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Starting in the Middle

Starting In the Middle

Amy wrote in and said she was struggling with writing her book. “I know I have something good to share with people!” she said. “But I’m having a hard time just getting started.”

I’ve written about working through process a few times before—see how to make decisions, starting a business, and how to finish, for example.

But here’s a new trick: when you’re not sure how to begin any creative project, don’t start from the beginning—start from the middle!

The perfect introduction to a book or long article often comes much later in the writing process … so don’t worry about the introduction or first chapter. If you have twelve chapters, or four sections, or however you divide up the process for your project, start with what you know best. Work on that. Then work on something else. Whatever you have to do, just keep going.

At some point you may feel more confident returning to the beginning, and it’s probably a good idea to do so before too long. When you work from the middle indefinitely, the manuscript (or whatever) has a habit of becoming disjointed, and it requires some effort to stitch it all together.

Don’t worry about that for a while, though. Worry about starting–from wherever you can.

***

Over here I’m taking off for a week of seclusion in South Asia. I’m bringing along a book manuscript of my own, which I initially started in the middle and am now attempting to forge into an entire coherent draft.

It’s a long process, but mostly a good one. I’m looking forward to making progress and moving on to the next steps.

How about you—what are you working on? Have you ever tried starting from the middle?

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Image: Steven

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44 Comments

  • Vincent says:

    That’s a great idea, Chris. Starting from the middle. Maybe that’s what I need to keep in mind from now on when I’m struggling for that “perfect opener.”

    As for what I’m working on: a free eBook called “The Compact Guide to Charisma, Confidence, and Being Well-Liked.” Maybe I should ignore the intro and get started on the confidence section. The middle.

    I’ve also got several articles that other people are waiting on from me. Guess I’ll get started from wherever I can.

  • Good advice Chris. I experimented that as well – starting in the middle – and it became the foundation for the beginning of my book. Nice post. Thanks!

  • I agree. In fact, creating individual chapters out of order helps because people will be able to read them independently (good for non-fiction or info products).

    One tool that I use to help me do this is Scrivener. It allows you to outline your writing, choose a section, and then move them around easily to produce a final draft. Highly recommend it for people who want to start in the middle.

    Also, a great book to read on this is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. She talks about the starting in the middle process and interjects a lot of funny wisdom on writing itself.

  • Todd Henry says:

    Totally, TOTALLY agree with this advice, Chris. Both of my books began as an outline, but the writing began with a middle chapter, then clarity emerged in the midst of writing. You have to understand and articulate the meat of your argument/narrative/story before you know how to set it up. Otherwise, the whole process can be paralyzing.

  • Saul says:

    I’m just finishing up my book on freelancing in the Share Economy…. I’d procrastinated for months, and then finally put the book together in a week. My trick? Reminding myself that the goal of this book was to convey information, not to be great literature. When I write fiction, I want every sentence to be perfect. But with this book, since it was more of a how-to guide, getting the information out there was the most important thing. I thought of it as more of a school report than an artistic endeavor.

  • Amy says:

    I definitely start in the middle. It’s like drawing a face: start with the features – eyes, nose, and mouth – and the rest (ears, eyebrows, face curvature) will begin to fill in where it naturally seems to fit.

  • Dodie Jacobi says:

    Great reminder for book writing or any endeavor! I’ve written zillions of business plans, and always leave the beginning, the Executive Summary, for last. (How can you summarize what doesn’t yet exist!?) It reminds me of I believe Danielle LaPorte’s tip for unlogging the jam: brainstorm the most ludicrous ideas and the good ones will flow right behind.

  • I’ve always found working in small chunks leads to big chunks. 9 times out of 10, it works. For example, if I commit to creating the outline for a blog post, before I know it – half of it is already written. It just happened for me this morning. Good luck on your book Amy! (And on getting started.)

  • Christina says:

    Awesome advice! As a lawyer, I start almost every writing project (motion, brief, etc.) in the middle because that’s where the meat of the argument is. Once I get all the ideas out on the page (screen), then I can go back, tidy it up, and summarize it nicely in an introduction. Trying to start at the beginning gets me nowhere.

