Last week I was talking with friends during our biweekly mastermind group. We were discussing how to succeed at completing writing projects. One friend asked me my method, and I shared the outlines of the approach I outline below. I have not completed a book yet (the fourth level), but I continue to write regularly, with part of that output being what I send to you in this eNewsletter. Writing is a beautiful and rewarding experience for me, and a challenging and frustrating one. Simply put, writing, and especially writing well, is not easy. And, really, it shouldn’t be. It is one of the more complex tasks in which humans engage. In any case, the following outlines my Four Level Writing Method.
A jot is a short note that captures an idea, either one’s own or someone else’s, that is judged to have enough value to be retained and, later, expanded upon. These jots can be captured in whatever way is convenient. For example, a jot can be handwritten in a small notebook that is always on the writer’s person, finger-typed on a mobile phone note app, or recorded on a voice memo app. A writer should be in the habit of jotting throughout the day, capturing concepts, quotes, images, phrases, rhymes, or even single words that at that moment evoke a strong emotion or intimate an entire world to which that word offers secret entry. Anything no matter how ephemeral, that promises to be a raw ingredient to the writer’s work should be captured. These potentially valuable ideas can arise when meeting with patients, family, or friends; that may be overheard on the street or grocery store line; that arise spontaneously during a walk, a meal, or a bath; or that are encountered through reading or listening to lectures, movies, and podcasts.
A journal entry is the written expansion of a jotted idea. The writer should devote time regularly, preferably once daily, to riff on that day’s jots and the jots’ surrounding themes. These journal entries should be done as soon as possible after the ideas are first generated and captured in jots so that their minimally developed and expressed ideas are not lost to forgetfulness. At the level of journaling, the writer relaxes, breaths deeply, and writes quickly, capturing all the jot’s connotations, implications, intimations, related concepts, and connections that come to mind. Hundreds of words may come pouring out without pause. Abrupt turns, non-sequiturs, and dropped idea threads are common and are to be expected. These journal entries now form the expanded though still ill-formed ingredients that can be used in the next level of writing, that is, in the “blog posts.”
A blog post – and I use this word broadly to refer to any short and organized piece of written work – is the first sharable or publishable form of writing. Taking one or more journal entries, the writer begins the process of organizing the ideas in the journal entries and further reflecting on their relationships and progressions. Paragraphs and sentences are moved around to reflect an initial organizational scheme. Gaps in what was written in the journal entries are filled and, even more commonly, many ideas and connections are eliminated, a process not unlike pruning a garden bush that has lost all sense of form. This process of organizing, filling gaps, and eliminating unwanted thoughts continues until an adequate structure has emerged.
Additionally, the sentences and paragraphs that were eliminated from the blog post can be saved for possible other uses. Prior to renaming and saving this leftover content in a document designed to capture all manner of jots and leftover content, the writer can organize these remainders and, if time allows, even expand them with new ideas and connections that come to mind at that moment and, at the very least, leave behind instructions to self on what to do or which directions to take the next time this document is opened.
Booking, a verb I made up, is the process of combining many blog posts and other material into a book-length manuscript. With dozens or hundreds of blog posts available, the writer can review them and consider possible schemes for organizing this much longer work, whether it is, for example, a book, screenplay, or training course. These longer works will often seem like insurmountable summits when the writer starts from nothing. However, with an always-growing library of blog posts supplemented with many additional non-organized jots and journal entries, the task of writing a book becomes more of a task of organization than one of creation. Of course, organizing a book-length project is challenging but is less so than one that requires both writing and organizing such a manuscript. If the writer is left unsure how best to organize a complex longer work, any path forward can be chosen. Oftentimes the most obvious, seemingly uncreative structure is the best one to start with. Completing the work using an initial, even if less than ideal, structure affords the writer a running start. The act of completing a manuscript, even if its initial form will ultimately be discarded, provides the writer the extended focus that invariably suggests other, perhaps better, ideas and structures. The process of writing and perfecting is iterative.
Until next time,
“The center that I cannot find is known to my unconscious mind.” – W.H. Auden
“A careful first draft is a failed first draft.” – Patricia Hampl
“Tears are words that need to be written.” – Paulo Coelho
“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne
“The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.” – Anais Nin