Writing is overwhelming and stressful no matter what stage a writer is in. It can be difficult to start writing or challenging to keep an idea moving forward or stressful to end with a good kicker or a combination of these and other roadblocks. One reason for this is the immense critical power it takes to turn our non-linear thoughts into a linear form. Our thoughts naturally jump from one idea to another as our synapses are stimulated by the environment around us. Conversation is loose and normally directionless. Effective writing (outside of forms like stream of consciousness) is something else entirely. This requires us to be clear, cohesive, and logical, which we know or intuit is a lot of work. Outside of these instances, another culprit, for me, is the pressure to know everything about a subject to get it “right.” Sometimes it’s difficult even to know what “right” is though.
Writing is exploratory. The more I write about a subject, the more I learn. This learning is mostly comprised of in-the-moment research when I realize I don’t know enough to make a reasoned judgment or supported claim. As I’m researching, the pressure to know everything about an issue before getting started, like childhood abuse and trauma, is real and paralyzing—especially when I only have an idea with little or no direction to take it. I can become so paralyzed by the fear of not-knowing-enough that I will put the topic away in my “IDEAS” folder and never get back to it.
Putting a piece down, for this reason, is common and unfortunate. Today, we have more access to information than any other generation in history. According to Richard Alleyne from The Telegraph, the information we consume on a daily basis equated to about 174 newspapers in 2011. The overwhelming feeling we experience because of the seemingly limitless amounts of information is a real cause for concern and anxiety. Yet, the internet is such a vital tool for the search and acquisition of information, and the fact that this information is accessible to any person with a smartphone is an immense privilege. First, though, one needs to have the necessary skills to take advantage of this resource.
To overcome this feeling of being overwhelmed when confronted with a new and unfamiliar topic (or even an old and familiar topic) depends on one’s knowledge of and ability to break down a project into manageable pieces. Teaching helped me do this for the sake of my students’ success and sanity—i.e., no one is expected to write a “perfect” essay from the start—which inevitably helped my own projects. Writing is messy and requires so much thought and preparation and revision before it gets anywhere near “good enough” let alone “perfect.” So, once we learn how to break something large into smaller pieces, anything is manageable. Part of this manageability is determining the right questions to ask ourselves. For example, when starting a research project, you might:
- Think of a list of topics you’re interested in
- Narrow this list down to the most attractive (Top 3)
- Do some light research to see what types of information is available
- Then, choose the topic with the most exciting and diverse information
- Determine what you WANT to know about this topic
- Develop a research question that is specific enough to find information that sufficiently answers this question
- Then, begin breaking this question down into manageable minor questions
- My go-to for this is answering the basic questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
- Finally, you can begin in-depth research on your topic.
This isn’t the only way to break down a research project, but this is a strategy that helps me and my students get started. Often times, many of us aren’t given enough spaces to figure out this process on our own. When seeing a prompt, many students tend to fall into a spiral of hopelessness, anxiety, and fear—much like I do when starting my own projects. We end up just getting stuck in the overwhelmed state unable to move forward. Yet, once we start breaking the project down into the above steps as a class, these emotions begin to dissipate as well. Usually the anxiety and fear do not disappear completely, but the students have moved passed the more significant hurdle of figuring out an initial direction at least.
Once we break down our projects and develop a direction, the next step is generally finding out more about our topic, which typically requires some to a lot of reading depending on our initial level of knowledge. According to James Baldwin, “One does learn a great deal about writing this way. First of all, you learn how little you know. It is true that the more one learns the less one knows. I’m still learning how to write. I don’t know what technique is. All I know is that you have to make the reader see it.” Just like narrowing a topic, reading can lead to another overwhelmed state. But, when reading is paired with asking the right questions, we have a better chance to keep ourselves moving forward.
Another part of managing the feeling of being overwhelmed is realizing you don’t have to write about every aspect of your topic; only what pertains to your initial question or interest. There’s always another essay or poem or screenplay that can pick up where you left off. Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, step back and ask yourself, as my fiction instructor Merrill Feitell used to demand, “What are you writing ABOUT?” Knowing this, you will understand the general direction you’re taking your subject, and you will have some parameters to ignore anything that doesn’t fit the course.
Writing is about entering conversations that have been undertaken long before us and will continue (hopefully) long after us. As we write, we create our own unique perspective to extend and complicate this discussion. Managing the feeling of being overwhelmed helps a writer keep moving forward. Rarely is there one absolute “right” way to do something when it comes to writing (within reason, of course). It’s more about finding what’s right for us—like relationships or the texture of pasta. However, learning how to break projects into smaller, manageable pieces is something we can all use and get better at. If not, nothing would ever get done.