As writers and creative types, we all have techniques to get in gear and move our work along. When I write and coach other writers, I approach the early stages of writing as an opportunity to generate great material. I describe the approach as, “Make a mess…then clean it up.”
The “make a mess” part is fun, liberating, and can generate a considerable volume of usable material. I encourage clients to “write for the trash,” i.e., with complete abandon. This process removes our inner judges and leaves us with piles of material to sift through.
Cleaning up our messy writing is a chance to find gems in the trash. By being thoughtful about reviewing our work and having a system to organize it as we clean, it’s possible to find all sorts of things we can use in a variety of current and future projects.
Most writers are in their work for the long haul. So I encourage writers to take a kind and fun approach to sifting through their material. This advice holds true whether the subject matter of the material is serious or frivolous.
You can keep the “clean up” part of the process fun and fruitful if you stay curious and organized.
First, though, you’ll need to confront the mess you’ve made after you’ve written for the trash. Here’s how I typically confront messes in my own life.
Our walk-in pantry holds foodstuff, appliances, bakeware, paper goods, craft material, toys, cleaning items, and our recycling stuff. It’s got much of what we need for our small townhouse, but since its big, it’s often untidy. Every so often, I try to “get organized.” I sort through the material so that all of our projects can remain peaceful and productive.
First, I throw out all the crap that has no future. Then I start to sort. Without fail, every time I start to sort, I find inspiration for other projects. When I’m on my game, I write down all of the ideas that the sorting process generates. When I’m really on my game, I get specific about the projects, make labels, and set up timelines.
To get an overview of what’s there in your messy writing pile, approach it the way you would approach cleaning up a pantry. First, just like you would step back to assess the different categories of items in your pantry, you need to assess what’s in your writing pile.
Discern what’s no longer useful, what might be useful, and what’s essential. Sort your writing into piles (actual paper piles or virtual piles, depending on your writing format). Just as you would toss out expired cans of food, you can get rid of writing that is past its “best by” date.
Are there pieces of writing you want to do more with? It might be a subject you need to learn more about or an idea you’ve always thought you wanted to write about. It’s like buying that pasta roller and then never actually making pasta—if there’s a subject you need to learn so you can write about it, make a concrete plan to learn that subject. Figure out what research you need to do or people you need to speak with. Aspirational ideas are good, but they don’t help you if you don’t actually write about them.
Once you’ve weeded out what you need to throw away, it’s time to return to your writing with fresh eyes and begin organizing it around possibilities. Naming a possibility for the future and giving it a label gives you permission to move on.
You might organize your piles of writing by project type or by what kind of work is needed to finish it. Whatever kind of label you use, the act of naming it helps you take concrete action.
The pantry-cleanup poses a good analogy for how to approach our writing. Both get messy with use. And the work of tidying, sorting, organizing, and labeling your materials—for present and future projects—in a way that feels comfortable, convenient, and useful, holds equally as well for organizing writing as it does for organizing space.
If you have written a messy and generative draft with great abandon, or even a little abandon, you will likely have many nuggets of raw material—gems with great potential. But writing in this manner means that you will likely have far more material than you need for the writing project at hand. Use these techniques for sifting and sorting to keep at bay the feeling that you might drown in the treasure trove.
Remember: “brainstorming” creates the opportunity to off-load what’s “on” your mind; it can also evoke more inchoate or subconscious thought. Most of us have way more ideas, or beginnings of ideas, than we expect. So if you’ve really brainstormed with messy abandon, you have likely generated a considerable body of raw material.
While some of this material will work its way into your intended project, much of it may be tangential or entirely off-topic. Celebrate that you have created opportunities for future projects as you roll up your sleeves, get curious about the possibilities for your current project and future project, and keep moving. This process involves identifying the central goals of the current project, giving the appropriate amount of attention to sidelines and offshoots, and moving along. Here’s an example:
I once wrote a chapter about the learning models that homeschoolers employ that was rife with material about their unique approaches to parenting. After trying to shoehorn the latter into the former, I made a file, a virtual “kit” (a folder for a new article with all of the materials and few ideas) to return to later. I dumped in all of my current ideas on the subject, made notes of the source material, wrote a quick summary of what I had hoped for that project, and closed the folder. This action helped me focus on each project in its appropriate turn.
