If I had to describe my outlining and drafting processes in a single phrase, I would call them “determined disasters.” The fact that most of my work blossoms from a single file labeled Brain Dump is probably rather telling.
But hey — if it works, it works, right?
There’s been so much written on the topic of organization for writers, with lots of intelligent and productive people spinning lovely images of functional outlines, productive drafts, and a polished editing process.
A veritable Eden for the wayward wordsmith, and a convincing incentive to become very hard on yourself when you fail to reach those high productivity standards.
I have tried many of the popular methods, adapting them to my needs as I went, and the result has been…well.
Frankenstein’s monster was functional, wasn’t he?
The truth is, your writing strategy doesn’t need to be pretty. It doesn’t even have to make sense. It just has to work — i.e., result in you, the writer, writing. And if your process resembles a slightly motheaten patchwork quilt, all that matters is that it can still keep your feet warm.
Let me elaborate.
Chaos Is The Natural Order (Of Beginnings).
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that all things tend toward disorder. Call it entropy, call it a big mess (as Einstein did, when using his disorganized desk as a metaphor for the process), call it destruction…but everything in the universe skews toward disarray.
Following this law, all order thus comes from disorder. From chaos, patterns tend to emerge. Heavy stuff for an article about being a better writer, but bear with me.
By embracing a “messy” or even gasp an “unproductive” writing process, you’re more likely to get unique, useful takeaways over time. Start with the mess, then move toward order. Otherwise, you’re fighting both physical and human nature.
How many times have you started with an extremely ordered, thoroughly practical method you read about in some blog post, only to look up a month later to find that you’ve slipped back into a process that’s anything but organized?
You and I and all the planets and stars in the universe tend toward disorganization. It is the starting point. So, let it be the starting point.
Take little pieces of every possible method, idea, and weird writing ritual that strikes you, and jumble it all together like a cackling mad scientist in a country without OSHA regulations.
Let the beginning be what beginnings are — let them be a glorious disaster. Einstein and I give you our full permission and support. This will bring you to our next, more encouraging natural process…
Order Naturally Arises From Chaos…Even For Writers.
When it comes to the human brain, there is nothing on Earth more skilled at making something coherent out of lots and lots of incoherence. It is one of our most fundamental traits — and it’s why the field of A.I. is so challenging.
Our brain’s ability to turn random information into observations and conclusions is extremely difficult to replicate.
It isn’t just the human brain that reflects this process of turning mayhem into method. I’m not a huge fan of Nietzsche, but one of his quotes captures the sentiment rather nicely:
“You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star.”
It’s true in more than a metaphysical sense. The big bang created a big mess, but over time that mess naturally coalesced into the star-studded universe we see today.
Writers —consider this a signal to unleash your chaos upon the world.
By accepting human development's inherent disorder, your writing will be given the space to improve itself naturally. You just have to keep at it. Without the pressure of a process that is likely unnatural for you, you give your brain the energy to do what it does best.
My godforsaken Brain Dump file is, truthfully, a garbage fire. But from the stinky ashes of that refuse, my most poignant and productive work has emerged.
My writing is a gorgeous trash-phoenix, an incarnation of the most basic principles that govern our existence! Or, less dramatically, I just tried everything—all the time. I wrote things on my phone, on sticky notes, in fifty-thousand half-used 8x10 notebooks…no ten-step outlines for me, no sir.
The chaos naturally showed me what worked and what didn’t. It gave me a unique process that has made me not only a prolific writer, but also one who manages to make her living from what she produces.
It can do the same for you if you stop fighting it.
Expertise Is A Dumpster Fire, And So Is Success.
What do I mean by this bold headline? Well, my friend, I have found an interesting pattern while working with, studying, and learning from the writing experts we see popping up all over the internet these days.
All of the credible ones have accepted the “dumpster fire” phase of being a writer. Or rather the dumpster fire phases, because there are usually several throughout your career.
What, do you think productivity scions and bestselling writers pop out of the womb fully formed, like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus? No, they are mere mortals like us. They must endure the flaming detritus crucible just as we do and emerge from it with their wisdom forged from the cinders.
Basically, every writer starts by being a huge honking catastrophe. I’m talking ten half or quarter-written manuscripts shamefully squirreled away in the back of a hard drive, like some secret house you store your illegitimate bastards in while living an outwardly respectable life.
I’m talking frenzied brainstorming sessions followed by a legendary crash in which you doubt your own integrity and decide that yes, you are a failure, just like Aunt Maude said last Christmas when you brought up her recent third divorce.
You’re reading these polished ebooks laying out the perfect writing process, and all you can see is the finished product and all the potential it contains.
What the experts tend to leave out is what that process actually looked like while it was forming. It’s rarely pretty, I promise you. And guess what? That’s okay!
Wonderful, even, because it permits you to accept the refuse inferno days with grace and hope.
Let me finish off with my own Law of Thermodynamics — or, in my case, the “Law of Actually Being A Real-Life Writer.”
The perfect writing process a) doesn’t exist, and b) if it did, probably started as the exact opposite of perfect. So keep reading those ebooks, but don’t make the mistake of thinking your own writing improvement will neatly follow the steps laid out.
Like I said at the start of this piece — Frankenstein made a mess, but it was a mess that walked, talked, and fueled a story that became a classic.
I think it’s a wonderful thing that so many great writers share their expertise with us, and I’ve found so much of their advice to be extremely helpful as I pursue my own goals and journeys in the field. I even try my hand at giving advice, too, from time to time.
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The conclusion I want to give you is simply this: feeling like a mess is a natural, unavoidable part of being a human, and this is doubly true for writers. We take a cacophony of words and put them into sentences, then into paragraphs, and then, somehow, turn them into work that communicates ideas to other people.
It’s magical, isn’t it? Magic, I’ve found, is only linear when it’s happening in a fairytale. Usually, it’s more like entropy mixed with an existential crisis. And from there comes every lesson you’ll ever learn as an artist. Embrace it.
Now, go out and make something disastrous, you glorious, mystical creature. I can’t wait to see the beautiful messes you make.
They might just change the world.