The Advantages of Writing The Bare Minimum Outline

There seem to be two accepted processes when writing a long(er) manuscript of 50-150,000 words (fiction or non-).
If we use the metaphor of a map and a quest, we can say that one approach is to go without a map and discover your meaning, story, plot and characters as you proceed.
The other is to take a map with you, usually in the form of some kind of outline, to return to for guidance, and to see where to go next.

Neither approach is ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ since each comes with negatives and positives. Further, how tight (planned in great detail) or loose (providing only the bare outline of an outline, if you will) your outline “has to be” to be truly useful is a matter for a great deal of discussion, not to mention emotion.

Look at a game board some time and you'll see that it's also a map of a story, telling you what happens along the way. The little images are symbols for

Look at a game board some time and you’ll see that it’s also a map of a story, indicating what might happen along the way. The little images are symbols for “here are the major plot points,” but you can fill in what happens to the characters/playing pieces along the way.

This decision isn’t a matter of ‘throwing out the rules’ if you decide not to use an outline, so don’t think you’re being a rebel, because there are no rules we have to worry about breaking.

We’re long past high school; no one’s coming to snick you on the knuckles with a ruler.

Instead, whether or not one uses an outline has more to do with practicality and need or desire for organization, as well as control over outcome.

If you’re working with a lot of characters and you’ve got a dense plot, at some point, you will find the benefits of making some kind of outline, no matter how rudimentary, outweigh the sense that you’ve somehow been absorbed into the Borg.

Borg-writing means you fear you’ll lose your individual voice, your identity, your very soul, if you give in to the dictates of the outline. Nothing is more dispiriting for the budding writer than to be told she’s going to, at some point, have to have an outline for that project idea she’s kicking around.

I worked briefly with a woman who was having a hard time finding her subject, coming up with a goal, and declaring intention to follow through to the end. When I told her an outline could help her organize her thoughts, she bolted. I think what she possibly heard was “outline equals immediate loss of freedom.” What you can’t hear when you’re afraid is that you actually do have options; that there is freedom within structure, that something as seemingly grim as an outline serves you; you do not serve it.

Outlines Are Threatening

This is going to be you when your story gets away from you and you have no idea what happens next.

This is going to be you when your story gets away from you and you have no idea what happens next.

Outlines seem threatening to those who see them as unwanted fences built to control the wild mustangs of their thoughts.

Other writers are bothered by the unnaturalness of the outline, the pernickety sense that each ‘i’ must be dotted, each ‘t’ crossed.

If the word ‘outline’ equals ‘stupid rules that make no sense’ in your mind, believe me, I get it.

I don’t always outline, but then, I don’t often tackle multiple story lines and characters, nor do I often feel like my story is either out of control or has gotten away from me (but when I have felt that way, it’s because I didn’t outline sufficiently, so I have been hoist upon my own petard more than once as a writer).

Outlines seem forced, non-organic, emotionally false. It is a kind of pre-writing one has learned, all too often, to associate with high school English classes you hated; a torturous endeavor forced upon you by a cruel teacher with ugly glasses and bad hair. Outlines seem largely unnecessary, particularly for the writer who is possessed of a vision, who is mentally following his or her characters into their personal abyss.

Mostly, I suspect, writing an outline seems far too unromantic, making writing more like work, less like a spontaneous act of inspired creativity.

There are uncontrollable, passionate moments spent writing, moments when you teeter on the edge of Indiana Jones’ rollercoaster ride through the mines, just barely holding on, not knowing how it will end or what will come of your intrepid heroes.

“How can an outline, so restrictive, so horribly predetermined, ever hope to contain those emotions?” one mutters derisively, ruminating (during a particularly powerful and largely unconscious writing session) how empty your scenes of passion would feel if written out in excruciating (not to mention mind-numbing) detail ahead of time. 

Here’s one way to look at this choice: Certain kinds of writing and certain times one writes can be used as the marker to determine which approach you’re going to use.

What should determine whether or not you rely on an outline (checking your map as you go) is the type of goal you intend to reach. If you’re serious about getting published (by a print publisher, as in, holding a finished product in your hands with pages you can turn and a marketing/sales budget and maybe even an advance), you’re undermining your potential for success if you don’t create some form of an outline. (I will explain why further on, since I didn’t outline this article, and now you’re paying the price for my telling you this without any real plan in mind about where this would go or how I would get there.) 

You create the map and have complete control over where it takes you.

You create the map and have complete control over where it takes you.

Why You Might Want An Outline, At Least Sometimes

If your project is less formal, or you’re writing exclusively for self-discovery, an outline can definitely feel like it will get in your way. What would be the point of working on something so intrusive? If you don’t have a beginning, middle, or end already in mind, and particularly if you’re not writing a genre piece that relies on structure, you really don’t need an outline, although you might want one anyway at some point, depending on the circumstances.

If you’re new to the genre or type of writing you’re attempting, you might want to try an outline. Alternatively, I usually advocate the map-less approach for absolute beginners who are on a search for their subject, or themselves.

As an educator, I will tell you that self-reflexivity, searching for meaning, as well as increasing consciousness and awareness of your purpose and goals, are all enormously important reasons people should write. The mere speculation about ‘who we are’ is often enough to fuel novels, plays, and self-help books. It could be argued that every single word written about the human race (other than writing you find in technical manuals) is an effort to know one’s self, and by extension, the world, better.

E. M. Forster's plots usually took place while on a journey outside of his native England. The journey from one place to another is, on its own, an important stimulus to writing, as well as a useful metaphor.

E. M. Forster’s plots usually took place while on a journey outside of his native England. The journey from one place to another is, on its own, an important stimulus to writing, as well as a useful metaphor.

Speaking of understanding the world better, one of my favorite writers is E. M. Forster, the author of A Passage to India. During an interview with The Paris Review in 1952, E. M. Forster responded to a question about “technical clevernesses” (what we think of nowadays as the mechanics or craft of writing) like this:

INTERVIEWER

How far aware are you of your own technical clevernesses in general?

FORSTER

We keep coming back to that. People will not realize how little conscious one is of these things; how one flounders about. They want us to be so much better informed than we are. If critics could only have a course on writers’ not thinking things out—a course of lectures . . . .

Forster liked surprises and surprising his reader; he liked finding something out as he went, and so, in the same interview, when asked if all of the ‘important steps’ of a novel should be present in its original conception, Forster replied, “Certainly not all the steps. But there must be something, some major object towards which one is to approach.”

Referring to the plot of A Passage To India, Forster clarified: “When I began A Passage to India I knew that something important happened in the Marabar Caves, and that it would have a central place in the novel—but I didn’t know what it would be.”

I think this sums up the feeling most writers who approach writing ‘romantically’ have; they want the thrill of discovery. They don’t want to know too much ahead of time, for their major happiness comes in the moments of discovery. As with explorers and inventors of yore, discovery is its own reward, and there is nothing wrong with this. It’s a great feeling to discover a character or plot point you hadn’t anticipated, to make it up as you go along. 

Finding yourself, finding hidden gems you didn’t know existed, is crucial in the philosophical quest to know and understand yourself, and it’s one I support. Alternately, this process, of writing to know one’s self, seems like a luxury to many writers who tell me they just want to get on with it. They don’t have time to wander about, searching for something they may never find, let alone something that won’t sell, and they’re not going to take the risk that time spent ‘finding’ an interesting character is time wasted; they don’t have that kind of time. 

Although I understand what they mean, I don’t always agree with this perspective, largely because I’m not as interested in selling a product as I am in helping the writer understand him- or herself better (because society already puts us in boxes, restricting our creativity).

Here’s another Paris Review interview with a famous writer, Ray Bradbury, who wouldn’t be tied to an outline:

INTERVIEWER

Do you write outlines?

BRADBURY

No, never. You can’t do that. It’s just like you can’t plot tomorrow or next year or ten years from now. When you plot books you take all the energy and vitality out. There’s no blood. You have to live it from day to day and let your characters do things.

Don't worry; you won't lose yourself in the map. Rather, you will often find yourself and your purpose, if you chart your destination ahead of time in broad strokes.

Don’t worry; you won’t lose yourself in the map. Rather, you will often find yourself and your purpose, if you chart your destination in broad strokes.

Given that, however, I will tell you that there are many books and/or stories that will flounder and die if you have literally no idea what they’re about, where they’re going, or how they’re going to get there. Although quantification of one’s goals might not seem a compelling priority for the writer on a quest for self-discovery, once you’ve discovered what’s there to be discovered, if you want to finally get this journey down on paper, process it and get it out the door to an agent, an editor, a publisher, you need to know what it’s about.

You need to have a goal, a point on the map that you intend to reach within a certain amount of time, if you’re going to be taken seriously. This will require more than rummaging around in the carpetbag of your mind; it will require form, structure, and organization.

To backtrack just a bit, I must take a moment to say, you can’t get to this point until you know quite a few things about your project. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, though, there are three things all written works have in common: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Fiction has plot points, while non-fiction usually relies on a kind of enlarged flow-chart made up of bullet points one elaborates on. In each case, a bare-minimum outline will help immeasurably to get from point A to point B and so on, till you reach the end (your goal or conclusion).

The Bare Minimum Outline Looks Like Anything You Want It To, Within Reason

I discovered what I call the bare minimum outline many years ago, when I read a book about how Alfred Hitchcock used storyboards to construct the action in his movies. A movie storyboard transforms the primary action of the scene into an image, but I also noticed that beneath each drawing was a brief summary of what had to happen to make the scene work, to get the story to the next place.

I translated this idea to writing the outline, and found this approach to be the most simple and sensible (not to mention quick) that also leaves space for you to change things as you go. At the bare minimum level, you do, at some point, need to know what happens next. This could be as simple as making a list of events you know have to happen to make your beginning shift to the middle and on to the end. No chapters need be involved; you can decide what to call each section or how to number them later.

What action begins the story? That’s number 1. What has to come next? That’s number 2. Don’t agonize over this; it’s just a list, as though you were planning your day as sensibly as possible to use the least amount of gas to get from one store to the next. If possible, see the actions each character has to enact in your head, like a little movie, then write down an abbreviated version.

You’re taking notes of what you’ve already got going on in your head, but most importantly, you’re giving what’s going on in your head some shape, plus the space to challenge yourself if one piece doesn’t fit into the overall design. This is all done before you commit yourself to the time needed to write formally, literarily, technically; whatever your style, however your voice sounds on paper, with this kind of bare minimum outline, you’ve planned your time at the computer/screen/paper a little bit. Not too much; just enough to get started and know what to expect, like going to the grocery store with a list you might follow, you might not. 

Writing the bare minimum outline is easy if you think of it as a summation of who each character is, and what each scene requires to get to the next place in the story. It’s helpful (but not crucial) if you know your beginning, middle, and end ahead of time. If you don’t know details, you can fill them in as you write. But here’s the thing: if a kid can write a summary of a book, broken down by characters and chapters, so can you. It’s not that hard, which is why it’s good.

Eat Your Peas, They’re Good For You

A bare minimum outline has certain virtues. One, it helps a lot to get your thoughts about each character and scene down where you can see them and wrestle with them a bit. Two, it helps a lot to wrestle with them because maybe that character has no purpose in this particular story, and if you know that ahead of time, you won’t waste valuable space and time writing her if you know ahead of time she makes no sense to this plot, nor does she help any of your other characters—in fact, she sticks out like a sore thumb. Three, you can very easily write yourself into a corner you have no way out of without some kind of outline.

The corner you have no way out of emerges from lack of thinking this plot through. How does your villain fit into the 2nd half of the story now that you’ve got him receiving a coded message from the enemy? If you don’t know what happens next, you might easily get stuck or blocked because you haven’t really thought this through. With the bare minimum outline, however, whether you’ve created a list, a grid, a database, or whatever form you decide to use, remember that you can either cut and paste, or erase and go back at any point along the way. There is nothing that says you cannot modify your notes about each character or each plot point as you go.

Maybe you cannot, for the life of you, think of a way to connect the villain’s actions with your other characters (I have this problem right now, and I outlined him a fair amount ahead of time, but still do not know certain details of his plot). Either leave him for now (choice #1 in my case, which means he’s annoying me in the background of my mind), or write a new piece in your outline to account for the villain’s new actions (too tedious, not going to do it until I’ve sketched other things in). Either way, you are doing your wrestling with a list or grid, rather than with your writing, and that makes a lot of sense to me.

If your time is limited, as it is for most people who are not professional writers who do not also have the entire story mapped out in their heads in some kind of linear flow, the time you spend writing the story, in my opinion, should not be the time you have to wrestle with what happens next. That’s what thinking about the story separate from writing it ‘for real’ is for. Writing the story means when you get into your flow, you get to wax lyrical and use your literary skills to get this said in as powerful a voice as you can, without worrying about details of plot, structure, or does this action make sense for this character, etc.

Remember, though, there are no rigid ‘rules’ you have to follow, and that means there are no rules you have to rebel against. There are common sense procedures that will make your life easier as a writer, though. You’ll know you ‘should have’ made some kind of outline when a character you hadn’t planned on comes out of nowhere and has nothing whatsoever to do with this particular story. You’ll know you need an outline when you have no idea what comes next, because you haven’t thought this through properly—that could have been worked out with an outline. 

Think of an outline as an oasis you can return to whenever you run out of ideas, need to find new purpose, or must remember what your characters' names are and what they're there for.

Think of an outline as an oasis you can return to whenever you run out of ideas, need to find new purpose, or must remember what your characters’ names are and what they’re there for.

What You Really Want An Outline For Is Invention

Remember: You never have to use the kind of outline you were probably taught in school. If you’re writing because you’re searching for something, you might not know what it is you’re searching for until you find it. This process of discovery can be the most fruitful way to find a gem in the middle of what appears to be an utter wasteland, so don’t give up looking for your oasis in the midst of the desert writing sometimes feels like.

My caveat is that if you think of writing as a linear process, which it’s not, ‘discovery’ comes before ‘planning’. This mistake, either in how you were taught, or in how you now think about writing, works against you, often stopping you from writing at all, since we get caught up in worrying about “what should go where when,” rather than writing whatever comes to mind and shaping it when it’s ready.

What you sacrifice is the entire process of Invention, which is elastic enough in modern writing process theory to include outlining (but you’ll have to forget the rigid, five-part outline we use to teach argumentation—if you confuse the two, you’ll be miserable).

The word ‘invention’ comes from an older word borrowed from the Classical Rhetoric term, Inventio, and it has a specific use: to help you find your argument and determine the best structure for an argument. Extrapolating to other forms of writing, invention, a very liberating place to be, is where you’re at whenever you do something (take notes, make a list, answer questions about your characters) that indirectly aids in getting your piece written and helps you figure new things out; brainstorm ideas; renew inspiration.

Further, in Classical Rhetoric, Dispositio is where you shape your argument; it’s where the use of a formal outline comes in, and this is why you a) hate the idea of an outline and b) misunderstand the need for an outline because c) of what you were taught to think is true about outlines. I completely empathize, as someone who has both taught formal Rhetoric and written fiction, but even so, I can promise you that the real problem is that if you never got a chance to outline informally, you won’t know how liberating an informal outline can be.

