Over the course of years of working on my own writing and coaching others, I’ve come to recognize a stumbling place in the process of writing a book. There comes a moment, usually around the completion of a first full draft, when the project seems utterly overwhelming. A new form of writer’s block emerges. Rather than writing forward into an unknown territory, the grand adventure of a first draft, the work of finishing or revising a book-length draft is about completing missing pieces. Every book has an anatomy, an intricate system of organs and muscles and nerves, and the interconnected nature of this anatomy begins to become evident only once a significant portion of it is written. In our first draft, we compose a liver and leg and the sense of smell; we amass chunks or chapters that function well on their own but remain disconnected. At some point (different for each writer and even for each book), the writer gains awareness of the need for connective tissue, to hook these organs up and get them communicating to each other. This awareness comes not by means of any overt evidence on the page but through some intuited sense of the whole, and is usually accompanied by awareness that the draft does NOT represent this whole. We sense what’s missing but our clueless as to how to fix it.
The terrific inadequacy of our drafts coupled with the mind’s inability to encompass complex, book-length thoughts for extended periods of time causes many writers to shut down. The work is simply too hard.
There are many tools for handling this stage, but today I’d like to explore what I believe resides behind them all: a shift in process. The writing process that serves us so well in generating 200+ pages of text rarely transfers directly to the revision process. Revision entails shifting how we write, not just what we write. In my case, I often shift back to pen and paper to generate changes; I no longer can write in snatches of time but need two or three hour blocks; revision work takes me to diverse sections of a manuscript in one sitting rather than proceeding chronologically; I need to work with images (maps, outlines, sketches) rather than words–just to name a few examples. I’m not suggesting these particulars are true for everyone. Just as we each must discover and come to peace with our own unique writing process for generating, we must discover and come to peace with a new process for revising. Often writers don’t recognize this; when the old tools no longer work for them, they presume they’re helplessly stuck. But the work at this stage is significantly different, demanding new tools and new methods. An hour spent journaling about the writing process–what might best suit your needs now?–can be hugely beneficial.
Thus we gain versatility as writers, and as human beings. We’re capable of much more than we initially presume. The capacity to step back, reassess, and develop a new methodology always serves us well. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew