Friday, 25 February 2011

Softly, softly

I’ve been even lazier than usual recently – at least as far as this blog’s concerned. My excuses are legitimate – working on Brilliant Workplace Skills, trying to sort out printing problems with Stanley, writing the piracy (and other) DVDs, eliminating residual typos from The Sparrow Conundrum, thinking up a plot for this year’s CSI Aberdeen – a charity event in which groups try to solve a murder – and watching Barcelona play football.

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 …


  1. Having come off many years of technical writing, I can attest to this being very sound advice indeed. While fiction writing using outlines and pre-ordained structure works for some and not others, it never hurts to mentally arrange a chapter, a scene or a subplot using these techniques. And for those odd times when the Muse goes walkabout, it's an excellent way to jump-start the process, mapping out characters, actions, and descriptions - even if you never use them, or only use bits and pieces.

  2. Bill, I think the concept can be adapted quite well to fiction ... for some people. I have a writer friend who is multi-published in several types of romance. She has never outlined a single one of her 50+ published novels. She gets a story or character ideas and simply writes the scenes that come to her and saves them as separate files.

    She continues doing this, sort of like free-association, until she runs out of scene ideas. Then she puts them all in one file, chronologically, and writes in the blanks.

    Very left-brained way of writing, but since it works for her, she trusts her unconscious to fill in the blanks - and does so quite well.

    In business, I've heard of the concept "chunking down," which works the same way you've explained writing your nonfiction: taking a large project and breaking it down into small, manageable tasks.

    Excellent advice, as usual. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Diane, thanks for adding the ‘jump-start’ idea. You’re dead right – it’s one of the many ways there are of getting past writer’s block (although I’m fortunate in not suffering from that). And seeing fictional chapters as sequences of events, set-pieces, changes of pace, climaxes, lulls is a great way of maintaining control of your material.

    Linda, I’ve never used your friend’s techniques but I absolutely see the logic of it. She obviously gives her full attention to each set-piece as if it’s a flash fiction or short story, and her chartacters will make sure the whole stays consistent. The fact that she’s published over 50 novels rather proves the point, doesn’t it?

  4. Great idea, Bill, especially the glass of wine. :P

    I tend to look at the big picture and despair so maybe I need to starting 'thinking small'. Or just go fetch a bottle opener...

  5. Bill,

    Your post reminds me of an interview I once conducted with the brilliant author-philosopher Frank Waters, who said, "I never sit down consciously to write a novel. It's so frightening to do that. You've got to have a plot. Then you've got to have characters and you think of all the ones you've got to develop. Who's to be important and how will I do that, and then the writing and the mood and the place. And all this is in your mind and its's just a frightening thing. And you think, 'I can't pull all this together so I'll just write a few pages to see how it might go. And then you write a few more.'"

    And his novels turned out wonderfully.

  6. Fiona - 'thinking small' really works. Mind you, so does the glass of wine.

    Jean, isn't it nice when a successful, established writer talks about the writing process in exactly the same way that you experience it yourself. Makes you think you must be doing something right. Thanks for that.