The magician takes the stage with a flourish. He moves deftly and skillfully, and with one fell swoop of his cape, he makes a castle appear!
The crowd goes silent in awe and wonder at how this magic man can make such a complete and wonderful vision appear out of thin air.
This sounds fun and exciting as a magic show. But if you thought you had to create that kind of magic—something appearing fully-formed out of thin air—and you didn’t know how, that would feel pretty stressful. And that’s exactly how a lot of people feel about writing.
Writing Isn’t Magic
We might see a beautiful story or an exquisite essay and think the author just pulled it out of his or her brain fully formed, like the Greek goddess Athena.
“Ack!” we think. “My writing doesn’t look like that! It’s all inside out and upside down! I’ve got 17 ideas and they're all different and I don’t have a title and I’ve got no idea what this middle paragraph is doing, and, wait, was I supposed to add in an introduction?”
The reason for this stress is that “writing” is a pretty tricky word; it refers to both a product and a process. The finished writing we see is the product. But it only comes about by means of an intensive process.
The Creative Process Is Allowed to Be Messy
The enemy of creativity is thinking we have to pull something perfect out of the depths of our brains. Brilliance—and heck, even just good-enoughess—is born out of a process. And that process can often be messy. That’s perfectly normal! (If you saw the film Ratatouille, you can probably imagine all the crazy yelling, chaos, and messiness of a professional kitchen. You'd never know it, though, from the beautiful dishes brought to the table!)
Let your creativity be as messy as it needs to be. [Tweet that]
If we compare our writing process to someone else’s writing product, of course we’ll be disappointed and discouraged!
Our own writing process feels like a house in the middle of remodeling—with all its beams exposed and electrical wires and plumbing hanging out. And we’re comparing that to the finished, beautifully decorated, professionally staged house in the real estate magazine? No fair!
Unless we distinguish the writing process from the written product, we’ll make ourselves crazy!
That’s why I want to give you a closer look at the writing process and offer you some strategies for navigating this messy, creative, inside-out, upside-down activity.
Here’s generally what the Writing Process looks like:
- Gather your thoughts on the topic
- Organize your ideas
- Revise and refine
- Publish or share
Now let’s dive in and see what really happens, behind the scenes. We'll start with the first two steps.
Step 1: Pick a Brainstorm, Any Brainstorm!
Have you ever really thought about the word brainstorm? It conjures images of lightning flashing and rain pounding down from sinister dark clouds. In my mind, anyway. And that helps me remember that I shouldn't hold back on ideas just because I’m embarrassed they might not be good.
The brainstorm is the place to let loose all of your thoughts on the topic. If you don't end up with at least one thought that's irrelevant, silly, or rudimentary, you probably haven’t given yourself enough freedom in this part of the process!
Let it all hang out. Let all the “bad” ideas flow so you can get access to the deeper, more interesting thoughts. It’s like opening up the taps all the way and letting the water run until its clear. (Catching all the yucky water in a bucket to use to water your plants if you live in drought-ridden California, of course!)
Try these brainstorming techniques:
- Use a free-writing brainstorm to think associatively or in complete sentences.
- Use a list brainstorm to capture all your thoughts without worrying about how they’re connected.
- Use a bullet point brainstorm with sub bullet points to follow your ideas into greater details.
- Use a mind-map brainstorm to find connections among your ideas or arrange them by category.
- Turn on the speech-to-text feature of your favorite electronic device and start saying whatever comes to mind about the topic.
You can combine these methods or use different ones for different projects. Experiment and find what works for you! The more methods you try, the better you’ll know what lets your thoughts be free.
Step 2: Pulling an Outline out of a Hat (or a Head)
An outline is hands-down my favorite part of the writing process. I love the warm, comforting feeling of knowing I have a guide on my writing journey. If I get lost, my outline reminds me of where I was trying to go and why.
But an outline is usually my second method of organizing my ideas. The first thing I do is look back at my brainstorm to see where I stand.
This preliminary organizing is a chance to see what ideas I've got. Maybe I'll see ideas that are related. Maybe a few categories will start to emerge. Maybe I'll see a hole in my ideas—some aspect of the topic that I haven't addressed.
For pre-outlining, you might try:
- Color-coding with a legend, e.g., everything purple = health benefits of owning a dog
- Cutting and pasting related ideas close together if you brainstormed on the computer
- Drawing more lines of connection on your mind-map
Now take a step back and look at the big picture:
- What kind of writing are you doing?
- How many topics, i.e., paragraphs, will you need?
- How many facts or examples will you need? (Hint: usually 1, 2, or 3 per paragraph)
- What kinds of details will you need: facts? examples? quotes?
You might need to do some more brainstorming
- Do you have enough big ideas to create the right number of body paragraphs?
- Do you have enough details or facts to support your big ideas?
- Can you come up with more categories?
- Can you think of some more details that support or illustrate your categories?
- Can you borrow examples from a "full" category and re-purpose them for a category that's pretty empty?
Choose an outline style
An outline is a container for your ideas. It puts them into compartments so that you know their order and also their hierarchy.
An outline can be as broad or as detailed as you like. It can be a table, T-chart, or other graphic organizer. It can be a traditional Roman numeral affair. It can be a bullet-point list. (In fact, a bullet-point brainstorm can easily become a bullet-point outline once you group related ideas together.)
A good outline is any container that holds your thoughts so they're ready for you when you want to turn them into sentences.
Here are two types of outlines I like to use. Notice how the one on the left has less detail but would be faster to build. The one on the right would take a little longer to create but might make drafting faster.
Ralph = responsible
- Building huts
- not fun but necessary
- could be hunting or making fire
- afraid of the Beastie
- Saying responsible for Simon’s death
- no one wants to hear this
- in denial
- R trying to be good leader to the rest
When considering the right kind of outline for you, here are some questions to ask:
- Do you already know your ideas and feel like if you just start writing, they’ll be there for you?
- Do you need to map out more of your reasoning and the connections among your ideas?
- How strong is your memory? Do you need a little bit to jog your memory, or do you need to write down a whole thought in order to remember it faithfully?
- How fast are you at typing? Will you lose your thought if you try to type it out as a complete sentence without having it noted down in almost complete form?
- Do you feel overwhelmed by a lot of words? Does the outline on the right feel cluttered to you?
- Do you like graphic layouts?
- Does color-coding help you organize your thoughts?
- Do shapes help you track your ideas?
- Do you need a reminder to write a concluding sentence? (The outline on the right has this; the one on the left doesn't.)
Make It Work for You
Are you starting to see how messy this creativity stuff is? There’s so much to consider and there are so many stages. There’s nothing “fully formed” or “perfect” about any of it!
Eventually, you’ll have a whole, beautiful essay to reveal. But not before you’ve built it one weird-looking step at a time.
So don’t worry about how your process looks; just make that process work for you. You might move forward one step and then back a few. You might combine a few steps or invent new ones. What’s important is that you allow your process to take the time it needs in order to bring your thoughts to the surface of your brain, and then work with them for as long as they need.
Join me next time when we'll continue our behind-the-scenes look at the writing process.
While you can’t pull a finished essay out of a hat, you can pull an outline template out of one! If you're wondering how those two outlines above were built—how I knew what to put where and how much information to use—check out this literature outline template and see how it works for you.