While it’s true that the single most important aspect of productivity is to actually sit down and get to work, I wish it were that simple. I find writing nonfiction is a journey with several steps that do not necessarily proceed in a linear fashion. More distressing is the fact that some steps loop around and may repeat. It’s easy to feel frantic as the days pass and the deadline looms larger. To make it all work? I try to relax into my process.
Thinking time: You can’t write until you have some idea of what you’re talking about.
On some assignments, there’s plenty of time to mull things over and get your thoughts in order. On others, no amount of time will ever seem like enough. Yet we get our work done in either scenario. I’ve discovered that there is some amount of thinking required for each assignment. The problem is, it varies by assignment. What all assignments do have in common is the point that needs to be reached before the words flowing from your fingers are your words in your voice. That point comes with what I think of as mastery of the subject. You can reach mastery by reading every book available on the topic – or not. For some topics, I have literally read everything I can find and yet I still don’t feel in command of the material. That command – mastery – comes in the writing process. The trick is in knowing that in enough time to get to writing and gain the level of comfort required to complete the assignment by deadline.
Writing for understanding. Write a narrative about what you’re going to write about.
I read that Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Milhone mystery series, keeps a journal for each book she writes. In her journal, she writes about what’s going well, but most importantly about what is not going well. She finds that doing this often results in an answer to the problem. I’ve tried this, and it works like a charm. I also have tried thinking about a problem right before I go to sleep and often awaken with the solution. A new thing I’ve been doing is writing about what I’ve learned as I learn it. So what that looks like is at the end of each day, I write a To Whom It May Concern sort of piece to fill the mythical Whom in on what I now know on the topic. This often has the effect of cluing me into something I missed in my research. I either go back to re-read my sources and fill in that blank, or add it to my master list of things to learn. I print out each narrative and highlight the part where I say what I’m not sure about. Each narrative also includes the sources I used for that material as well as the source for the missing material when I find it. I know. It sounds like a lot of work. I also know that discovering you don’t understand a key piece when you only have eight weeks to go to your deadline is not a better answer!
Achieving mastery: What you write won’t have your voice until you’re the one narrating the piece.
Reading everything you can find. Speaking about the topic with any and all people, knowledgeable on the topic or not. Watching documentaries whenever possible. All of these are ways to achieve mastery. At least they seem like the logical way to go about it. I think to a certain extent it’s a fallacy to say you will master the topic through research and discussion. I think mastery comes from putting the material together and explaining it to someone else. Sure, you can do that verbally, but we’re writers. By trying to write an explanation of a difficult subject, the holes become apparent very quickly. What do do when a hole appears? Put [ ] around the missing info and keep going. You’re sure to hit another hole. Once you’ve done that all the way through, you will find the missing pieces for your mastery. Very often they are all part of one continuous thread that hasn’t gelled for you. Once you get that piece in place, it feels like something slips into place. The next thing you know, you’re writing in your own voice and all the research you’ve done falls into place.
Readers are key: You know what you’re saying; the question is whether or not anyone else does.
I’ve been ISO a critique group for what feels like forever. I’ve finally discovered several wonderful writer friends who will read my stuff when I’m in a jam. That’s perfect because for most things, I don’t writer-readers, although I’d love to have them. For most things, I need people who are like the people I’m writing for: Curious people. If those people read what I’ve written and find their interest straying or wind up confused and at a dead end, I need to know. I ask my curious readers to tell me where their attention wanders, where they are confused, and where something feels off. When I put their answers in the pile with my writer-readers, I learned that the curious readers might not be able to tell me what was wrong, but they knew when something was off in the same places my writer-readers pointed out a flaw in technique or something that was writing-related. Since I’m usually writing about a topic that is new to either group of readers, where their attention wanders and/or they become confused is pretty similar as well. When I can, I get both writers and the curious to read my draft. If I can’t get both, I don’t worry as much as I used to (hey! worry is my middle name!). I go with who I have and know that I’m going to come pretty close to the ideal feedback in either case.
Read it aloud: Reading your material aloud to yourself along the way is important; reading it aloud to someone else is vital.
There is no worse moment than that moment when you realize you sound bored as you read your material aloud to a trusted friend. Even if they don’t feel the world slowing on its axis, you do. Highlighting the spot and continuing on gives you a chance to see if your listener went off line there, too. It also gives you the opportunity to revisit the spot and question the listener about their reaction. If you have a really good listener, that person is going to notice that you’ve used the same word too many times – probably right about at the same moment it strikes you. The listener is also going to notice when the voice changed or when “something” didn’t feel right. If you have a listener who is able to add value like that, ply that listener with Starbucks, sweets, or iTunes gift cards! If your listener is not that astute, yet has the staying power to listen to twenty pages at a go while you listen to yourself, break out those same thank you tokens. Reading aloud to someone other than yourself is the single most important step to take before sending your material off to an editor or an agent.