Creating, sculpting, forming, and shaping seems like you’re “in the planning phase” (a thought I want you to erase from conscious operating memory). Instead, realize that writing a loosely structured outline aids invention, since the fact that you’re asking yourself questions during this process forces you to think, and plot, and plan. Don’t underestimate how important it is to find out what you’re writing about—what your subject is, why your characters are there, what your ultimate purpose in writing the piece is. Don’t assume you’re not finding your subject by writing an outline, because you are.

Are you ‘planning’, ‘discovering’ or ‘inventing’ when you’re writing some form of an outline? You’re doing all of these at the same time. This is why linear models of writing don’t work, and must ultimately be abandoned; they’re limiting, creating false constructs we can’t use because they’re so misleading, not to mention self-destructive.

Do you need to know every facet or detail of your project before you sit down to write? No. You do not. But if you never know any of this at any point—never become aware of what you’re doing or why—we’ll end up discussing you in writing classes some day, and we’ll use the word ‘unconscious’ and the phrase ‘unaware of his own process’ a lot, and we’ll be sad.

A conscious writer has greater control over his or her writing, and can replicate the process again and again, which is a powerful feeling that will ultimately make it easier to get paid or in some way rewarded by the outside world, if that’s your goal.

Nothing wrong with being lost.

Nothing wrong with being lost.

 

When I think about the discovery/invention part of the writing process, though, a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings comes to mind:

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost.

In other words, the ‘perfect’ outline isn’t necessarily the answer to your problem, since writing and self-discovery is its own reward, and those who don’t know what the hell they’re doing are not necessarily wasting their time.

Writing the outline is part of the plot line of how you will write your piece. If I ever create a game that encapsulates the writing process (which I might; just wait) writing an outline will be an event of its own, something you should do for the experience of using it to work out your ideas, to fight with your characters over their inherent purpose, and to create some kind of order to your plan. Whether you want to or not, consciously or not, you’re even now planning your piece somewhere in your mind, and transferring that plan to the ‘written page’ can be extremely useful.

There’s nothing wrong with organization, when it comes at the right moment in your writing process. It’s my experience that you will be happier if you write some kind of outline at some point in your process. Think of it as the oasis you can go on the map of your story to rework your ideas, re-imagine plot points, find out which characters fit and which don’t; find renewed inspiration for a scene or chapter you were going to give up on; and come to know, without a lot of doubt, what happens next.

How to support a writer in eight (easy?) steps

Useful articles about writing—that actually say something I think is important and needs to be said—kept popping up in my inbox this week. These have been about how to better understand the writer’s psychological orientation.

This is good, because writers are, to a certain extent, misunderstood, so demythologizing writing and writers requires hearing from working writers (rather than reading biographies about writers-put-on-pedestals).

The following article I’ve selected is written by Robbie Blair, new to me, but written with honesty and clarity. The article comes via Seattle-based Writer.ly, a helpful startup for writers and those who employ them. I’ve met Writer.ly’s owners, and they’re very nice, although very busy, as one is when starting a business.  

Flow!

Now, from experience and years of research, it’s pretty clear that the biggest fear about dealing with writers (that is partially true, sadly, according to even more research) is that we are more vulnerable to mental illness than “normal” people and should be kept at arm’s length or handled with kid gloves. Writers, along with other creatives, are labelled early on in life as “different,” and then shoved into the proverbial garret to write alone.

We don’t make the consequent isolation easier to bear when that poor person who has cooked for you dares to disturb your sanctum only to be shouted at because you’re finally experiencing flow. They meant well, only to have their head bitten off. Oops. No more cookies, no more visits; now you’re really on your own.

Often, I suspect that people who do not identify themselves as creative shove us out of the way and then ignore our needs because we fascinate, but also terrify them. Normal people (people who do not write) have no idea what to make of us.

Writers like Robbie Blair, however, inform those who keep their distance; or, worse, pander to writers’ egos, becoming rather useless ‘yes-men’ who only tell us we’re great, furthering our descent into depression if we don’t get published. Key to survival with a writer: provide food and be honest, but not so honest we cry.   

So here is a list of how to treat us better; we don’t merely need a patron and financial support, we also need … a whole lot of other things too! Enjoy, and pass it along and go to the author’s site and leave a comment where it will do him some good.

support-writers

Beyond my personal experiences as a writer, I’ve also been close friends with more writers than I can count. (That may just be because I’m bad at math, though.) I have relatives who write, I have friends who write, I’ve dated people who write … I’ve seen the relationship from many different angles and figured out a few of the best ways to support the writers I’m close to. While it’s important to remember that there’s no “one size fits all” option, these eight tips provide a solid starting point for supporting the writers in your life.

1. Learn about and respect their writing process.

I could give a great many details about how to support me as a writer, but most of you have never met me before so that will only do so much good. I’ve worked with enough writers to know that, while we’re similar in many ways, we are not a homogenous group. Writing is not a predictable process, and each writer develops their own approach to it over time. Rather than assuming that your writer functions in specific ways, talk to them about their unique process so you can understand it a bit better.

My remaining tips won’t reveal any super-secret desires that your writer is trying to hide—so if your writer contradicts any of the items on the rest of this list, just ignore that particular bit of my advice.

