How to Write

I can hardly even estimate how many times people have complained to me about trouble with writing. They can’t get started. They start but cannot continue. They continue but keep tearing up drafts. They keep revising drafts but cannot complete the task. Their anguish and frustration is painful to hear.

The novelist Ann Patchett said “People like to ask me if writing can be taught, and I say yes. I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can’t teach you how to have something to say.” I can’t help with that either, and I couldn’t write fiction no matter what. But most of the people who ask me for help writing are not trying to write fiction, but reports or papers or factual narratives or speeches or even letters. And I do know how to make that much easier for most people.

Yes, it’s what they taught you in school, but the place to begin any kind of non-fiction or advocacy writing is with an outline. And the key to the outline is inclusiveness – put down every element you can think of. The best way, of course, is to use the outline function on a computer, which automatically keeps the numbering and lettering and indentation straight, and changes it as you add and subtract elements.

So first think: what do I want to say? Write down, as an outline element, everything that comes to mind. Since you can rearrange the elements at will, don’t stop to order them now – it doesn’t matter if they’re out of order. It doesn’t matter if half of them don’t really belong – you’ll prune this outline later. All that matters now is to get down every element or topic you can think of that might have a place in the work. Don’t stop to think. Don’t edit – not yet. Don’t stop to read what you have said so far. Don’t stop at all. You aren’t writing yet, you’re typing.

As you type, more ideas will come to you – keep adding them in. Some ideas will suggest subheadings – fit them in where you think they belong, and if you aren’t sure where they belong, just put them at the end. Style doesn’t matter. Spelling doesn’t matter. You should not have any complete sentences at this stage. Just keep going until you cannot think of anything more to add. That idea you’re not sure works? List it anyway.

NOW go back and read the outline. It will be an easy matter to arrange the randomly thought-of elements into a sensible and logical pattern. Elements that don’t seem to fit can go at the end, and may eventually be discarded. Undeveloped ideas suggest their development – just add the new ideas into the outline where they seem to fit. Still: no complete sentences, only ideas.

When you run out of ideas, stop. Put the task aside. Come back to it after a rest. Just making the outline will have stimulated your mind, and new ideas and refinements will occur to you. Do this a few more times and then stop for the day. It is encouraging to check the word count on the computer – often the outline alone comes to a good proportion of all the words you expect the finished product to contain. You probably already have, in embryo, more than you will need to finish the project.

The next day, look over your outline one more time, make what adjustments occur to you, and start writing. Some of the elements will be easy to write, because you already know what you want to say. Others will seem harder, not yet ready. Don’t worry about the hard parts at the moment. WRITE THE PARTS YOU KNOW. Fill in what you already know, again writing as fast as you can. Don’t stop to think. Don’t stop to refine expression – there will be time enough for that later. Never mind about spelling or even grammar. Just write without stopping, as fast as you can, until you have finished with one section of the outline. Save that segment in a separate file, and then go on to another. Keep going until you have done all the easy parts.

It is very important not to stop for research, or for editing, or to find just the right word. If you come to a place where you need a fact or even a whole argument you don’t already have in mind, switch to a bold face font and type [add fact here] or [explain why here]. And then keep going. Don’t edit while you’re still writing! You will come back and fill in the blanks later, when you have time, and often by the time you get around to doing this you will have discarded the section and will never need that fact. The same goes for finding the right word. If the word doesn’t occur to you as you’re writing, type [find right word], or just type the wrong word and highlight it. You will come back to it later if needed.

When you have done all the easy parts in this rough way, stop, rest a while, plug the parts you have written in their places in the outline, and read the whole thing through. It sometimes helps to put different parts, and yet uncompleted outline sections, in different color fonts.

Now you will be able to see what the finished product will look like, and what parts no longer seem to have a place, and what parts you still need to complete. Because you have roughed out as much as was easy, the structure and the argument are now in place, and the remaining analysis and refinement have a context, and a manageable scope, that will make them also easy to complete. And if some parts still don’t make sense, at least that is now easy to see, and those parts can be rethought or left out. You don’t have to use everything in your outline – very likely you can, and indeed should, leave out whole sections.

Having done the main work, now you just need to polish. Go back and fill in the blanks. Spellcheck. Polish a bit more. Tighten your language; delete unneeded words; simplify.  Now it is safe to revise, because the piece is mostly done. Revise first on the screen and then, when you think it is ready, print it out and go over it with a red pen. Enter those corrections and print it again. It is amazing how much you can see in print that you do not see on the screen. Then, when you can find nothing more to correct, sleep on it. If you can possibly help it, never hand in a piece until the next day at the earliest. It will look clearer in the morning. Print and edit a few more times, and then you’re done.

June 2013