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Writing Overwhelm? How to Write Your Way Out of “The Messy Middle”

Are you experiencing writing overwhelm?

There’s a place in the writing process that my friend and colleague, Stuart Horwitz refers to as “the messy middle,” where you may feel overwhelmed and stuck.

For me, that messy middle period can drag out to months or years. It can stop a project in its tracks. The overwhelming messy middle, the bane of my existence as a writer.

Writing On the Other Side of Overwhelm

Goodbye overwhelm. Hello ease!

Today, though, I’m on the other side, returning to all the holes in my manuscript and filling them in with the perfect random tidbit I’d filed away at the end of the manuscript. Or new inspiration bursts forth to tie everything in the chapter together.

An exercise I thought might fit in Chapter 12 wanders into Chapter 14 and a more perfect fit takes its place in the current chapter.

What once felt overwhelming and truly almost stopped me from completing my book has faded to a distant memory.

But wait, how did I get here? What can I share with you (and my future self) if we find ourselves in the messy middle (again)?

Writing Your Way Out of Overwhelm

Feels so good!

So, how do you do it? Get from writing overwhelm to inspired flow? Here are a few tips from your writing coach:

  1. Consistency: You won’t always feel like writing but if you write consistently 5-7 mornings a week, as creativity coach Eric Maisel suggests, (or even some other number but you are consistent) you’ll experience some flow days.
  2. Faith and Trust: Some days you will likely feel frustrated and uninspired. You may look at your writing and question whether you should even attempt writing a book. At least, I’ve felt that way (and not in the distant past, just the other day). Your faith can carry you through bad writing days, trusting that inspiration is on its way. It’s okay to write things that never make it into your book. It’s still practice.
  3. Focus on One Thing: If you focus on the whole of the book and all the many things you need to do, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Focus on one specific thing–writing up an anecdote that brings certain material to life for instance. Or telling a story about the most recent medical research relevant to that chapter’s topic. Stay focused.
  4. File Stuff Away: My current manuscript has over twenty pages of “I don’t know where this goes or if it even belongs in the book” writing. I’ve been filing it at the end of the manuscript and looking it over when I need another story or anecdote for a chapter, seeing if it fits. For me it works great and most of the previously called “random material” at the back now has found a home. I like having this material in the manuscript so it’s easy to find but you can also place it in a separate file.
  5. Hire an Editor or Writing Coach or Find a Trusted Beta Reader from Your Target Market: If you have a fair amount written and you feel stuck because you’re not sure it’s working, it may be time to hand your writing over to a beta reader, writing coach or editor for feedback. Some people wait until they have a full first draft but it’s up to you; you can do it much sooner if needed.

Organizing Through the Messy Middle

Make notes about the stories and lessons in each chapter. Have a printed copy of your outline with chapter notes by your side as you work through revisions.

When you come to a confusing or messy section, ask yourself if there’s a more fitting place in the manuscript for the messy material. Also, does some of the material in other chapters fit better here than what you currently have in the messy spot?

I prefer working with hard copies but it’s also easy to have two documents on your screen (manuscript and outline) if you prefer to work digitally.

When I arrived at the messy middle phase, it felt like a slog. However, by the second round of editing, at some point I could feel the momentum of the project carry me. The energy felt different, a sense of the different parts falling into place.

In fact, although I thought I was mostly done writing new material, several times I experienced something unusual that found its way into the book and strengthened the chapter it went into.

It felt like my life unfolded in order to give me a great story for a chapter I’d been working on–an invitation to a gong bath materialized overnight; my friends summoned me to meditate at their magical farmhouse at four in the morning, a quirky dream woke me up in the middle of the night and begged to be recorded.

Your Turn

Where are you in the process of writing a book? What challenges are coming up? How are you working through them? Any insights to share? Share your comments and questions!

 

 

Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

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