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Create order out of writing chaos

Writing is a messy business. Maybe you have a certain degree of chaos on your desk, with notebooks, bits and piece of paper, Post its with scrawled notes, and index cards from your hipster PDA. Not to mention the paper cuts.

It’s just part of the process.

When I write nonfiction features I have a system I usually follow that adds order and helps me stay focused. I create an outline but not in the sense of those outlines with the Roman numerals we learned about in grade school.

This is more of a skeleton with the main sections of the story noted: Lede, elements of the story that go in the body with a few notes about what each section will contain, and the conclusion. I visualize the story and tend to write from my notes and the mental image, but these notes serve as a guiding force. Creating the bones of the article gives me momentum and a way to relax into the writing. I can focus on the the words and ideas because I generally know where I’m going.

My process also just helps me write faster.

On larger projects, I note more details and questions, and sometimes create mind maps to generate “what if?” scenarios. These questions often give me the best momentum of all because the need to find answers propels the writing.

I’ve seen a spectrum in how writers approach outlining that includes fanatical detailing of every scene and element of the story to no outline at all.

For an interesting take on how well-known writers approached their work, read Emily Temple’s Flavorwire feature Famous Authors’ Handwritten Outlines for Great Works of Literature.

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