This Post Brought to You by the Letter Q: How to Write When You Can’t

flicker_dantaylor_oscarIn order to get from A to Z, you have to traipse through the whole goddamn alphabet.  The other 24 letters might mean nothing to you, but those guys actually get you to where you’re going.

Recently, I helped my partner with a guest post that was killing him.  When the writing comes easy, words flow like unicorn vomit from a writer’s fingertips.  For my partner, this post was not unicorn vomit.  Like an angry child the writing sat on the ground and refused to move, and when it did move, it came kicking and screaming.  Yeah, that kind of writing.

He asked me for my opinion.  The post was to recruit new members for a leadership program, so naturally he wrote a post about leadership.

He used a form that I know as “the funnel.”  The post started with a broad idea of leadership, narrowing it down to how being a leader is good experience, and finally narrowing it down to why being a leader of this particular group is beneficial.  He started with the broad idea of leadership and brought it down to the idea of leadership for this specific group.

In my feedback I pointed out the funnel.  I told him he could cut the broader section of the funnel.  This prompted a question from him, something to the affect of, “how do I improve my process so I don’t have to go through all that?”

He was asking me if there was a way that he could skip those steps and write the post in a shorter amount of time.  Here’s what I told him.

There isn’t.

I told him that our minds need to go through that process.  Those tedious steps are necessary to get to the good ideas.  He just had to trust the process.

I know the feeling very well.  When it happens to me, I feel as if I’m dredging something from the bottom of a deep lake.  I have no idea what the object is, what it looks like or how large it is.  I do know that it is heavy and cumbersome.  And if I pull too hard, the thread may snap.  The object will sink to the bottom of the lake, and I may never find it again.

In order for my partner to figure out what needed writing, he had to go through those other steps.  Letter K reveals the letter L.  Letter S reveals the letter T.  He can’t leap from one letter to the other, but he has to trust that he’ll arrive at the letter Z.

So what does this process look like?  It’s pretty simple:

  1. Write a full draft.  Write every word, no matter how painful.  It might feel like someone is feeding you sour milk while they pull out your fingertips and play a recording of nails on a chalkboard.  Even if it’s excruciating, write down every word.  The Inner Critic is not invited to this party.  You don’t have to make it sound good; you just have to do it.
  2. Walk away.  For a while.  Forget about writing.  Forget about your blog, story, midterm paper, or breakup letter.  Get distracted and look at something else a while.  Only when you do that can you find what you didn’t see before.
  3. Edit the full draft.  The whole thing, all the way through.  Edit the first draft until you have a complete second draft.  Go line by line, and read the paragraphs.  How do you move from one idea to the next?  Are there gaps?  Is that anecdote about the time you laughed at the wrong joke and snorted milk out of your nose really necessary?  That one idea is good, but what else is underneath it?
  4. Repeat Steps #2 and #3 one, two, three times.  Or until you feel like you’re done.  My standard is to write five drafts, but I sometimes I manage three.  It takes three drafts until things start looking pretty.  You may find that something else works for you, but it’s important to fully complete Steps #2 and #3.

If you’re willing to give it the time it needs, this process can work.  Try it once on something small and see how you do, but remember to complete the drafts all the way through.

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