2. Don’t lie.

If you want to express interest in something your writer is crafting, then that’s fantastic—so long as you’re actually interested. Sure, some writers will feel put off if you don’t love their work as much as you love them, but you’ll be doing them a disservice if you pretend to like something that bores you to tears.

Authentic interest is something we crave—but don’t offer interest if it isn’t real. If you want to become interested but aren’t yet, try asking gentle, open questions about the story. Note that some writers will not enjoy this at all while others will enjoy both the attention and the opportunity to further formulate their ideas. If they’re comfortable talking about their work, guide the conversation toward the elements of the story that actually appeal to you.

3. Provide edible/quaffable support.

Many writers appreciate a good snack while they’re working. Sadly, many of us also have terrible snacking habits. I myself tend to make peanut butter chocolate chip sandwiches when I’m facing a deadline. If you can provide tasty yet moderately healthy snacks (like fruits, for example), you’ll be helping out in more ways than one.

Also, just like cars need gas and Santa needs to spy on little children while they’re sleeping, most of us writers require caffeine to operate. (There’s actually some interesting neurological stuff going on that explains this writerly addiction.) If you keep the kettle on or make sure there’s always coffee available, we’ll love you for it.

4. Get them to write, right now.

Not talk about their writing. Not brainstorm. Not organize. Not research. Not read articles on LitReactor.

Write.

Just write.

Writers face what I refer to as an “inertial barrier.” It’s difficult for us to get started with writing, but once we’ve gotten there it gets progressively easier and more enjoyable. We tend to be quite practiced at procrastination techniques, especially the ones that make it seem like we’re working on our story, but this only serves to increase the inertia. If you give us an extra push toward simply writing, you’ll be helping us get the momentum and energy required to get past the inertial barrier.

5. Give them a territory.

If you’re living with this writer, one of the best things you can do is give them a specific territory that they can organize or destroy as they see fit.

For example, I need absolute organization to work effectively, but I don’t need a lot of extras. I can set up an organized writing desk anywhere in the world. But others need a bit of clutter. Others still need a sense that they’ve emotionally charged the space. Some work best in outright chaos. Now, there are limits to how much a chaotic workspace can be functional; my father is a wonderful man, but his office is a fire hazard. Still, up until it’s absolutely unbearable, let the writer make the space their own. Our environments play a significant role for our emotional states, and if your writer feels uneasy they aren’t likely to write.

6. Encourage them to take care of themselves.

Writers have high-stress work, little natural social time, and (generally) sedentary lifestyles. We often fail to take care of ourselves and, as a result, crack under the stress. Rather than pressuring us to make our deadlines (I promise, we feel enough pressure already), you’ll be doing us a big favor by encouraging us to do basic emotional maintenance.

Emotional maintenance is another one of those things that comes in different forms for different people. For me, it’s yoga, meditation, and long walks. For others it’s ping pong, socializing with close friends, and eating a balanced breakfast. Whatever helps bolster your writer’s emotional resources will help them stand strong against their various challenges.

7. Do more than pat them on the head.

My guess is you’re reading this because you want to help a writer in your life, not because you’re a writer yourself. (Though maybe you are, in which case you’ll have an advantage on this one.) Even if you don’t feel you have much to say about writing itself, you’ll run into problems if all you do is congratulate your writer on a job well done over and over again.

Your writer will start to lose respect for your opinion. They’ll realize that you’re not going to give any in-depth feedback, and that makes you kind of useless. So giving support is great, praise is great, and it’s fine if you like everything that your writer produces—but you’ll need to be specific with the things that you especially liked, items that may not have worked as well for you, and so on.

By all means, however, check in with your writer before you start giving critical analysis; sometimes we’re just looking to see if the content is functional and enjoyable on a basic level, and other times we really do want that pat on the head.

8. Leave them the fuck alone!

It’s rare to get into the flow state for writing—and it’s incredibly valuable. I’ve produced 40+ pages in a sitting because I got into the flow of it. Don’t disrupt your writer, don’t ask questions. In fact, as much as you can, try to disappear. And if your writer is in the zone but you had plans? It’s his or her turn to take the dog for a walk? You know they have to wake up early and it’s currently 3 a.m.?

Just leave them the fuck alone. One of the most supportive things you can do is treat that flow state as sacred. I know it’s a pain to change your plans while they stare at a screen and type, but don’t worry … this doesn’t happen very often.

Oh, and here’s a bonus tip that has little to do with their writing and everything to do with your own: Don’t make stupid spelling or grammar mistakes. Even if your writer is nice about it, odds are they’re judging you for typing “their is alot of things on my mind.”

And that’s it for today. How about you? What’s worked in supporting the writers in your life? If you’re a writer, what support can others offer that would be most beneficial to you? Let us know in the comments, below.

How to deal with writers: Good advice for readers from online resource Ezine

Author of one of my favorite books, "The Scarlet Letter," Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote many true things about writing and writers.

Author of one of my favorite books, “The Scarlet Letter,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote many true things about writing and writers.

Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne

I read advice columns for writers daily, and if the suggestions resonate with what I believe in as an educator, or what I know works, I’ll bring them to this blog. Some suggestions spur an entire blog response on my part. Here’s a column I read today that takes an unusual tack; it speaks to those who read our writing—our audience—and gives our readers advice about how to deal with us (for a change). 

