April 2022 -->

Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Making it Through the Messy Middle

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My family and I recently moved into a new house, and with new views and rooms has come the challenge of turning this empty house into a home. One aspect I was especially excited about was the way the empty house served as a blank canvas for me to create a home for my family.

Fast forward a few months, and I’m in the middle of my living room with my collection of decor strewn around me as I stare at my empty bookcases. My goal is to create beautiful vignettes in my bookcases. That one small word—vignette, a fancy way of saying 'beautifully put-together decorations on a surface'--belies the incredible amount of trial and error, frustration, and confusion I was dealing with as I worked to arrange my books, keepsakes, and pieces of art.

empty shelves and open cupboards

My first instinct was to walk away: Walk out of the room, away from the problem, and come back to it another day—or maybe never.

But, as I sat there with my anxiety growing, a realization dawned on me: What I was doing, the moment I was in in this design process wasn’t wrong: I wasn’t failing, it was just the messy middle of my process. The middle part of the journey where you know where you want to go (sort of?) and possibly how to get there (almost?), but the path isn’t quite clear yet; the fuzzy middle stage where your vision is just a little bit clouded, but (you can almost feel it) clarity is just around the corner.

I know the messy middle well. I enter into the messy middle on every writing journey I’ve ever had. Each time I sit down to complete a writing project, whether it’s content for our website, a blog post, a presentation, or an article, I have found myself in the messy middle. And, because I have so much experience with the messy middle, I can recognize it when it arrives, and I know how it feels—it feels like crafting a vignette on my bookcase. I often want to get up, walk away, and give up on my project. However, since I write for a living, I also know how to work through and around the messy middle so I get to a place of clarity in my writing.

writing tools

·       Take a step back: Just as with writing, I took a step back from my design problem. I did walk away—but only for a short break—and came back with fresh eyes. Taking a break from something you’re in the messy middle of can provide you perspective. Instead of focusing on everything that’s not quite right, after stepping away you can better see what you like and build from there. 

·       Ask for help: In the messy middle of creating my bookcase vignette, I pulled my husband into the room to provide me his perspective. Then, I took a picture and posted it to my Facebook community for their insight. Both groups gave me helpful feedback that allowed me to see what was and wasn’t working. This works well with writing too! Alternative perspectives can help all writers understand what is and isn’t working in your writing; writing is usually for an audience beyond yourself, after all, as Kacy explained in her post last month

·       Use input judiciously: When I asked for feedback on my bookcase vignette from my husband and Facebook community, I got a lot of opinions. Opinions are good, and much of the feedback was really helpful. However, if I had used all of the suggestions, my bookcase would have looked a hot mess. Instead, I had to use the input I received wisely, picking and choosing the input that helped me achieve my design goal. Similarly, when you receive input on your writing, especially a long writing project like a doctoral capstone study, be mindful to use feedback judiciously, in a way that helps you get closer to your writing goals. Otherwise, you may get lost in a maze of feedback that sends you in different directions. 

Don’t get attached: Sometimes getting out of the messy middle means letting go of something you’ve been trying to make work from the very beginning—and thus, something you might be attached to. For my bookcase, I had been trying to fit so many keepsakes that I love—and had been brought with me from my old house—but that didn’t all fit. So, I had to emotionally let go of the idea that all of my beautiful things would work in the space, and this allowed me to see new possibilities. The same thing happens in writing: We can sometimes get so attached to a certain sentence or idea, that it’s hard to let go of it even though it’s not working. 

·       Create a “reserved” space: When working on my bookcase and editing the number of things I had in it, I would often take off items and put them in a box behind me. I told myself that anything in this box was on hold or reserve, and I could always add it back in down the line. Doing so made me more less afraid to remove something, because I wasn’t making a permanent decision. The same technique works with writing; rather than deleting sentences, paragraphs, or sections when you’re in the messy middle of a writing project, cut and paste that writing into a “reserved” Word document. You can then pull it back into your project at any point, if needed. 

tidy living room shelf
Now that you’ve heard me talk about how I worked with and through my messy middle when decorating my bookcases, I hope you can see how you, too, can learn to embrace and work with this part of your writing journey rather than against it. Think about your own experiences with the messy middle of other projects, hobbies, or work. How did you work with and through those middle points of your process? How can your experiences there help you with the messy middle stage of your writing?

Let us know in the comments your tips for the messy middle and how you’ll use what I’ve learned to help you with your writing!

Beth Nastachowski has been with the Writing Center since 2010, and she currently manages the center’s webinars, modules, and videos. She spends her time running after her son, husband, two cats, and dog in St. Paul, MN. 

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