Let It Be Messy

Does this look messy to you?

I’ve come to believe that, to get to that finished draft, you’ve got to let the writing process itself be not only iterative, as we know it is, but actually messy.

Nobody sits down and writes straight out, from beginning to end, in reams of beautiful prose, a compelling argument they’ve already researched and fully worked out in advance, like unrolling a red carpet to tenure (or a degree, or publication). Or rather, the only people who do that are imaginary—they’re the successful writers and scholars in our heads, the ones we envy, whose processes we imagine must be easy and brilliant and smooth. 

No, in reality it’s all chipping away and piling-up, tweaking and throwing out, redoing and re-redoing—drafting a paragraph one way, then changing your mind and revising it; trying one angle and then another—reading that book or article you just happened to come across and finding the missing piece. Re-structuring, returning, reworking, rewriting. 

How about this?

The problem is not the extreme recursivity of the process, but the fact that we fight it. Not being able to “stick to” an outline, figuring out your argument while drafting the last paragraph, going back and doing more research, rethinking your whole approach—these are not failures. These are the work. 

In fact, I believe that we can use this messiness.

Your own idiosyncratic, haphazard writing process can get you, eventually, to that smooth final draft—if you give yourself structures within which to let the mess luxuriate. 

These structures are temporal and spatial, physical and conceptual: 

  • a designated time to write (if possible, a short regular slot at the time of day when you’re sharpest);
  • a designated place to write (even if it’s literally a closet or a desk in the corner);
  • a mode and venue for free-writing and very rough drafting (special software that you don’t use for final formatting—i.e., not Microsoft Word—can help here; some writers like to do certain phases of drafting and revision by hand, in hard copy);
  • blocks and hinges (structures for a particular piece of writing that are more provisional and fluid than an outline—more on these later);
  • and, most importantly, a scheduled point at which to check in with readers, share your draft in progress, and make sure you’re not spinning your wheels. 
This bit of old growth woods in east-central Indiana is tidy precisely because no one is picking everything up.

Because these structures are meant to enable free-writing, pre-writing, rewriting, very rough drafting, and revising—not short-circuit or shortcut it—they also require an attitude adjustment. 

The messiness of the writing process doesn’t have to be painful. The mess is generative—it’s evidence that you’re engaging with the project. This is the fun part


  1. Michael Cohen

    Nicely Done. We try to set this process up for our students: so why do we not use it ourselves? I’m especially fond of the imagery.

    1. Yes, exactly — we teach our students that the writing process is always messy and recursive, but somehow expect that it should be different for us. Scholars and faculty members need the benefits of good writing pedagogy too.

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