Stuck in the Middle with Your Writing

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series on writer’s block, the idea that something can prevent you from writing is pure fiction.

Only you can keep you from writing. But what if you’ve started something and get stuck? How do you move past the doldrums of the middle section and catch sight of home port?

Here are some of the problems we encounter when we get stuck in the middle and their solutions:

You’re editing while writing – This is a major concern for most of us, whether the work we do is creative, personal or professional. Several excellent authors discuss the editor’s role in creating distractions from and disaffection for our work.

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird says it’s like listening to a radio station with the call letters KFKD: “Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt…”

Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones notes that it’s imperative “to separate the creator and the editor or internal censor” and, if you have trouble doing so, let the editor take over for just a moment and sit there and take dictation: “Write what the editor is saying; give it full voice – ‘You are a jerk, who ever said you could write, I hate your work, you suck, I’m embarrassed, you have nothing valuable to say, and besides you can’t spell…’”

Goldberg’s advice is to get to know the editor by giving it voice, so you can spot the key words that are trapping you. Perhaps it’s the word “boring” or the bit about having nothing valuable to share. Figure out what’s slowing you down, face it, and over time the editor will pipe down until, “like the jabbering of an old drunk fool, it becomes just prattle in the background.”

On a practical level, many writers are the first (and sometimes only) editors of their work. It’s something we have to engage in to ensure that our writing is ready to go out the door to a publication, to be published on a blog, or before it’s sent out as a press release or posted on a corporate website.

You need to choose the times you edit your work wisely, especially when you’re working on a longer project and have to put away your writing for a day or two and return to it. When you re-read your writing to get back into the flow, it’s tempting to start to edit.

Here’s the deal you need to make with yourself: You must set aside time to write and a time to edit. The editing time must always be scheduled after the writing time. For example, you write for an hour in the morning and agree to edit the piece for an hour in the afternoon. When you pick up a piece after a few days away, you should re-read a paragraph or two at the beginning and then move directly to the place where you left off and review the last few grafs there. Then, begin writing and leave the red pencil for later.

You don’t really understand your subject – This borders on scary territory for a lot of writers, especially if you’ve already completed the interviews and research for the project. If you’re a corporate communicator or work in an agency and have a good rapport with the client, you’re in luck. You need to be honest with your corporate colleague or client about the need for an overview, but there’s no reason you can’t couch that request by saying that you’re absolutely determined to do the best job possible on this project and you’re asking because you want to be sure to get it right and also understand the client’s perspective and expertise on the subject in more depth.

If this isn’t an option, then it’s time to hit the Internet or the library. Use reference sites like Wikipedia to take a deep dive and news publications to see how other people have written about this subject. Then, go back to your own notes and start to pull out the best pieces of information that support the project you’re working on, its goals and key messages. This will help you create an outline that will make it easier to write from.

Defeat writer's block: Keep your hands on the keyboard and write.

Another helpful little trick I’ve found is writing sidebars. I once had to write a long piece on bone research. The research program was called “sclerostin.” Sclerostin happens to be the molecule in your body that inhibits bone growth. The company’s sclerostin program was all about helping patients increase bone. I wrote and wrote and wrote and got more confused as I went. Finally, I went back over my notes and put together a sidebar that noted that the program was really about developing a sclerostin antibody that inhibited sclerostin (inhibiting the inhibitor enables bone growth), and we kept the sidebar in the piece because it was especially helpful to laypeople with little scientific background. Several years later, the leaders of R&D renamed the program “sclerostin antibody” for clarity’s sake, so presumably I wasn’t the only one unclear on the concept.

Whether you use them in the final piece or simply rely on them as cheat sheets to keep the subject straight in your head, sidebars can be a practical solution to confusion.

You didn’t really flesh out themes or messages – And you’ve probably been driving yourself crazy, editing and re-editing (see Item #1), when what you really need is to sit down and write out each theme or message. Determine which are most important to figure out where they belong in your piece – in the lede, in the first chapter, as a convincing summation – and write from there.

You need a middle 8 – This is frequently a structure or style problem. You picked a structure or writing style that suited your subject, but somewhere in the middle you got stuck. The structure or style isn’t serving you anymore.

Don’t panic. Instead give yourself permission to break the structure or style for a few paragraphs and see if you don’t pick it back up on the other side of whatever you were writing that needed a little more room to breathe or a different tone or style.

The middle 8 is part of classic forms of songwriting, especially in popular music. For instance, in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” the middle 8 is Paul McCartney’s brief interlude of grounded daily life between John Lennon’s more cryptic, ethereal lyrics:

“Woke up, fell out of bed,
Dragged a comb across my head.
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
And looking up I noticed I was late.
Found my coat and grabbed my hat,
Made the bus in seconds flat.
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke,
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream.”

The middle 8 breaks up the repetition of verse-chorus-verse-chorus and, as Wikipedia notes, is often called the “bridge” or “release.” These are two excellent terms to think of in relation to your own writing, especially if you’ve adhered closely to a strong (or even rigid) structure or to a style. Your reader might need a break, and the middle 8 can serve that function. And get you back in time for the chorus (or to resume your structure or style).

Your piece feels too long – This article started life as a single post about writer’s block, but somewhere in the middle, I realized it was going on and on, and I had lots of tips to share and needed to break it up. I hadn’t thought of the Having Trouble Starting/Stuck in the Middle/Trouble Finishing structure at that point, but when I looked over what I’d written, I saw that I had enough items for each segment to split the piece into a three-parter.

Series are especially helpful if you write a blog (and Problogger authors Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett actually recommend multi-part posts as a helpful blogging promotion tool) or for a newsletter or website. Not so good if you’re writing a press release or a novel (unless you’re writing a genre novel and those I think are required by law to be series).

If you haven’t written an outline, now is the time. Or you need to review your original outline. What are the salient points you need to make? What are your goals? Most important, what does your audience need or want to know? Check to make sure your client’s goals aren’t conflicting with what the audience really needs. Do you have the key points to back up your messages? Perhaps you’re overwriting because you don’t feel you’ve backed up something successfully and so you keep adding more supporting material. Is there a better and more succinct way to make your points?

After you’ve worked on your outline and key messages, try reading the piece aloud. Where are you stumbling? Where are you glossing over parts of sentences just to get through them? Where is the piece dragging? Are you repeating words or phrases? Note all of these and start adjusting.

Finally, ask someone whose opinion you trust to read the piece and mark where they found it slow going, repetitive, unclear, or simply long or uninteresting. What did they want to get out of the piece in return for their investment of time?

What about you? Where do you get stuck – beginning, middle or end?

NEXT TIME: Why you can’t finish.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see it makes no sense at all,
Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor?
‘Cause I don’t think that I can take anymore
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”
~ Stealers Wheel

3 thoughts on “Stuck in the Middle with Your Writing

  1. Another informative post. Again, great suggestions on how to adjust to, or overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of writing. Editing while writing is a big problem for me, and I love your idea for a middle 8 (and that Beatles song is a wonderful example of the concept!).
    Also I liked the bony photo you picked to accompany the part about not understanding your subject – so appropriate!
    I’m looking forward to Part 3 of this series.

    • Thanks so much, Rita, I’m glad I could be of help.

      The Beatles were such great songwriters, in my humble opinion, I think it might be possible to use one of their songs to illustrate almost any writing tip!

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