[Podcast] 5 Hacks When You're Lost Writing a Chapter

By Dave Goetz and Melissa Parks

You're not a writer if you've never been absolutely lost while working on a piece, whether a blog, an article, or, especially, the chapter of a book.

Writing is thinking in motion. You may have not thought about your idea in this way before, until you laid down that sentence.

Dave and I have both experienced varying periods of being lost while writing a book. We know the pain. And we've learned from it. Here are 5 hacks to get back on track when you're lost writing a chapter.

1. Get clear on your chapter thesis. This is the most basic place to start. If you have lost your way, it might be because your thesis of the chapter wasn't crisp when you started writing. If you're not clear on what the chapter is about, then you'll lack clarity on destination. Without a destination, you wander. Content gets added that doesn’t belong and now you don’t know how to reconcile it.

When you're lost, ask yourself, "What is my thesis?" and strip back the chapter to only the material that supports that thesis. You’ll likely have to cut material--and that is scary--but you’ll have energy to complete the chapter as you focus the purpose of the chapter.

2. Ask, "Do I need more material to work with?" You might have a great thesis for your chapter and still feel lost while writing because you haven't done enough pre-writing work. Often you have an idea about something, but to illustrate it, apply it, or prove it you need to do more research.

That may mean reading more. Or, maybe you need to conduct some interviews. Or maybe you simply need to go back to the research you've already done with fresh eyes and pull out new insights.

3. Focus on where you're headed. Sometimes we get lost because we are trying to do too much in the chapter. It’s run-on. Some of the material doesn’t belong in the chapter, and you need to reserve it for another chapter. 

This is really a structural issue.

Think about where you want the chapter to begin and end. What falls between those two bookends? If there is material that is not leading to that end, then you need to cut it. It goes back to structure.

It might be helpful to stand back and jot down a rough outline of the chapter. You’ll see the flow better. The act of slowing down will help you see what’s distracting from that flow.

4. Get clear on your unique contribution to the subject. High school and college English teach you how to synthesize other people's ideas; that's an important skill. But it is a different skill than what writing a book demands.

When you write a book, you lead with your unique idea, and use other people's ideas to support yours.

If you’re dealing with research, you might be lost writing a chapter because you are adding too much of the research and haven’t fully sifted it for the stuff that really matters to your unique idea.

Sometimes there are chapters we need to add for clarity, but we don't fully understand the nuances of the topic. If you don't understand the topic, you may end up quoting too many experts.

If this is happening, step back and summarize the ideas of those whom you're quoting. And then by each quote, add how you want to use their idea. Do you want to use it as a jumping off point for you to explore an idea deeper? Do you want to use it as proof of your point? Do you want to use it to expand your idea?

The point is, let your thinking be the lead—not others. You have to fight to bring your insights to a chapter. And not rely solely on what other people are saying.

You get lost writing a chapter when you forget what you want to say.

5. Shorten your chapter. Sometimes, we’re lost because we have this idea that a chapter should be X amount of words. Maybe you think the chapter should be 5,000 words but it actually can be expressed in 3000.

When you agonize over adding words for the sake of adding words--not for the sake of adding value to the chapter--you can write in circles. Often you don't say much of anything. Or you bloat the chapter and your thesis is buried.

If you're wandering, stop and ask, "Can I stop here? Do I really need to add more?" You might be surprised that you have enough and more would be excess.

And, guess what? Now you're ready to head into your next chapter...and start the journey again.