Writing the workplace book has reminded me of a technique I often use and which I think helps people writing all sorts of materials or planning tasks. It’s a pretty obvious, straightforward thing, but it works for me. It’s based on the fact that a novelist, for example, doesn’t write A NOVEL – no, she writes some words, then some more words, then some more until she stops. And when she does, there’s the novel. I think most people, faced with what they see as a big task – writing a novel, clearing out the loft, bringing the garden under control, shedding a few hundred pounds – wonder how they’re going to manage it. Because it’s so huge, so impossible. The point is that they don’t manage it, because none of these things is a single process – they all consist of lots of little tasks, all of which we’re capable of doing.
When writing a chapter on how to research things at work for example, let’s say I need to produce 4000 words. And let’s say the structure requires sections on:
• an overview of how to organise it;
• where to look for data, (which in turn subdivides into more headings such as people, organisations, libraries, printed and other media, the internet);
• the role of surveys and questionnaires, (which, again, has subdivisions on how to plan surveys, design questionnaires, choose respondents, frame questions, interpret results, and others);
• etc., etc.
We’ll call the file RESEARCH. Into it I’ve dumped all the notes I have on the subject, organised them into sections and subsections then arranged them into what looks like a logical sequence under headings and subheadings, each of which has some notes as its body text. Once the overall shape looks and feels right, I highlight the first heading, with its notes, and copy and paste it into a new file. I leave the section in RESEARCH highlighted. The file into which I paste the material that needs writing up is always called 000 because that puts it at the top of the file list so it’s quick to find when I log on and start work. I then expand the notes in 000 into a piece of writing that covers the points I need to make. I highlight and copy the whole file, click on RESEARCH and replace the still highlighted text with the new material. I then move to the next heading (or sub-heading) and repeat the process.
So, rather than write a 4000 word chapter, I write several mini-essays, each of which has maybe 300-400 words. When they’ve all been written and pasted back into RESEARCH, I read through it and deal with any repetitions, links, awkward transitions and so on. By physically separating the sections from the large file, they immediately become much more manageable tasks which I can get through quickly. I don’t know about the psychology of it but it just feels better to be working with a 400 word text than one ten times longer.
I think using this technique when writing fiction will depend on what your usual approach is. If you plan things in advance and follow a structure, it might work. I tend to have a general idea of where I want to head and I let the characters take me there, so it’s a sort of organic growth process rather than the mechanical one I’ve been describing. But for anything that needs structuring and consists of discrete but connected segments, it works well.
And it’s not just writing that’s less taxing when you do this. I mentioned controlling the garden. Instead of standing at sunset casting your eyes over all the acres you own and despairing about how you’ll turn it into a dazzling floral display or an abundant larder, look at a tiny corner of it, dig that over and go and have a glass of wine.
Which sounds like a good idea, so …