    It’s funny, but I haven’t tried this tool in my more creative endeavors, but I will now! Thank you for the suggestion.

  • Melanie says:

    Totally agreed. I have been writing a book (“Quit That Freaking Job Already!”) since March of this year. Until I stopped trying to write the first chapter, I made very little progress. Now chapter one is off-limits to me until the end. I’m simply allowing the rest of the content to pour out as it will.

    And an organization tip:
    I recently covered one wall of my bedroom with those giant post-it notes. Each large note represented one chapter. Then I wrote all the sub-topics and issues I wanted to address in the book on smaller post-it notes and went to town grouping them together and placing them on the larger notes. Now I have a complete visual representation of the majority of content in my book, and it’s right above where I sleep each night, inspiring me in my dreams!

  • Vincent says:

    Whoa, thanks Max! Hadn’t heard of that before but I’m going to check it out. Apparently Michael Hyatt uses it too.

  • Ree Klein says:

    I love this advice, Chris. I’ve long wanted to write a book and workshop, but getting started was always put off for some reason. The technology available now to just get started is so amazing (and free) that it just strips away all excuses.

    For me, the idea of blogging a book was the key (shout out to Nina Amir who wrote “How to Blog a Book”). So, I wrote out a book proposal (based on Nina’s book and Michael Hyatt’s advice in his book Platform) and then started a blog posting topics in whatever order I want.

    Now I have enough content to at least pull together some workshops…yet, I’m finding it easy to get distracted and not do it. I suppose that’s the next hurdle/fear I have to force myself to overcome.

    Have a wonderful time away…
    Ree

  • Tom Allen says:

    I did just this with my first book. Most of what I wrote at the beginning ended up in the middle, and the middle eventually became the beginning! I second Max’s recommendations for Bird By Bird and Scrivener.

    Also on the topic of getting started, rather than be overwhelmed by the magnitude of a project, say to yourself “right, I’ll just spend a few minutes on this”. Tricking yourself into getting started in this way can be the prompt you need to get stuck in for hours… days… weeks…

  • Tiffany says:

    This is actually what I tell students who want to start choreographing a dance. There’s usually one part of the song where the move is obvious to whoever is choreographing, but the beginning is a complete blank.

    I have them think of what move comes after that one somewhere in the middle? What about right before it? Eventually it builds out to the whole song. Some tweaking might be necessary, but it’s easier to start from what you know 🙂

    Helps them every time.

  • tyrone says:

    my thoughts takes me to – work on a little piece at a time…, but commit to completing it at some point… whatever is the project

  • I’ve been procrastinating BIG TIME and haven’t been able to write a single guest post at all this month (even though it was on my priorities list 🙂

    I will try “starting from the middle” and see if it helps me get at least started on something!

  • Kat Bowers says:

    Brilliant advice. I have learned to do this with my video productions. I’ll work different sections that I have the script well written and the shots in my head to edit. Oftentimes, the INTRO is the last part of the video that will be done. I can review and take notes of things I want in the introduction while editing, and then later it forms and comes together in a better way.

    I also think starting in the middle is good advice for life in many things. We don’t necessarily always have to follow steps in order and good way to begin is simply jump in the middle and get going. It’s not necessary to re-invent the wheel on every project. 🙂

  • Marcy Criner says:

    This is saga advice! I started writing my book with a chapter that would be closer to the middle/endish. I couldn’t get the intro right so I figured just write what I’ve already got. The take-away is just get started no matter where that is!

  • Michal says:

    What I can suggest is “Brainstorming” and creating map of random ideas on a paper. This is something similar to start in the middle. Brainstorming is amazing part of a creative process. It allows you to clear your mind without worrying about organizing information. Organizing will come later.

  • Becky says:

    Great advice, Chris! It’s so, so easy to get stuck just trying to start the “right” way, that you may not get started at all. I’ve been planning to start my blog, dreamtodegree.com, for months now, but finally took the leap to just do it already even if it’s not perfect. I also have plans to write an ebook as well and will take your advice to heart before I get myself stuck again.

  • I totally agree. I’m often tempted to start at the beginning because I’m subconsciously putting off dealing with a thorny issue that I know I’ll have to address somewhere in the middle. My writing goes much more smoothly when I start with the hardest issue I know I need to address and then go from there.

