When you’re working on a project, you can have a big picture overview, or you can home right in on details. On Day One, you’re zoomed out: with a high-level idea – perhaps a fuzzy one – of what you want to accomplish.
As you dig deeper into your project, you zoom closer. A title becomes an outline. An outline becomes a set of notes. Your notes become a draft.
But after you’ve been in the thick of the details, you need to zoom back out again. You need to check that all the pieces are fitting together, that your structure is solid and sturdy, your parts all relevant and coherent.
A couple of weeks ago, I launched straight into the third draft of my novel, started rewriting scenes, adding a bit more conflict, fixing inconsistencies, snappifying the dialogue and so on.
It wasn’t going well. I was struggling to get going each day, pushing myself through the writing, and feeling discouraged.
I was at the wrong level of zoom. I was trying to pretty up the paintwork, when I need to rip out a few walls instead.
If you’re getting stuck on a current project – if you’re trying to work on it but you keep stalling, then you may need to take a big step back.
Here’s how to do that.
Get Some Distance
You can’t zoom out when you’ve got your nose pressed right up against your project.
Getting some distance means taking some time. Put aside everything you’ve done – the web copy you’ve written, the draft you’ve completed, the wireframe of the website, whatever it is – and just leave it. Let your project rest for as long as you can bear. A few weeks is great. A few days is enough, in a pinch.
Use or read or view your creation as your audience would. If you’ve written a book, read it through. If you’ve made a film, watch it from start to end.
You’ll find that some parts which seemed just fine in the heat of the forge now look a bit wonky. Maybe that chapter really doesn’t fit with the rest of the book. Perhaps the feature you thought was really cool isn’t right for this project.
Don’t despair. Anything and everything can be changed and fixed and remoulded. Don’t dive straight into to start ripping your project apart, either. Write down some notes and ideas. Brainstorm a little. And then…
Get Some Feedback
Your project isn’t perfect. By now, you might not even think it’s good. But it’s coherent. It’s ready enough to show to people (however scared that makes you feel).
Find yourself a willing volunteer – or three or four, if you can. Give them your book. Watch them use your website. Show them your film. Resist the urge to explain, to apologise, to correct them when they get it all wrong.
Ask for their honest opinion. Let them talk, and ask questions. Don’t interrupt. Take notes, write down what they say – even if you think they’re wrong.
I know it can be painful to listen to feedback. There are times when I’ve written something which I thought was pretty good, only to be told that it needed serious work. My favourite lines are the ones which readers don’t like. The character who I think is amusing and sympathetic comes across as irritating.
If you find it hard to take the feedback on board, let that sit for a few days, until it’s not so raw. Go back to the notes you made. Figure out what’s working – what you could do more of – and what isn’t.
Trust Your Judgement
When I’m working on a project, I want to keep moving it towards finished. I don’t want to have to scrap work and start over with whole sections of it. I don’t like having to re-examine my ideas and restructure my plans.
It feels more productive to keep ploughing forwards: to write more words (or take more photos, paint more pictures, code more features). But all of this is ultimately incredibly un-productive if the project as a whole has fundamental problems.
Trust your own judgement. If you get that nagging sense that something’s wrong, don’t stay zoomed in trying to tidy up the details. Pull your focus back out. Give yourself the time and the space you need – and at a wide zoom, this can be a lot. This isn’t something to rush, because an extra hour spent at this level can save you from wasting hours of detailed work further down the line.
However tempting it is to press onwards, spend some time zoomed out.
Ask questions like:
- Have I started this in the right place?
- Are there sections which were meaningful to me, but not to my audience?
- Which parts of this are “notes to self” which helped in the production, but which need to come out now?
- Where does this become saggy or incoherent?
- What doesn’t belong here? (It may well be possible to salvage it for another project.)
Above all, don’t feel heartbroken if you find that there’s still high-level work to be done. It’s a good sign. When you can see the flaws in your own work – including the big cracks and the wonky walls – then you’re growing as an artist.
Take a deep breath. Pull right back for an overview. Decide whether what you’ve ended up with is coherent and whole. Figure out what needs to be done.
It is hard. There is a price to pay, in time and energy. There’ll be good work which has to be cut out.
The reward, though, is a project that you’re genuinely proud of. The reward is a shining example of your greatest work…
… so far.
Because, above all, the reward is what you’ve learnt in the process, the step up that you’ve taken, the growth that you’ll one day be able to see from the perspective of the future.