The original article, found on the Ezine blog, written by Penny, Ezine‘s managing editor, can be found here. Ezine is an online resource for writers, and I highly recommend it, because the level of advice offered there is specific and pragmatic.

Ezine also publishes your articles, once they’ve been vetted by Ezine staff. You can join for free, and start uploading your writing. Along the way, Ezine will help you get published, and, most importantly, seen.

It’s a relatively simple way to get your opinions and writing viewed in the online format/writing style that’s become industry-standard (they do require you to follow certain rules for writing online, and those rules are, I’ve found, very helpful for organizing your thoughts, at the same time they help you polish your style).

10 Tips to Be Kind to Writers

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter, A "stark tale" of adultery, guilt, and social repression. Have you read it? It's such a great book.

The Scarlet Letter, A “stark tale” of adultery, guilt, and social repression. Have you read it? It’s such a great book.

To celebrate Be Kind to Writers and Editors month, we’ve gathered 10 great recommendations to help you show your appreciation for the writers in your life.

Writers, feel free to share these suggestions with your friends and family. If you know a writer, please be kind to the writer in your life with these 10 tips!

  1. While writing isn’t brain surgery, it does require the writer’s full attention. Unless there’s a fire or another catastrophic event, keep distractions to a minimum and respect the time the writer dedicates to their craft.
  2. Be open to listening to our ideas. Writers are often considered hermits, but it’s not true! Occasionally, we writers will need to bounce an idea off another human. If we get that “Eureka!” look in our eyes, it’s best to just let us to our own devices, ask later, and know we appreciate your inspiration and help.
  3. Rejection and criticism sting, but we’ll take it in and ask for more when it’s delivered in a positive and constructive manner. Give it to us in the spirit of goodwill and provide specific reasons why you didn’t like or disagreed with the piece.
  4. You liked it? You really liked it?! Fantastic – we love hearing that readers (including those closest to us) love our work. So what did you like most about it and how did it move or help you? Please, be specific in your praise so we know you’re not pandering to our egos and we can keep up the good work.
  5. Comment on our articles, share our writing with your friends and family, interact with us on social media, and essentially be a part of our “fan club” to help promote our work. It’s not terribly easy to break into the open online, but it all starts with a support network of those closest to the writer.
  6. Write a positive review that highlights what you liked about the work and how other readers might benefit from reading it. Of course, if you didn’t like the piece, privately provide the writer with constructive feedback.
  7. Respect their progress and please be supportive. Most writers aren’t successful overnight and many of us moonlight in other professions (or would that be “daylight” or “sunlight” for those who haven’t quit their day jobs to focus on writing?).
  8. Writers are sponges – we soak up everything. Send us inspiration like candid questions, complicated queries, anecdotes, articles, book recommendations, article templates, etc. Often what doesn’t make its way directly into our work will indirectly influence our direction and outlook for future pieces.
  9. Get us out into the world from time to time. Encourage your writer to leave their work routinely and connect with other human beings. It’s important to their success and health!
  10. Bring them a cup of coffee or favorite snack. Writers are notorious for becoming so engrossed in their work or they simply don’t want to stop their progress once they’re in a good groove that they neglect even their most basic needs like food and water.

Next time you’ve enjoyed something you read, don’t take it for granted. Remember the writer behind it because as Nathaniel Hawthorne once said, “easy reading is damn hard writing.”

Nathaniel-Hawthorne-Quotes-3

Hawthorne’s quotes, by the way, come up frequently in resource searches. One of the books for writers I found while doing a search about his quotes looks quite helpful. Written by Don Fry (who I’ve never heard of until now), it’s called Writing Your Way: Creating a Writing Process That Works For You. I intend to take a look at it and possibly buy it, because I like his premise. He says that we’re taught to write a certain way that might not be right for you, and that we have to allow ourselves to write in a way we’re comfortable with. I think this makes a lot of sense, since trying to fit a round peg into a square hole never works for anyone! 

If you want to talk about any of this material I’ve presented here today, be sure to contact me at collaborativewriter@gmail.com or leave a comment.

Be kind to your writer by responding!

Step One To Thinking of Yourself as a Writer

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Here is step one in the six-step, developmental process I’ve created to help you think of yourself as writer. Subsequent steps can be found at The Collaborative Writer’s Online Course website (you’ll need a password for access to the self-directed online courses, so let me know if you’re interested in going forward). 

In the first step, we focus on the idea of ‘inspiration’ and begin with a poem intended to get you thinking about what what we mean by ‘inspiration’—where does it come from? How can we best use our ‘ah-ha!’ moments? How can we harness the energy of inspiration? These are all fundamental questions every writer navigates over time, and it’s where we’ll begin our journey. 

