly and saying "just say no!"


Sooo I got to this point in writing the blog and then ran away because OH LOOK, I’M TERRIFIED OF FINISHING THINGS and had a long and existential moan about it all on WhatsApp with some WHQers (who thankfully told me to stop fucking about) but now I’m BACK and have compiled a list of ways to kick STS right up the arse and out of your life.

So, before I bail completely on this thing, here we go:

  • When a Shiny Thing arises, give it attention – but only for as long as it takes to write down a few notes and general thoughts – then put it away, safe in the knowledge that it’s no longer fluttering around in your head, trying to distract you. Then get back to your WIP.
  • Get excited about your WIP again. Maybe you need to go back to the plotting stage, or try a new approach, or re-read from the start. Remember why you started it, and how you felt when this project was the brand new Shiny Thing. Harness that feeling and nurture your poor, neglected WIP.
  • If you’re daunted by the enormity of finishing a particular project, separate it into lots of little tasks, eg: research, characterisation, outlining, editing, that super-exciting fight scene, a navel-gazing monologue, etc, etc. That way, you’ll always have something to suit your writing mood, and your project will always feel Shiny.
  • Don’t diversify – a story requires everything you’ve got to offer. Put all your ideas into it (even the shiny new ones) rather than splintering off into different factions.
  • Conversely, DO diversify – pick a manageable spread of projects, maybe 2-3 at the most (eg: a novel, a short story, and an idea for the future) and alternate between them as your STS requires. Feed the beast but limit its effects.
  • Be strict with yourself. Make note of how often you go off course and see if you can reduce the amount of shiny incidents each day/week/month.
  • Use deadlines as an antidote and give yourself a solid reason for finishing. Aim to complete your WIP for a spoken word event or short story competition or submission window and put your STS on hold until it’s done.
  • Set tangible tasks. Don’t just say: “I’m going to write today (probably).” Know WHAT you’re writing and HOW MUCH you want to write and WHY you’re writing it. Eg: “I’m going to write that scene about the anthropomorphic teapot today and it’s going to be at least 1,500 words long and it’s really important to my plot because it’s an extended metaphor about my protagonist’s fear of failure due to an unfortunate afternoon tea incident when she was a child.”
  • Trick yourself into making an old thing SHINY. Try a different POV, switch tenses, try writing the ending first, or jumping to a random scene that you’re looking forward to writing.
  • Get feedback. A common cause of STS is the fear of judgement; the thought of other people reading your work and going, “Yeah, this is shit, you shouldn’t even bother.” Well fuck that. Get yourself a beta reader or a friendly writer buddy, get some fresh perspective on your story, and a renewed sense of “I CAN DO THIS!”
  • Stop looking for a magical solution. A somewhat terrifying psychological reason behind STS is that we’re all just chocked full of self-doubt and don’t really know what we’re trying to write about – hence hopping from project to project, trying on ALL the hats to see which one fits, forever saying, “Meh, this one’s not good enough.” But maybe we just have to make the hat fit. It’s a good hat. That’s why you chose it in the first place. Trust the judgement of your past self and rock the hat you’re wearing.
  • Be honest with yourself. Cos, y’know, sometimes STS occurs for a reason. Maybe this particular project HAS run its course. Maybe you’ve grown beyond it. Maybe you’ve just lost interest. If that’s really the case, then it’s okay to be tempted away by the latest Shiny Thing, so long as you commit to it and don’t go flouncing off when the next one comes along…

Mostly though, it’s a case of JUST DOING THE THING. Because when you focus, and immerse yourself in THE THING YOU’RE MEANT TO BE DOING you often find that the momentum comes rolling back. Like this blog, for example, which was meant to be a light-hearted 600-word piss-take of a common procrastinatory habit and mutated into a 1,500-word tirade that made me question my own writing psychology and required six cups of tea and a little lie down to complete.

And so, dear reader, we’ve (finally) reached the end. If I can do this, you can do it. We can beat this thing. Say “no” to STS, stop fucking about, and start writing.

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