Let it out: 5 Steps to Writing when Emotional

Yesterday, which started with the announcement that the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teens had been recovered and ended for me with a shiva call, kept me in such a state of horror and confusion, I didn’t get much writing done. After several failed attempts at work, I finally gave up and decided to develop a community action project I’d dreamed up instead.

While everyone else was asleep…

Late at night, I awoke, exhausted but still reeling from the emotional turmoil of my day. So many words seemed to bubble out of me, I couldn’t get back to sleep. Eventually, I got out of bed and wrote the first draft of an essay about the special lady whose shiva I’d attended earlier in the day. When I was done, I felt emptied out, much calmer and more ready to sleep.

But is it good writing?

While writing material at the moment I am wrapped up in heartache, delirious joy, or nervousness can help me work through my feelings, I find that the outcome usually isn’t my best writing, or even my most passionate writing to read. Word choice suffers, and is often redundant. Logic wavers. Sometimes the resulting text is downright incoherent. You might even call it Writing Under the Influence…of Emotions. It can be that circuitous, drawling, and dribbling.

I’ve developed a process that works for me in these moments.

5 Steps to Writing when Emotional

1) Get all the words out in pen, on paper. No computer. No self-editing. Sometimes, I don’t even wear my glasses, and I’m pretty blind without them.

2) Save the material until I feel calmer, usually a day or two later, but sometimes much, much longer.

3) Sit in front of the computer. Type out everything, but begin to edit. Are my memories out of order? Did I forget to write a noun before your pronoun? Have I, in fact, broken so many rules of punctuation and spelling that no one can understand a word I say? If I have additional thoughts to add, I do so at this point, and also, if I’ve just vented for pages on end, I might select just a narrow subtopic to focus upon.

4) Think, “Do I really still feel this way?” If I have changed my mind about what was bothering me so much, or what made me so happy, I document that.

5) Think, “Do I need to do research?” Often, I’ve used examples to illustrate or defend points — but the details aren’t exact. At this stage, I pin down the exact quotation and source.

After this process, I wait again. Sometimes the material turns into an essay. Sometimes, when I’ve changed my mind, think no one will be interested, think the people I mention might be embarrassed, or so on, I know it can’t be used directly. At these times, the second draft can still be used professionally — for example, in fleshing out a character in the midst of the same feeling I experienced (often completely out of context).

And sometimes, I just feel better. It’s just a glorified journal entry. And that’s okay.

Do you feel moved to write in a hot temper, moments of despair, or when overjoyed? What do YOU do about it? Please answer in the comments.


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