 
Inspiration
As to the flash of inspiration
and traffic laws on writing’s path—
what comes can’t be stopped, 
what leaves will not be restrained.
It hides like fire in a coal
then flares into a shout.
When instinct is swift as a horse
no tangle of thoughts will hold it back; 
a thought wind rises in your chest,
a river of words pours out from your mouth,
and so many burgeoning leaves sprout
on the silk from your brush
that colors brim out of your ears 
and music echoes in your eyes.
—from The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters
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Inspiration: What it is, what it isn’t

WHAT IT IS

Out of nowhere, a thought, feeling, or response to something you’ve read or heard enters your consciousness. What was unformed energy is suddenly a perception. You have something to say! Quick, write it down, because if you don’t, this idea is so unformed, it will be lost in an instant, and another brilliant thought will be lost to posterity.

WHAT IT ISN’T

This is not a subject, theme, or three-volume novel—yet. You have not yet discovered your subject, what it’s about or the why of it. All you have right now is an idea. This is not the time to call an agent to arrange a contract with a publisher. You are not in pre-writing yet. Nothing concrete might come of this idea. It is a start, a place to begin.

THINKING ABOUT IT

Invention is a stage in the writing process we don’t understand very well and therefore tend to mythologize, largely because it seems so entirely out of our conscious control, yet it’s where creation seems to begin. It often seems like the most magical moment in the writing process. Because of this, I believe we often invest too much in the notion that we must always sound utterly original and unique; otherwise, why bother?

Many developing writers don’t think of writing as a way of discovering what it is they want to say. Instead, they sometimes believe that they need to know precisely what it is they want to say before they begin to write, that writing should reflect a thinking process that is more or less complete. After all, we read only the finished works of Hemingway or Shakespeare. Society praises these works as brilliant, ignoring the writer’s process, with all its complications and confusions.

Something to keep in mind is that we often discover what we think, feel, or believe during the writing process itself. The physical act of writing (whether it’s by hand on paper or by hand as we type) forces us to make connections in our mind that we wouldn’t have otherwise perceived. Likewise, brainstorming, allowing yourself to write freely, without expectation of grammatical or editorial correctness, is an excellent way to allow your deepest, most authentic thoughts to surface.

Focus, at this stage, on exploring ideas, rather than imposing structure on your work.

WRITING EXERCISE #1

There are traditional methods of invention; the Ancient Greeks were using them over two thousand years ago. Coming up with ideas might seem the hardest stage of all in the writing process, but the easiest way to think of something to write is to have an emotional response to something you’ve experienced.

Strong emotion is a useful gauge of what’s important to us. There’s no faster way to know what you value; what’s important to you is an excellent place to begin your writing. You come to know yourself better when you allow yourself to explore your emotional responses.

Find a piece of writing (a newspaper article, a blog entry, an editorial of some kind) that spurs your response. Without editing yourself (especially without predetermining which emotional responses are appropriate) write as much as you can in response to the article. If it helps, imagine you’re speaking directly to the person who wrote the article. Disagree with him or her; tell the writer exactly what you think. 

If you’re angry, let yourself be angry; if you’re excited, let yourself be excited. Write by hand in your writer’s notebook, or write online and save your document. When you feel ready, share your response with me, and we can discuss what you’ve learned about yourself. The next step will be determining whether or not you’d like to develop an idea you discovered during this writing exercise.

Write to me when you’re done; let me know how your process goes. Or, if you’d rather work on your own, go to The Collaborative Writer Online Courses for more information.

The Oxymoron of Finding the ‘Free’ in Free Writing

When I was young, my father said something to me about the novel I was writing at the time that I’ve never forgotten. His response to my concern that I was spending years of my life doing something that might lead ‘nowhere,’ was “Write it. What have you got to lose?”

Children learn rules adults have to forget

Some rules we learned as children hold us back when we become adults

Although in many ways it’s a reasonable question, intended to encourage a sense of adventure, my answer hasn’t changed much in almost 30 years.

The answer for a lot of writers at any age, level of skill or experience  is, “Actually, I have a lot to lose.”

Although perhaps it shouldn’t be true, in fact, we have a great deal invested in our writing.

Self-esteem, ego, a desire to be part of the writing world, to publish, to see our name in lights; to have a movie made out of our writing, to be taken seriously—all of these desires might be wrapped up inside the act of putting pen to paper. Writing can seem desperately important for so many reasons, it’s hard to list them all.

My early experiences with writing led me to the place I am today, and I have lived every step of the process I talk about. I’ve watched students and clients struggle with their own esteem issues around writing, and I have learned that not everything we’re taught about writing helps our self-esteem; that in fact, there are very good reasons to question a lot of our inherited beliefs about writing.

Too many of those beliefs are either holding us back or causing us some kind of unnecessary anxiety. How do we liberate ourselves from our self-imposed limitations? By changing our minds about what we think we know.

Because I take the need to work at craft seriously, I’m a strong believer in the idea of discipline when it comes to one’s writing habits, except for two caveats.

Why Do We Need To Write Everyday?

I do not, technically, disagree with writing every day, even though I don’t believe you have to write every single day. I don’t think you’ll lose your chance to become a writer if you write less often, nor does writing more sporadically (and probably more realistically when it’s not your primary paying job) delegitimize you as a writer.

In fact, at least one book, The Weekend Novelist, has been written to help the aspiring writer maximize the use of her available time when writing every day sounds like a form of torture, and you’re afraid if you don’t develop ‘the writing habit’, you won’t be a “real” writer.

