So You’re In the Weeds

Six Tips for Achieving Power Over the Revision Process

I was recently asked how to handle the sense of frustration that comes when a writer feels stalled out during a revision process. My answers were all pretty general, so in the interest of sharing, and of turning my development work for Pelgrane into a web article they’ve already paid for, I share these with you here.

These bits of advice address the momentary feeling of being in the weeds on a project. Chronic writer’s block is a different matter, best addressed elsewhere.

1. Accept the Weeds as a Phase of the Creative Process. Writing is mentally taxing. Revising, doubly so, as it lacks the flow state you can reach during primary creation. Learn to see periods of mental fatigue while improving a manuscript not as signs that something has gone awry, but the result of the effort you’re applying to the task.

Is it hard? Good! Good writing is hard. Good revising is hard. That feeling is a sign that you’re taking the task seriously, sharpening your self-critical faculty, and improving your piece. It can be hard to see while you’re in it, but you’re tired because you’re doing the work.

You may feel lost and bogged down when by any objective measure you are making steady, incremental progress. Self-assessment weakens when you’re tired and/or stressed. You’re doing better than you think.

2. Give Yourself a Break. Let yourself rest, intellectually and emotionally, by taking time to not think about the work. Pursue a relaxing, meditative activity. If weather and health permits, go for a nice long walk. Whatever you do to give yourself downtime, recenter yourself by resting and relaxing, then come back to the work refreshed.

3. Clear the Decks. Other, unrelated minor tasks may be impinging on your concentration by making you feel (again, likely incorrectly) that you’re behind on all manner of obligations. Find a few items on your to-do list you can easily move onto your done list, and knock them off. (Implicit in this is the suggestion that you keep a to-do list to track personal and professional tasks. It helps you see that you don’t have as much stuff weighing on you as you think, and gives you the satisfaction of ticking them off and making them disappear. I use a web/phone app called Toodle-Do.)

4. Get Enough Sleep. Easier said than done, and something I absolutely struggle with myself. But writing and revising are not so much about waiting for inspiration as waiting for a state of mental acuity. Experts disagree on what works, and what works for me may not for you. But one thing is guaranteed to mess you up: not blocking out enough time in your life for full, restful sleep.

5. Refresh Yourself While Working. When mental fog descends during a writing shift, go lie down with your eyes closed and the lights out. I use a sleep mask. Even if you don’t fully nap, a ten to fifteen minute quasi-nap will help regain focus. Also, try the Pomodoro technique, in which you work for twenty minute stretches punctuated by five-minute breaks. I don’t find this useful for primary creation, as it breaks flow, but have had good results with it on revision/development days.

6. Depersonalize the Task. This one’s a tall order, but the most helpful if you can swing it. Seek detachment from the idea of success or failure at the task as a measure of self-worth. Revision is a technical exercise, one that you get better at with time. (But never really defeat—welcome to the writer’s life!) Picture the dullest, least emotionally resonant task you can ably perform: unclogging a sink, cleaning a grill, labeling photo files. That’s revision. Keep judgment out of your rear-view mirror, whether it’s the imagined judgment of your editor or the voice of doubt in your own head. Yes, eventually your work will be evaluated, by yourself and others. However, to avoid rabbit holes during the process you have to seal that thought in a box and put it away. When you’re clarifying ideas and tightening prose you’re just scrubbing the gunk off that grill.

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