By: Noelle Sterne
“A simple word on a blank sheet of paper gathers momentum as I wonder at what it could mean, where it could take place, why, and what if? And then, I write.” ― Tyrean Martinson
The sage advice of the King in Alice in Wonderland to the White Rabbit may be the worst possible dictum for writers: “Begin at the beginning . . . and go on till you come to the end.” If we follow this command, we may only increase our angst and cement creative paralysis.
When I coach doctoral candidates as they begin writing, I often advise them not to start at the beginning, that is, with Chapter 1. They sometimes think I’m nuts, but, as a heretic in the King’s court, I’ve got sound reasons.
In the first chapter, the writer must present a thorough and concise overview of the background of the problem to be investigated. This presentation requires (a) great familiarity with the breadth of the topic and (b) greater familiarity with previous studies of the particular subject.
Most candidates don’t get to know what they’re really writing about, much less what previous scholars wrote and why, until they’ve been living with their dissertation for several months.
So I advise clients to start with Chapter 3. Why? This chapter in traditional dissertations describes the methods of the study. The style should be very straightforward, with precise descriptions of the steps the candidate will take to conduct the study and reach conclusions.
Think of a Cookbook
First, I will create a flyer for recruiting students to complete my questionnaire on their most effective study habits. Then I will seek permission from the office of student affairs to post the flyer on campus bulletin boards. Next, I will . . .
When students start with Chapter 3, they gain some significant advantages. They can break into the work with at least a minimum of apprehension, and they can write something. Seeing their paragraphs miraculously mount gives them the needed confidence to keep writing. Writing, in turn, loosens their fear-locked minds, so they become more creative about, in our example, where to recruit, who to recruit, when, and many other considerations.
It’s the same with our personal writing. Starting anywhere bolsters our confidence. I’m often anxious, scared, or nervous about starting a new piece, whatever the length. Maybe I’ve already got the seed or a promising phrase scratched on the back of an old envelope from the rusted mailbox. Perhaps the idea appears when I’m sitting outside with my morning coffee, or writing something entirely different. (As I made notes for a forthcoming workshop on writing, the title of this piece popped out.)
To start—with anything—helps enormously. Sit quietly and think about your topic—and don’t force it. What pulled you into the topic in the first place? Relight that spark. Free think. And soon you will be moved to freewriting—about any aspect of the work. I’ve written whole sections and chapters this way, not knowing until much later where or how they will fit. But eventually, they do.
Linearity versus Creativity?
My reflections here in a way resurrect the old debate between writing from outlines and writing by “free flow.” Some writers feel secure with a sheaf of outline notes, in starched order. Plenty of bestselling authors have used and use outlines, sometimes of staggering complexity and even artistry, as Emily Temple demonstrates in Famous Author’s Handwritten Outlines for Great Works of Literature. If an outline worked for William Faulkner, Joseph Heller, Sylvia Plath, and J. K. Rowling, it can work for us.
Outlines – Groping in the Dark or Seeing the Big Picture?
Other authors all but gag at the thought of mind-mapping or outlining. In an interview, Margaret Atwood was asked if she uses outlines. “I did that once,” she replied. “It was a terrible mistake.”
Like Atwood, I often feel hamstrung with a stringent outline and the pronouncement to begin at the beginning. Even when a brilliant opening knocks at my notepad, I have to feel along where to go from there.
My notes often dribble into an entire section of an article or novel, but it lives in limbo like the Earth hanging in space in an astronaut’s photo. I usually don’t know where the scribbled passage will fit into a piece, but I obey the compulsion to just jot it down.
Writers often agree that the writing leads you. You may know that often-quoted observation by E. L. Doctorow: Writing is “like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I think he was obliquely cheering for flow.
Reconciliation/ One From Group A . . .
Despite my passionate defense of flowing, I admit to using some outlines, or mini-outlines. When the ideas bombard, often in digressions and tangents, I can’t quite get them down fast enough (in case you’re about to suggest it, dictating has never worked for me). So, in a kind of sideways-script frenzied outline, I jot the sequence of ideas. My head clears, and I go back to the primary writing, secure that those other ideas are not lost and that I will come back and develop them.
A writing colleague told me she does a very broad outline for new pieces, sometimes as general as variations of “Intro-Body-Conclusion.” But she’s gotten something down. Then, she said, she stares, squirms, and sips her wine as she waits for the next ideas to surface.
In academic writing, the general outline is supplied for you—chapter titles, subsections of chapters, article headings. Within these, though, you must order your thoughts and conclusions. Here’s where that Chapter 3 strategy comes in.
A variation that works for some authors is mind-mapping. It’s kind of a hybrid between freeflow and outlining. You draw a circle in the middle of a page, say, of your main idea or plot. Then, you draw lines emanating from the circle for subplots, relevant tangents, and associated thoughts, all in balloons, squares, or other shapes you fancy.
You may want to draw offspring balloons springing from the major ones.
Mind mapping is “a creative and logical” way of “getting information in and out of your brain” Mind mapping also stimulates your creativity, maybe more than outlining.
In our fiction and certainly nonfiction writing, generally, longer works that may span decades or generations, an outline or mind map can be a lifeline. Despite Doctorow, these tools can function somewhat like a road map. And get you started.
Using an outline, I’ve had to remind myself of two essentials.
- The outline can always be changed. In my book for doctoral candidates, I kept reordering the outline (hopefully) to mirror the students’ sequence of procedures and worries.
- Make room for new ideas. Outlining and writing segments, I kept making room for and allowing the next ideas, thoughts, ramifications, pertinent subtopics, even tangents.
As you work on your draft, and even outline, new and better thoughts, and observations will come. They are inevitabilities of your creative mind at work. Even if you’re still driving in the dark, your mind is stimulated, curious, and exhilarated.
Trust Your Process
So, the perceived linearity or straitjacket of an outline is not the enemy of your creativity. The act of writing begets writing. Thinking begets ideas.
Open up to yours, wherever you begin your work. Listen to yourself for where you really want to begin, what you really want to write in today’s session.
Despite pen-top chewing, I’ve learned to trust the process. Through many drafts, and starting in many places, I eventually get there.
Trust your own process—outline, inline, mid-line, no line—and you too will beat the starting blues and complete your work.
Author, editor, writing coach, writing and meditation workshop leader, spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 600 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, short stories, and occasional poems.
Author Magazine, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, Mused, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Ruminate, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Coaching, The Write Place At the Write Time, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest.
Academic mentor, editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Noelle has delivered requested presentations on academic writing at several universities and is a regular contributor to Abstract, the blog of the Textbook and Academic Authors Association (TAA).
She also contributes pieces to other national and international publications on dissertation issues and writing. In July and August 2018, she, was one of six webinar presenters for its “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish.”
Eons ago, she published a children’s book of original (groanworthy) dinosaur riddles, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (What do you get when dinosaurs crash their cars?). Riddles from the book appear in several elementary school language arts texts, and the book was featured on PBS’s Reading Rainbow.
A Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast (May 16, 2017) featured her story “Time to Say Goodbye” from a 2013 volume:https://chickensoup.podbean.com/e/tip-tuesday-why-you-should-remove-toxic-people-from-your-life-and-how-to-do-it/_
Noelle’s book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings.
Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) is an invaluable resource for doctoral candidates.
As part of pursuing her writing dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach theirs and create the lives they truly desire.
Taking her own advice (hard as it may be), she recently completed her first novel.
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing
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