How do we sort through all the variety and complexity in our lives and in our world? What do we focus on? How do we decide what tone to take?
Sometimes writing can be a wonderful way to make sense of the complexity. The exploratory nature of our writing can be a gift and can guide us to what we really think and believe; as E. M. Forster quipped, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?
We can discover ourselves through the writing process.
But too often in that discovery process, we can feel uncomfortably lost and overwhelmed, and we run in circles as a result.
To be honest, sometimes when I sit down to write I can feel caught up in the complexity itself, unable to find my way out. Where to start? What to focus on?
So before I sit down, I like to know what kind of writing I’ll be doing, what my goals are, and the direction I want to be headed in.
This is the case not only if we’re sitting down to write a short piece, but also and especially when we’re in the midst of a longer project:
How do we keep all the different strands going? How do we keep the tone consistent? Should we follow that other question or plot line instead of the one we were following before?
Many people ask me: Should I just start writing and let the writing guide me, or should I have an outline for my project/ book?
I believe that at a certain point 99 percent of writers will benefit greatly from an outline, a clear roadmap to where they are going!
My father worked as an editor and publisher in New York City publishing, and he always said that he could tell from the synopsis and one page of the author’s writing whether the book was a go or not. Even the most talented writer couldn’t write a good book if the synopsis didn’t make sense, he’d say.
I used to find this discouraging. But now, the more I work with writers and see the writing process unfold across different genres and for many different writers, the more I see what good advice it is.
I’ve had students and clients come to me after wasting years on incompletely formed book ideas; because they don’t have a clear form or outline to guide them, they made a wrong turn and then headed in a wrong direction, sometimes literally for years.
If you want to stay on track and write with more direction and save time and energy, I encourage you to ask yourself these two simple questions:
1) What is the MAIN idea of the project you are working on. Try to boil it down to one page and then to one paragraph.
2) What HAPPENS in the book—in real time. Go through chapter by chapter and map it out. What is at stake in each chapter?
Often, you need to write your way to these answers.
It can also be immensely helpful to talk these questions out with a friend or coach. We can often hear things differently when we say them aloud to another person. And feedback is invaluable.
It’s also great to write out your answers. You don’t need to write your whole book to create a map for yourself.
Once you really find your way to answer the two questions above, the writing process becomes much easier and more enjoyable. And the work itself becomes much more powerful.
I find this process of coming to and staying with our main idea a good corrective to the way we often live, which is often without a map. Books provide a beautiful depth of attention, knowledge and vision in contrast to the normal distraction and shortness of attention of our contemporary world. And when we give more attention to our books/ writing projects, our projects themselves flourish, and we also feel more clear and fulfilled.
The writing process itself cultivates a beautiful clarity, attention and centering vision in an often de-centered world. This process of writing can be a powerful and transformative experience of focusing and clarifying.