3 Things to Love about the “Messy Middle” of Writing

3 Things to Love about the “Messy Middle” of Writing

So often, the middle phase of writing gets a bad rap. It’s messy, disorienting, LOOOONNNNGGGG, even depressing.

But like it or not, this is where we spend most of our time as writers. If you can’t find something of value about the middle, it will seem that much more arduous.

I’m smack dab in the middle of Book #2 and here are three things I personally appreciate about the messy middle of writing…

1. You’re past the blank page.

For many, the hardest page to write is the first. As aimless as the middle of a writing project can feel sometimes, making it to that point automatically means you’ve conquered the first hurdle: starting your project.

And because you’ve travailed past the “blank-page syndrome,” there’s a certain sense of limitation already built into your writing project. If you’re one chapter into writing a book on insects, for example, you know you won’t have to wake up tomorrow and have to suddenly start writing about lizards or skyscrapers or candy-making. You’ve set out on a course, and even as that course will open up new vistas, it will (and already has) closed off others.

This may sound sad, but it’s actually a good thing because limitations help give us direction. They allow us to keep moving forward without having to exert excess energy reinventing the wheel every time we write.

2. The paint is still wet.

If you’ve ever painted before, you know that oil paints take a long time to dry. You can paint something one day and continue to tweak it, manipulate it, and add to it long after.

The middle of a writing project is a lot like that. And if you’re the kind of writer who likes choice and a sense of freedom, lean into this aspect of the middle phase.

As long as you’re in the middle, it’s never too late to change something–fact-check, add a quote or statistic, reorder paragraphs, re-examine the central claim of your thesis. It doesn’t matter if the book is due in two months or two days, the paint is still wet until the day the book goes to the printer (or, if you’re me, until your lovely editor tactfully requests you stop sending random word changes under the guise of “proofreading,” since the book has already been typeset and it is now cost-prohibitive to indulge the whims of a perfectionistic author).

3. Your writing is still yours.

One last thing I’ve come to appreciate about the messy middle is that my writing is still mine–literally, metaphorically, and legally. As soon as you hand in your book, it becomes everyone else’s. Legally, it becomes the property of your publisher (at least if you are going the route of traditional publishing). It also becomes the property of your readers–not only are they the ones purchasing your book, but they begin to make your writing their own. (I’m always amazed when readers write to me and say something like “I love what you wrote about _____,” and I’ll think “I never mentioned that in my book.” But who am I to correct them? They’ve read my words and fused it with something they needed to hear or learn.)

The reality is, if your book is to find a readership–if it is to become meaningful to anyone else but yourself–it will need to stop being yours and start belonging to other people.

Someday, you’ll look back on this time and remember the special one-to-one relationship you had with this piece of writing. Back before it was copy edited. Back before your editor took all your superfluous adverbs and Latin abbreviations out. Back before it was typeset. Back when there were no risks, no readers, no Amazon reviews, no pressure. Back when the thing that kept you writing was the simple pleasure of hammering out words and ideas around this beautiful, important topic you’d chosen. Back when you were the only nurturer, the sole caretaker, the only person breathing and typing and scrawling this thing into existence.

Once you send your book out into the world, it will become bigger than you–bigger than this thing you did. It will start being the thing your publisher needs it to be, start being the thing your readers want it to be. And that is a beautiful thing, but it is also a sad thing because you can never go back in time and just be with your writing the way you used to.

So next time you find yourself in the middle, look around and find the things to love. It’ll make your writing life that much more pleasant.

Focus Question:

What do you value about the messy middle phase of writing?


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