It’s important to be kind and curious about the different ways that you can approach your copious material.
I believe that kindness forms a key element in the development of good writing. I have little patience for harsh judgment in the writing process because when we focus first on what’s wrong, we can undermine confidence and creativity. Instead of harsh and unhelpful judgment before your ideas even get to see the light of day, you can approach your material with curiosity about its possibilities.
To avoid harsh judgment or becoming overwhelmed with your mess, strive for discernment, or careful evaluation of what’s working and what’s not. Finding a way to organize your writing will help you find the treasures in it. Here are two ways to get organized in a discerning fashion:
Sort Your Materials With an Index Method
Once you’re ready to clean and sort, there are plenty of techniques to do this in whatever way works for you. These techniques work whether your media are analog (scraps of paper, notecards, written notebooks, etc.) or digital files.
If you’re working with analog materials, consider the “indexing method” which is a way of creating a files of organizing notes.
When I was in elementary school, we were taught to develop our “reports” on index cards. We would take notes and develop ideas on the cards and then sort them into piles. Eventually, we would work through our piles of note cards to develop outlines from which we would then write our papers.
While the whole process felt tedious—likely because our source material amounted to encyclopedia articles and a book or two—the open-ended nature and ease of sorting along categories still remains useful.
Most writers don’t write their materials on index cards because it feels limiting. However, you can go through your material and develop an indexing system with post-it notes. The notes can summarize the ideas or whatever you find valuable in a passage or piece of writing.
I used this technique in grad school to manage summaries of key article and papers and learned (after losing a ton of time) to develop a system to label in the corner—an index to the material. In essence, I was using the old book report/index card model but with my own writing as the source material.
Create an Easy-to-Understand Labeling System
Just as you would set up labels for different potential projects inspired by your pantry, the key in the process of sifting through your writing materials is to keep your labeling systems loose and fluid. Fluid labeling keeps you open to the different kinds of containers that can store your idea.
In our pantry analogy, you may initially label cans by ingredients but then decide to set up zones along different kinds of meals that they might create. The ability to shuffle containers or even ideas of what you are containing creates an open, contingent, and ultimately generative approach to your writing.
Of course, that DOES NOT mean that you are not containing or labeling your material. It means that you develop enough labels (categories of ideas, potential articles, etc.) that you can identify what’s relevant in your materials. Also, this process helps to keep a running list of themes across and within your work.
As you work with themes to lay out frameworks for whichever piece you choose to tackle first, keep a “container” or sets of containers (usually files in your computer or a binder). In each, you can set up wish lists of and to-dos within each potential piece.
The ways that you might dive in depend on your temperament. I am a knitter. Some knitters love to just buy yarn without a project in mind. That idea stresses me out, so before I buy yarn, I decide what to do with it first. I’ll often print the pattern and store it with the yarn in “kits” in a bin in my pantry. This process leaves me confident that I’ll know exactly what to do when I get to it.
Do you love knowing you have lots more on the horizon? Lay out a consistent labeling system and framework for each piece that you need to set aside. Treat it like a kit that you can get back to. Then focus on the piece of writing at hand. You can be single-minded and confident that you can always return to other “stored” projects without losing your train of thought.
I will not lie, my multi-purpose pantry can get overwhelming at times. When something falls on my head as I’m trying to reach for a baking sheet, I know it’s time to get my act together and do some sorting. And every time I dive in there, I discover something new or something old that no longer suits my goals.
The same can go with writing. Make a mess, pan for treasure, clean it up, repeat!
Within each project, I still advocate for this approach because each pass helps clarify your thinking, helps you deal with inspiring but potentially distracting sidelines, and maintains momentum for your current and future projects.
Donna Kirschner, PhD. has coached writing for over 20 years. Trained as an anthropologist, she has a knack for helping people find their stories and put them into a wider perspective. She coaches all aspects of writing, and especially loves helping people make a mess and clean it up. Find her on her blog, or check out her writing coaching business.