  • Victory says:

    Thanks for this posting. I have to create choreography for a group fitness class and I’ve been struggling with sequencing. After reading this post I realize that I don’t need to have all the steps in sequence, I can start in the middle!

  • Laura Simms says:

    I’m finishing up a book–in the final pages, in fact. And some of the final pages are in the beginning, because I had to know the middle and end before I could write them.

  • Daisy says:

    When I teach creative writing in elementary and middle school, we often start at the end. Snowman stories, for example, would end with a completely resolved finish, rather than “He melted and never came back.”

  • Sophia Asghar says:

    Thanks for the reminder, Chris! I’ve never written a book, but this technique has helped me start all kinds of writing projects: long or challenging email communications, slide decks, contracts, sales proposals, reports, exams, strategic plans, ad text, even FB posts. I’ve found that if I can get the most important elements off my mind, then it gets easier to fill in and organize the rest. Starting in the middle seems to help facilitate getting clear about what I want to convey, then all my creative energy is freed up to focus on how to present and communicate it. Have fun in Asia!

  • Candace says:

    Right now, I am starting to open up a non-profit called Wisconsin Youth Outdoors. I was so worried about beginning in a logical order with tasks for the start-up that it was causing me so much paralysis. I decided just to start with what felt right and reassess each week my tasks and priorities. I’ll eventually do some longer-term planning, but for now I am happy with the progress and where just being in the moment in the project is taking me.

  • Alisa Looney says:

    I love this approach! I have recently been blocked on a sculpture project. I am designing an enameled steel sculpture to honor my mom and her creative life. This is one of the most meaningful pieces I have set out to do, and it has become a challenging task. I want it to be perfect for her. I have been interviewing her and getting new morsels of her story so the drawings have gotten very detailed and complex. More images than can fit on the enameled surface. Yesterday I realized that I just needed to remember why I started it in the first place, the result I was after. Not perfection, but a feeling, a way to honor her joy of creating beauty all of her life. I decided to go back and re-work the model. I adjusted the overall design to be structurally strong, and added some details to add another level of meaning. This now allows me to begin the fabrication process. Once that is complete, I can play with the richness of color an images on the surface in a more intuitive way. I can’t wait!

  • valsenan says:

    Personally I think the key is no matter what, just start. Currently I’m doing loads of research and studying to get my blog up and running together with my website. Here s the thing I actually churned out all my course materials and products way before thinking about the marketing! It keeps me excited, motivated and puts me in the headspace of creation. Being creative is a passion of mine and thus this way of working works beautifully for me. My tip of the day: work from a level of inspired action 🙂

  • Lisa Gerber says:

    I started in the middle!!!! I’ve been working on a book for a month or so, and I had a general idea of the book so I just started writing the stories.I made a list of stories, then an outline. Then started in on the stories I knew best.
    Funny thing, when I returned from WDS in Portland, during the 7-hour drive (as a passenger) I hand-wrote the foreword to my book. What an accomplishment. It just spilled out. That in turn, directed the TOC which gave my outline better structure.
    Next, is scheduling interviews each week. and at the end of each interview, I’ll ask for a recommendation for a new interview subject – from them.

    So yes. Just start and don’t worry about process, or order. Start. It somehow falls into place. (well, that’s a bit premature for me to say, since I didn’t finish yet.)

    Safe travels and enjoy South Asia!

  • Angela says:

    This is a great approach! When I started my book project a few weeks ago I was struggling to get started. But I had all of these great notes for some of the chapters so I decided to start their instead. Once I got into my zone, ideas for an intro started flowing.

  • Mary Koppes says:

    Starting in the middle is the best!
    Austin Kleon emphasizes a similar point in Steal Like An Artist (highly recommended for folks curious about the creative process and getting unstuck) and when I first encountered it, it made so much sense! There’s so much working out that is done in the process of writing…writing, for me, is thinking on the page. So the beginning/intro comes in the end 🙂

  • Cindy says:

    Reminds me of my recent tour of Mark Twain’s home where they showed us a set of 12 cubby holes where he kept his writing projects. Each morning, he’d start working on the project in the first cubby until he encountered writer’s block on it. When that happened, he’d switch to the project in the next cubby hole. He’d do that all day long, cycling through his projects, and able to stay productive even if he happened to be blocked on one particular project.