The only negative you’ll usually hear about developing a daily writing habit is that it’s tedious:

Of course there’ll be days when you feel uninspired, when you have nothing you want to write about, or when you’re hectically busy. But if you’re going to stick with writing fiction long-term, it needs to become part of your daily life.

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Forcing yourself to write every day is the first rule every professional writer uses to impress upon the aspiring writer how disciplined you have to be to succeed. Although forming a daily writing habit is usually a good idea, there are writers for whom this particular rule is a hurdle, not a help.

The uncertain or insecure writer isn’t sure he should be writing in the first place. Perhaps he’s taking time away from his family. Maybe no one supports his desire to write. Since the desire to write is quite often squelched early in life, and dismissed as impractical, many people feel guilty for wanting to write at all.

Maybe he has sent many pieces out, and has yet to receive an acceptance. Perhaps he’s had an emotional blow elsewhere in life, and now doubts himself in general. All of these situations have happened to me, or to others I’ve known and worked with, so I know they’re all possible, even for professional writers who have grown accustomed to writing as their way of life.

Too rigidly adhered to, forcing yourself to write every day can feel like scraping a dry bucket out of empty well, which can lead to feelings of self-doubt.

As writers, we need to accept that the ability to write begins with feeling good about ourselves (contradicting the prevalent social myth that all writers are emotional messes). There’s not a lot of personal freedom in the act of writing when we’re tied up in self-imposed knots of misery about ourselves, our habits, or beliefs that keep us stuck. 

The aspiring writer who has too many hurdles to overcome before he’s even begun to think of himself as a writer is at risk of preventing himself from continuing on.

How and When to Use the Writer’s Notebook

The other habit I disagree with is feeling forced to keep a writer’s notebook, especially if you feel no impetus to do so, but think you should because that’s what “real” writers do.

Instead, my belief is that keeping your notebook should flow organically from your internal desire to practice two important writer-skills: Observing and describing the world around you; and encouraging your imagination.

Although the idea of encouraging your imagination might seem obvious, or, conversely, like it’s an unnecessary skill now that you’re no longer a kid, Jessica Lasser, a writer who also conducts writing workshops for 9-16 year-olds, has the following to say about developing your imagination:

[I]magination isn’t some artsy fartsy muse that floats around sprinkling fairy dust on a few lucky people who “just happen” to have great imaginations. Imagination is a muscle. And like any other muscle, it gets stronger when you exercise it regularly. Think about it. What does your brain do when you read your favorite books? It takes a jumble of letters on a page, and it turns them into sights, smells, sounds, people, places … it creates an entire world inside your head out of nothing but ink and paper. That’s your imagination at work.

Jessica teaches free writing as a way to access the imaginative part of your mind’s capability to free-associate and exist in what I could call “flow-writing,” where the writing, as she reminds us, resembles the inner (imaginative) world we create when we’re immersed in a good book. However, I think the key here is not to bother calling the writing anything in particular; rather, to use your writing as a way to encourage this flow to happen.

The fastest and easiest way to use a notebook to encourage your imagination is to create simple writing prompts for yourself. You can use someone else’s ideas to do this, or you can set yourself a task each time you open your notebook that you’ll focus on one word or idea and then write whatever you want to, for as long or as short a time as works for you. 

The thing is, imagination doesn’t really respond all that well to rules, and when you start writing, that’s the worst possible time to impose rules on yourself (and that includes “calling” your writing anything). At the writer’s notebook ‘stage’ of writing, your writing might consist of notes; it might be made up of lists, it might be responses to color; it might be drawings. It might be phrases you’ve overheard others make. The point to the notebook, I believe, is to feel free keeping it. If you feel like you have just found yourself a new rule to bind yourself with, find something else to inspire your imagination, since imagination is easily destroyed by too much reality.

If keeping a writer's notebook sounds boring, why not draw your thoughts?

If keeping a writer’s notebook sounds boring, why not draw your thoughts?

To find that sense of personal freedom, you have to let go of a lot of rules. You know how people always suggest you try thinking like a kid at times like this?

I went to sites for kids to see how adults who teach kids engage their attention to do things they don’t necessarily want to do (one of which is writing, especially on command).

I very much like many of the suggestions on this page, and this writer’s energy about keeping a writing notebook:

You’re going to write and draw and paste all kinds of things into your Notebook so it could all end up in a big jumble!

As the whole point of the notebook is to make your ideas instantly accessible, it’s a good idea to number all the pages of your book before you start writing in it, and to leave some pages blank either at the front or the back for an index where you can list the page numbers of various types of information as they build up.

For example, one heading might be “Names for Characters” or another might be “Quotes” or “Ideas for Stories” or “Information for Settings.” Make sure also to put the starting and ending date on your Notebook as it will be the first of many Notebooks you will fill up as a budding author!

Instead of focusing on rules every writer should follow, implanting the idea of creating writing habits that might not be entirely necessary or even entirely realistic, I suggest we start small, and keep the goal realistic. If you want to create solid writing habits that will stand the test of time, there’s nothing that says that “writing every day” can’t also mean writing one sentence, one paragraph, or even just one simple idea. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with planting a seed on any given day that, when the time is ripe, will stand a chance to grow into something splendid because, little by little, you grew it and persevered, over time.