Why the Middles of Projects are Tough (Part 2): Plus, How to Have Fun Revising!

Middles are Tough.

Last time I wrote about how the middles of writing and other projects can be difficult, citing Dante’s Inferno, which begins “midway upon the journey of our life,” and John Bunyan’s classic The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the protagonist, Christian, literally bogs down midway, in the infamous “Slough of Despond.”

Middles are where your enthusiasm ebbs often at the exact moment when the project itself seems most chaotic, disorganized, and daunting. They’re a double whammy, in other words.
But that’s not all…

Middles are massive.

Remember to always revise by "running" joyfully through your projects. Tough, boggy parts merit a quick inspection and a bit of poking, but then run on, knowing you'll return to them later.

Remember to always revise by “running” joyfully through your projects. Tough, boggy parts merit a quick inspection and a bit of poking, but then run on, knowing you’ll return to them later.

Anne Lamott famously said, in Bird by Bird, that every piece of writing begins with a “shitty first draft,” but it’s probably more like ten, twenty, or thirty shitty drafts. Make sure you understand what a “draft” is, though:

*It’s a single, quick run-through of your piece (or chapter or other section), during which you correct its obvious and easy problems, and partially correct its hard ones.

*You move quickly and lightly through the piece, making incremental improvements and resisting the temptation to drill down or bog down on any one problem.

Then, when you get to the end, you repeat the process over and over again; always moving fast and keeping a light touch. Through these repetitions, you gradually gain insight into your piece’s true meaning and form, and solve nearly all its problems, including the tough ones. (Always ask a colleague or mentor for help with the hard ones—don’t get stuck.)
Many drafts = a “massive middle.” But don’t despair! You actually want a massive middle because…

Quality Happens “Automagically” in the Middle

Continue the above process and, at some point, the piece will “magically” (that’s really how it feels!) attain “non-shittiness,” meaning it will have become well-organized and coherent. At that point, the writing process becomes mostly easy and fun copy-editing and other polishing.

So, let’s assume that the first 15% of most pieces is the inspired part, and the last 15% is easy copy-editing. That leaves a giant middle of 70% where you’re thrashing around in the thickets.

Only, be sure not to thrash! Maintaining a light, fast touch is the best way to ensure that you not only get the piece or project done, but have fun doing it.

Comments

  1. Hillary,

    I’ve done a lot of reading on perfectionism and procrastination—the two seem to go together—and your take on it in this article is unique and much appreciated.

    The light, fast touch on the middle 70 percent is a great idea. I tend to beat myself up for a lack of stick-to-it-ivness and force myself to stay seated and work away on a single shortcoming until it’s resolved or I admit to temporary defeat.

    I also like your idea of working away calmly until the resolution reveals itself.

    In retrospect, I did some of this while working on my book but with more self-loathing.

    Thanks!

    -d

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