  • Starting in the middle can be most useful to get a writer unstuck. So can starting with the ending and working your way back to the beginning.

  • tamara says:

    Great idea to start in the middle, or anywhere at all, really.

    I’m a writer’s coach, and in my experience, most people have trouble beginning. And if they don’t, then they usually have trouble keeping on going once they’ve started. It’s a really, really common thing!

    My favourite way to get people to start is to recognise and cultivate a relationship with their True Inner Writer – not the Stereotypical writer that we all have living in our heads, but the part of us that has something to say, and that doesn’t necessarily fit the image of a Capital-W Writer.

    And to write a book, words on the page is the goal. Doesn’t matter which bit, or even if you write a paragraph of total junk just to trick yourself into thinking you’ve started, just get the words on that page! Much easier to edit if there are words on the page… 🙂

  • Two things have hampered me:

    1) The subject of my book won’t sit down with me and fill me in on the details.
    2) I’m so used to writing blogs, content and articles, that’s how I’ve been writing the book. Since it’s about a young girl who lived in the jungle alone for years, that just doesn’t work.

    I’ve gotten past this by:

    1) Filling in the blanks in the story with imaginary occurrences. Then I say, “Is this what happened?” and she corrects me or not. Usually, all I have to rewrite is a paragraph or two.
    2) I’ve been writing the first draft in longhand. That really helps get me out of the blog-style rut and is an enjoyable change from sitting in front of a computer all day. It also slows me down and puts me in a more imaginative head-space.

    After 3 awful drafts, this seems to be working.

  • Kay says:

    Starting in the middle was exactly what I did when I wrote my Master’s thesis. I could not figure out how to introduce my analyses of four novels–so I just started with the analyses FIRST. After I had “proven my points,” then I went back to Chapter 1 and just wrote down each point I was going to prove in the succeeding chapters (which I had ALREADY done). Then I used Chapter 4 to talk about the ramifications of the points I had proved. Frankly, I don’t think I could have ever gotten that project done had I written it any other way. I needed to write organically so I could figure out what I wanted to say!

  • Akinsola says:

    I would try this approach and see if it would work for me, I do start things at times especially books have never had enough time until I completely forgot about it.

  • Melissa Allfrey says:

    This advice holds good in many contexts. For example, when learning to embroider, I found that you start every piece of embroidery (whether it’s your own design or someone else’s) in the middle of the design and in the middle of your cloth, because there’s no other way to ensure that the work will be properly centred ie where it needs to be. After you’ve started in the middle, it then doesn’t matter in what direction you choose to continue the work: everything will fall into its proper place.

  • Aster says:

    I don’t know why the heck I haven’t thought of this before- perhaps that’s one of the reasons my books never go past the first chapter. Thanks!

  • Philipp says:

    That is a great advise Chris. What worked for me well when writing for my blog was starting anywere in the text – begining, middle or end – and not trying to write perfect sentences in the first draft. The fine-tuning comes later – normally I wait for 1 or 2 days.

  • Cindy Rosen says:

    Great advice Chris! When I encounter this “brain freeze” and get frustrated with finding “the right way” to begin an article/project, I start with a bunch of paragraphs, or sketch/diagram. This often helps by giving me a visual roadmap as well as determining my true theme.

  • Music Jogger says:

    Great Advice. Whenever I am in trouble trying to get my writing done. I just keep on writing. Just nonsense. And then suddenly the juice is flowing again.

  • mini says:

    I’ve just finished reading your book 100startup and it encourages me further to take an action to start my idea which I’ve been struggling with for almost 6 months without doing anything. Now I am completely motivated.

    No one advice me to read it and I never heard about you. One day searching in my Kindle and I got the tittle and it held me. so I bought it.

    By the way my name is Mini or actually my nickname and I am from Mauritania and work and live in Angola. I hope to keep in touch with you to help me start my business on internet.

    Thanks for your help and thanks for your wonderful ideas. I hope that you will see my comment. I know that you are so busy.

    Regards,

    Mini

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