Every writer knows one thing from experience: beginnings and endings are always easier and more exciting to write than those long, sometimes cloudy and plodding middles. The middle is where the story has the greatest risk of lagging, where momentum slows and even a protagonist with a promising start can meander into boring or tedious territory.
At work, after the heady rush of beginning something new, doubt, insecurity and reluctance can appear. Suddenly, you become aware of all the challenging work that lies ahead, of how there are no easy answers and how every step forward seems to kick off an unintended consequence or a new problem. You know that the story should be picking up steam but feel added pressure when you realize that it’s not. You’re faced with “scope creep” that turns five deliverables into 10, or the difficulties of running a cross-functional project or the uncooperativeness of disgruntled team members.
What to do? Adopting a writer’s mindset when energy and enthusiasm are dropping can inject new life into your work story. There have been volumes written with instructions for writers on how to forge on and avoid getting stuck in a mess – and this wisdom can help you too. Here are four strategies for the moments when you need to fire up your faltering middle:
The easiest way to fix a flagging middle is to bring something new into the equation, the way a writer may insert a new character or plot twist at this point to shake things up. At work, you should consider inserting something fresh into the process to keep yourself and others moving forward:
- Add an additional team member with a missing skill or bring an expert into one meeting as a guest.
- Bypass a roadblock by changing lanes to work on a different aspect of the project.
- Incite action with a spontaneous brainstorm, a fun incentive or an anonymous survey of team members to collect insights that they may be unwilling to say aloud.
- Accelerate the timeline to light a fire under everyone, or conversely, slow down by building a completely unrelated creative conversation into your next session.
Sometimes a middle gets messy because you realize that you need to know more about the area you’re working on or what you’re trying to solve. You can gather that information by:
- Crafting a market overview akin to a detailed backstory for a fictional world. Learn all you can about the external landscape you are in and the forces at work.
- Creating an ideal customer persona just like a character profile. Give it a name and create a day-in-the-life to help you see new opportunities for action.
Keep in mind that some of the best plot twists happen when the writer purposely misdirects the reader to think one way about a person or an event, and then surprises them with a whole different truth or reality. This may be happening in your messy middle:
- Ask yourself if something has been missed, if you’ve been misdirected or if you’re operating on assumptions that could be false.
- Try an informal focus group to see murky aspects of your project more clearly.
And since new information can illuminate a problem, be prepared to revise what you might have completed so far. Every writer constantly edits their work, so with continuous improvement in mind, be agile so you can iterate and pivot.
As a writer does, try to identify the result or outcome you would like and then detach from it. The best endings come when the middles are equally fascinating, so after you define the outcome that you would like, don’t be afraid to take your eye off the finish and make the most of the process along the way.
Of course, it’s important to be clear about what you want to happen – vague end goals can sink a project before it starts – but you should always keep your options open to what might happen so you don’t miss an important discovery along the way. To do so:
- Stay present, break down the problems at hand and then determine if you can break apart the middle so you actually have two endings, one smaller and one bigger.
- Consider a “soft” launch for a minimum viable product (MVP) to gather feedback from a group of early adopters that can then be applied to whatever you have in the works.
The best solution may be entirely different from what you or your boss imagine – in fact, the messy middle may hold a bigger, better problem for you to solve.
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Deborah Burns’ story has always been about invention and reinvention. She’s lived those two keywords throughout her career as a women’s media Chief Innovation Officer (CIO), a leader of brands like ELLE Décor and Metropolitan Home, an industry consultant and throughout a creative pivot that led to the award-winning memoir, “Saturday’s Child.”
The experience of becoming an author illuminated the path to her second book, “Authorize It! Think Like a Writer to Win at Work & Life.” Now, Deborah combines her business and creative expertise in professional development workshops that improve outcomes and help everyone invent, reinvent and live up to their career potential.