"It's no accident that Dante began The Inferno, his allegorical journey through Hell, "Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark."     "

Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#1417 What To Do If You Are Stuck in the Middle of a Writing or Other Project

 

Folks:

The posting below gives some nice advice on how to get through the Murky Middle" of many of our tasks and projects.  It is by Hillary Rettig, author of The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, [www.hillaryrettig.com] Reprinted with permission.

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: The Teaching Trap

 

Tomorrow's Academic Careers 

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What To Do If You Are Stuck in the Middle of a Writing or Other Project

Middles are tough.

It's no accident that Dante began The Inferno, his allegorical journey through Hell, "Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark."

Writers (including academic ones!) also often get lost and discouraged midway through their journeys. At Grub Street Writers, where I taught for many years, many writers referred unhappily to having to slog through the "Murky Middle" of their projects.

Here are some problems with middles:

  • The piece (or project) is no longer fresh and new and shiny. Your early energy and enthusiasm are waning.
  • At the same time, you haven't worked enough on the piece to get it organized.
  • You've also become more aware of the piece's problems. It's not living up to the pristine, Platonic vision that initially inspired you!
  • Moreover, you're not even sure how to solve the problems, or whether you'll even be able to solve them.
  • And the end is nowhere in sight.

The middle, in other words, is where the work gets tougher at the very same moment your enthusiasm weakens. No wonder you're discouraged!

But that's not all.

Another problem is that middles are massive, comprising around eighty percent of most projects. Here's how I came up with that figure:

  • The first 10% of most projects is the "Honeymoon Period" where the work is fresh and new, the possibilities seem endless, and you're filled with energy and enthusiasm.
  • The last 10%, which we'll call "Paradise" in honor of Dante, is often fun, too. The major work of thinking out, organizing, and writing the piece is finished, and you're basically copyediting and otherwise tweaking it.

That leaves 80% for the "struggling and muddling" part of the project, a.k.a., the middle. (Your middle might be more like 90% or 70%--either way, a huge chunk of the project.)

Even worse: middles have middles.

The "middle of the middle" typically comes right after the Honeymoon Period, and I call it, "the Anti-Honeymoon." As the name implies, it's when the Honeymoon myth gets punctured, and often your Moment of Maximum Discouragement. Perhaps the most famous fictional example is the "Slough of Despond" from John Bunyan's allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress.

Solutions

 

1) Don't pathologize. Remind yourself that, unpleasant as they are, the Murky Middle and Anti-Honeymoon are perfectly ordinary and predictable parts of any project. Above all, don't take them as a sign there's something wrong with either you or your work. Stay Zen, and keep plugging along.

Interestingly, Bunyan's Slough consists mainly of the pilgrim Christian's "fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions." In other words, it has less to do with his actual predicament, and more to do with his perceptions of, and reactions to, that predicament.

Or, as a wise teacher once told me, "The problem isn't the problem. The problem is your reaction to the problem."

2) Don't be perfectionist.  If there's one thing that will get you mired in a despondent slough, it's perfectionism, which often manifests itself in a constant stream of harsh self-criticism. ("Poor word choice." "Wow, that sentence was inelegant." "This sucks." "No one's ever going to read this." Etc.)  Learn more about perfectionism and its solutions here.

3) Use an effective work process. I've written earlier for Tomorrow's Professor about the importance of using a nonlinear writing process. Along with that technique, aim to write and revise quickly: in practice, this means doing a few dozen (yes) quick pass-throughs of your text instead of two or three "megadrafts." By a pass-through, I mean you move quickly through the text, making obvious additions and correcting obvious problems, and refrain from spending too much time in any one spot. A fast process like this works because it respects the creative process (which tends to be nonlinear, organic, and holistic) instead of fighting it; also, it helps you avoid perfectionism.

This is the point where some academics typically remind me that their work is deep, serious, intellectual, analytical, complex, etc., and thus requires a slow process of focused cerebration. To which I reply: "Maybe, sometimes, but probably not as often as you think." Ultimately, you should use whichever writing style feels comfortable and brings your work to completion-but for most people that will be fast writing.

4) Maintain your perspective. Remember that, endless as they can seem, middles don't last forever; and, like Dante, Christian, and many other intrepid voyagers, you, too, will eventually reach Paradise. (Or, at least, the end of the project!)

5) Grow your perspective. When you think about it, "Murky Middle" is simply a negative label we somewhat self-defeatingly attach to a large and essential part of our process. The real problem is that we expect things to go more quickly and easily than they do. (Perfectionism, again!) So, forget your expectations, and things should go easier-and might even be fun.

And speaking of perspective... Of course, all of the above applies to far more than just writing. Many of life's important endeavors can also have Honeymoons, Anti-Honeymoons, and Murky Middles, including relationships, parenting, running and other physical challenges, and crafting and other hobbies. One of the glories of the human path is that you can practice nonperfectionism and other productive habits in one area, and it will benefit you in others: from that perspective, a Murky Middle is something to be welcomed, as it actually provides an opportunity to learn and grow.

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