There are obvious attractions to a writing process where you avoid the complications and try to get your piece right the first time. You don’t have to make such a mess with raw writing, you don’t have to write in the dark without knowing where you are going, you don’t have to engage in extensive revising – just a little tidying up, perhaps, at the end. No wonder most people instinctively try to write this way. Why keep on writing when you know something is wrong and will have to be changed? It feels obvious that you should stop and cross it out now and not go on to the next bit till you get this bit right.
If you want to use this one-step writing process, the main thing you must learn to do is what writers have traditionally been advised to do: get your meaning clear in your head before you start writing.
There are lots of methods people use for figuring out their meaning before they write. Making an outline is probably the most common and versatile method. An outline, by its nature, almost forces you to figure out what you really mean. And because of its compressed visual form, it permits you to see your whole train of thought or narrative in one glance and thereby detect problems you miss when you go through your writing more slowly. (Remember that you are always moving more slowly through your writing than your reader will move: if you aren’t actually writing you are constantly pausing to change or fix things.)
Outlining is most effective when you already know many of the ideas or incidents or images you want to use in your writing and you are trying to clarify and organize them. If you don’t yet know much of what you want to say you may find outlining of no use at all. Who hasn’t had the dismal experience (as you to follow the teacher’s orders ansd start with an outline) of sitting there trying to transform one uninteresting thought into an architecture of Roman numerals, capital letters, arabic numerals, and small letters.
A more common form of getting your meaning clear before writing is simply to put off writing till you have had a chance to mull and ponder and chew on your topic for at least a few days – longer if possible. Many competent experienced writers never actually start writing about anything without first giving themselves plenty of time for this early simmering process.
Another way to get your meaning clear before you write is to have a conversation or discussion about the topic – better yet, perhaps, an argument. This permits you to try out various ideas, approaches, formulations. Thoughts mature, crucial distinctions emerge, precise terms come clear.
Yet another way to figure out what you mean before you write is to think as hard and as clearly as you can about the audience (if any) for whom this piece is intended and the effect you want your words to have on it. Bring your readers into your presence by seeing them clearly in your mind. And as for purpose, don’t settle for “I want my words to work.” Visualize specifically what you want the words to do: Make the readers see something? Make them feel certain emotions? Perform certain actions? Change their minds? This clear grasp of your audience and purpose may focus your thinking in such a way that you immediately realize just what you need to say and how you need to say it.
You can also focus your thinking quickly by simply increasing the pressure on yourself. Pressure cookers permit higher temperatures, quicker cooking. That is, one of the things that keeps us from figuring out what we really mean is having too many interesting choices of things we could mean. We can’t make up our mind. Blocked writers suffer from too many ideas more often than from too few. But if you are standing up on a stage and have already been introduced and the audience is sitting there waiting for you to speak, you simply have to decide on something to say. It may not be the right decision, but it’s a decision and you are off.
When the method works magically – that is, when you tap your deepest powers and cook everything completely before you write anything down – sometimes there is a finer integration and connectedness than you can achieve by revising. And even when it works only adequately – that is, when you merely settle on something that happens to be on the surface of your mind and then write it out – you may be able to write your piece more quickly and with less uncertainty than if you used two steps.
But it is a dangerous method because it puts more pressure on you and depends for its success on everything’s running smoothly. If you are out of practice or insecure or just a bit off your form, you can take longer trying to get something right the first time than you would have needed for writing roughly and then revising. Indeed, the method often fails outright. That is, you can sit there and think and stare into space, try to make an outline, perhaps try beer and naps and walks, and still not figure out what you want to say – or even anything good to say. That need to get it right prevents the ingredients in your head from cooking, developing, progressing. You are at G, you are looking for Z, but your eagerness for Z prevents P, Q, and R from occurring to you since they are so different from Z.
By this time you have wasted most of the time you had available for writing this thing, you feel there is something the matter with you (“Everyone else can figure out what to say by making an outline!”), and so you either settle on something obvious and uninteresting or you fumble your way through the whole piece of writing without ever really deciding what you mean.
There’s one more danger. Trying to write things right usually means writing very slowly and carefully. Long pauses between sentences and paragraphs to make sure of your bearings. This often leads to overwriting and overintricacy. You have too much time to work up clever turns of phrase and cunning complexities. Writing slowly and carefully, you also invest too much love and effort into that draft – after all, those intricacies are clever – so it becomes too hard to throw those cute gems into the garbage. Thus, odd as it may sound, trying to write it right the first time not only increases the danger of dull writing, it also increases the danger of writing that is cloyingly precious.
At some point before you finish revising any piece of writing, you should figure out and state clearly for yourself exactly what you are trying to say. In one sentence. (In the case of poetry or fiction it may not be your meaning or message that you must make clear to yourself – perhaps your piece does not have a meaning or message – but rather your plan or what your piece is about or what effect you are trying to have.) If you want to make your writing as good as possible – to tap your full range of insights and perceptions – it’s usually better not to start with this exact conception of your meaning or goal but instead to let it emerge as you are writing or force it to emerge as you revise. If, however, your main goal is to save time and simplify the writing process, it may help to crystalize your meaning before you start writing. What’s important to remember is that getting your meaning clear in advance is a simplification that only simplifies when you can do it quickly and well. Otherwise it complicates your efforts.
Therefore it is probably worthwhile practicing methods for getting your meaning clear in advance. Outlining, thinking about your audience, and putting yourself under pressure are good methods when you already have a lot of ingredients in mind. If you are still pretty blank, a nap, mulling it over, or a discussion is probably more effective.
One good way of learning to work out your meaning in advance is just go give it a quick try whenever you have to write anything. But don’t insist on success or use up too much time on the effort.
But when you are writing small pieces that aren’t too important (as in the case of some memos, letters, reports, and abstracts) try forcing yourself to get your meaning clear before you start. These are just the kinds of writing where speed and ease of writing are more important than achieving the highest quality. You will be grateful if you can learn to write memos and reports and letters by just closing your eyes for a moment or jotting down a quick outline and then whipping them off pretty much as they belong. You have no choice but to master the dangerous method if you have to write essay exams or write letters by dictation.
The best way to make an outline for nonfiction writing has two stages. First write down all the ideas you can think of in whatever sequence they occur to you. (If your piece calls for careful or complex thinking, force yourself to write each idea in the form of a full sentence with a verb. A mere word or phrase – “outlines” or “importance of outlines” – doesn’t clarify your thinking as much as a sentence: “Outlines are important.” You can clarify your thinking even more by insisting on an action verb: “Outlines organize your thinking.”) Second, look through all these sentences and figure out your main idea – what you really want to say. Then arrange the sentences so they form a clear sequence – so they “tell a story.” You may have to add a couple of points to make your sequence complete; and throw a couple away to get rid of some kinks in your sequence. Now you know just what you are saying and your order for saying it.
You might think that figuring out your meaning before you write would be especially helpful for inexperienced or unskilled writers since it gives so much security and confidence to have that outline in hand as you start to write. But really, only experienced pros can use this approach reliably. Only pros can count on getting life and creativity into those outlines or naps or sleepy walks. When you see a pro sitting there at the desk staring into space not writing a word, you can probably trust that she is engaged in creative, productive and efficient work.