Recently I sat down to write an essay. It started off okay, but the more I wrote, the more difficult it got, until I was contemplating dropping my laptop off the balcony just to be done with it.
The first thing I did for this essay was open a blank Word doc called ‘Notes on The Essay’ and write down all my notes and ideas about the topic, as well as quotes I might use, since the essay incorporated a book review.
When I was halfway finished the notes, I got impatient. I really had to get started writing this essay. I opened a new Word doc, named it ‘This Is the Essay,’ and started copying and pasting ideas and quotes.
I wasted a lot of time trying to write the opening. After much faffing, I started working on an idea that I figured would go in the middle of the essay, a part I felt I could dive into.
Which is what I should have done in the first place, but I got distracted by the empty space where the start should be, and tried to start at the start.
Things went well for a few days, but then my excitement dried up and I realised none of what I’d written actually sat together. It had no start and no conclusion, and a lot of the ideas hadn’t quite come together.
I had an almost complete first draft (I was already over the given word count), but it felt like the essay had died on the page. Every word of it was terrible, it made no sense and was nothing like the essay I’d first imagined.
The longer I sat looking at the dead essay, the more I felt like an idiot for thinking I could write about this challenging topic, that I had anything serious or worthwhile to say, that I could do any kind of justice to the book I was reviewing.
I felt like an imposter and a failure and an idiot. I tried to fix things, but it seemed like I was just making them worse.
When staring at all the half-broken sentences in my ‘This Is the Essay’ word doc became overwhelming, I opened a new document and named it ‘Temp’.
At this point I had three word documents going for one essay.
I copied and pasted a couple of sections into my Temp doc. I edited them in different ways. For some reason, it was easier to work on a section in isolation, outside of the main doc. Maybe because I didn’t feel the pressure of the entire essay in every change I made.
I also remembered that I’d never finished the notes document I’d started with. I had a process, but I’d gotten impatient with it. I spent another day copying out quotes from the book I was working with, developing my notes, looking for connections between ideas.
I thought I might be able to pull this together if I followed through on my process. I had to trust that I could bring the essay together as I worked through it, even if the early drafts were terrible.
Eventually I had 8000 words of notes for a 4500-word essay.
I invested a lot of time into those notes, and during that time was when my thinking developed for the essay. That 8000-word notes document is a chaotic mess of colour-coded highlighting, page references and all caps reminders, but that was all part of the process.
Once the essay was published, readers sent the kindest and most glowing feedback my writing has ever received. I wouldn’t have expected this. I think I was too deep inside the mental mess surrounding the essay to approach it with fresh eyes at that time. (Luckily the editor and I went through a couple of revisisions together, which certainly helped.) You can read it here.
My key learning from this experience is that I have a process that I’ve developed over a decade of writing:
– compile the ideas
– always start with the easiest part
– expect the first draft to die on the page
– return to the ideas
– revise one section at a time
When I feel overwhelmed, I just need to remind myself to trust the process.
(Side note: I learned the wonderful phrase ‘trust the process’ from this Sports Sports Sports episode of Reply All.)
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