Multi-tasking is not a strategy for success, whether it be in life or in writing. As counterintuitive as it may sound, you will actually be more productive as a writer if you allow yourself the luxury of focusing on one task at a time.
This can be especially problematic for those who see writing as some mystical experience that happens only when we are in the flow. We are all grateful for those days when the words come thick and fast. These suggestions will help you capitalize on those moments so that you never again have that feeling that you’ve lost an important thought in the fray.
More importantly they’ll provide you with what every professional writer needs, the steady flow of language that comprises our daily bread.
1) Suspend judgment. All too often, we have an inner editor who tells us that a word, a phrase, or even a sentiment isn’t worthy of our readership, our subject matter, or ourselves – the almighty author. There’s a time and a place for that critic. But during the initial brainstorming phase, we must learn to banish him. Allow yourself the free play of ideas, no matter how silly, outrageous, or off-the-wall.
2) Find the right word (or not). When we’re writing for content, we are often still figuring out what it is we need to say. The how can come later. So if exactly the right word eludes you, allow it to do so.
Leave that space blank and mark it with some tick mark of your own devising. I use a number sign (#). Chances are, when you start the next paragraph, it will come to you. And if you dwell on it, you lose your train of thought, and in the effort to grab that one word, 20 will fall by the wayside.
Of course the opposite is true as well. Sometimes three words will come to mind, but none of them are exactly right. When that happens, I put all three in parentheses, divide them with a slash, and keep writing. Usually I have to break out a thesaurus during the revision stage. I see that as an opportunity to [learn more about my topic] and my language.
3) Work with your technology, not against it. Word’s spell check has saved my buns more often than I care to admit. It is also an endless source of amusement and irritation. I turn it off when I’m drafting, and I suggest you do the same. There is nothing more distracting while writing than wondering if you’ve spelled a word correctly. It’s one form of procrastination. Don’t allow your technology to play along.
(While you’re at it, you might consider turning off the email alerts and maybe even the wi-fi.)
4) The order of the document is not the order of the process
a) Write the introduction last. I don’t know what I’m going to say until I said it. There’s no point writing the introduction first because I’m going to stray from that pattern, especially if I’m writing a lengthy academic article (between 25 and 60 pages).
Even if you’re writing a smaller article, like a 2 or 3 page piece for a magazine or a briefing paper, consider writing the content before you write the introduction. Then it would make sense to rewrite the article matching up to the introduction. You’ll create a document that has more organic harmony and flow, and you’ll save yourself a lot of hassle.
b) Reverse outline. I have mixed feelings about outlining, but I’ll save that for another post. For now, suffice it to say that reverse outlining is a process that dramatically changed my approach to writing lengthy documents. The process is simple to explain and unbelievably difficult to do.
Essentially you create a zero draft. You might be accustomed to thinking of this as the first draft of your document, but really it’s nothing more than a set of brainstorming notes that’s really well formulated.
You then number each of the paragraphs and write out a topic sentence for each paragraph. This may or may not be the first sentence of each paragraph. You’ll be surprised to discover how often the first sentence does not encapsulate the idea expressed in that paragraph.
When you’re done, look at the topic sentences in isolation. How well do they flow? Revise them until they have a succinct, logical order that’s easy to follow. The reverse outline should serve as an abstract for your paper. Now go back and revise your paper accordingly.
c) Edit in stages. I’ve never edited a document from beginning to end. It’s pointless. You uncover too many big errors. You have too many false starts.
So the first thing to do is create an editing plan. (I’ve got one you can use for a small donation.)
Then you need to find ways to keep the document strange so that it never becomes too familiar. For that reason, I work backwards through the document the first time through. And I alternate working on a computer and working on a printout.
Finally, be sure that you make each edit a line item on an Excel spreadsheet so that you’re never editing on the fly.
I hope that you find these suggestions helpful as ways of keeping the Muse active a little longer. And if you have tips to share, please do so. We can all benefit from the wisdom of others.