Thursday, February 14, 2019

How to Write and Publish--3--Organize and Begin

Step 3a is to gather and organize your notes.

Pull together the bits of paper, the notebooks, the documents on your computer.

Think hard—did you write about this subject in a journal, letters to your sister, or sermon notes? Include those on your pile as well, if you can.

If you’re writing a life story, whether it’s your own or someone’s else’s, you’ll want every document you can scrape up. Old letters, diaries, pictures, cards, report cards, and so on.

I inherited my grandpa Adam’s financial record book. Even the notes about eggs and cream tell me about him.

A list of farm products the family sold.

Writing a children’s book or a devotional on forgiveness will be a different process from writing someone’s story, but in every case, the more jotted ideas you begin with, the easier the process will be.

Usually when I begin work on an article or speech, some notes are on paper and some on computer documents. However, when I prepared a few talks on marriage for a retreat this past year, I decided to put all my points and illustrations on bits of paper. Then I sat on the floor and placed the notes in piles all around me, with one pile of papers for each main point of my outline.

It worked amazingly well.

Our son Matt who works for the Navy is in charge of transitioning certain systems from paper to digital, much like the medical community has been doing for a number of years. Sometimes he is in charge of meetings where others with similar tasks get together from various points of the country to make sure they’re all doing this the same so that their systems can communicate.

Oddly and a bit ironically, he’s found that the best way to conduct these paper-to-digital workshops is not with Powerpoints and videos, but with Sharpies and Post-It notes. Everyone writes their questions and issues on Post-its, and Matt groups them by subject. Then they figure out solutions.

There is Matt organizing information and explaining things. And people are listening.
I am so proud of him.
He has always been good at explaining things so I can understand them without making me feel stupid.
He is sitting on his right leg. It is not as amputated as it appears.

So despite the benefits of fancy programs that let you cut, paste, and manipulate, there’s something about handwritten notes that helps you organize ideas.

Try it.

Step 3b is to start writing.

Most of us, at this point, agonize before the glowing computer screen. How should I begin? Beginnings are so crucial We slowly tap out one line.

“In 1990, my husband and I moved our little family to a reservation in Ontario.”

No no, too dry and chronological. Delete.

“I held my baby close as the Cessna 206 roared across the lake. Behind me, lumber for school desks was stacked to the ceiling. In front of me, the steering wheel thingamajig moved toward me as the pilot pulled the matching majiggy on his side. Beside the lumber, my two older children were strapped into one seat. I barely had room to turn my head to check on them.”

Sigh. I’m cramming too much into one paragraph. Maybe I need more backstory.

Actually, I need to quit worrying about how to begin.

The place you start writing won't necessarily be the place your story or book eventually begins, if that makes sense.

Much later, you can figure out the words that will draw people into your story.

At this point, you need to plunge into the middle of the pool and start swimming. 

This is what works for me at this point: take a pile of notes and dive in. Expand on ideas. Turn the jotted words into complete sentences. Add more sentences to explain it better.

Take another jotted note. Write out the idea or event in a full paragraph. This might remind you of something else that’s not in your notes, but it fits. Write that down too.
Don’t worry about beginnings and structure. The most important thing at this stage is to write like a maniac. Words words words. Pile them up.

This stage of writing is like building a sand castle on the beach: first you need a big pile of sand. So you shovel and scoop and mound it up high. Next, you run to the ocean for buckets of water to dump over it.

When the mound of sand is ready, the careful work begins. You pat here and carefully cut away there. You shape turrets and windows. You gather shells to make a pretty driveway, and put seagull feathers on top for flags. It turns into a beautiful castle, and you step back and admire it.
from Wikimedia
That’s how it is with writing. First you shovel and scoop a big pile of words. This gives you lots of material to work with. Then you slow down and start crafting. This first, then that. Cut this out and move it up here. An embellishment here. Less of this, more of that. Experiment with beginnings and endings. Read it from beginning to end a dozen times. Look at it from different angles.

Eventually, you’ll step back and admire your creation.

That idea tucked away in your mind has become something real.

I hope you are as proud of yourself as you ought to be.

 Next: How do I share my work with others?


  1. Thank you, Dorcas! I am stuck on writing one chapter for a friend's book. One chapter! I have written before. Theoretically, at least, I know these things. Yet I needed to hear them again from you. Thank you!

    1. Even one chapter can seem like an impossible task. I wish you the best!

  2. This is so interesting! I do several things differently than you do. Most, if not all, of my notes are in an app on my phone. I have hardly any paper notes. But I have electronic notes grouped by subject, so when I think of that perfect line regarding women in the church, I open my note titled Women in the Church.

    I also tend to start writing with a bare outline, then fill it in. I'm not a very wordy person, I guess! :)

    At any rate, the point is to get started somehow, even if the process is a bit different for different people! And I have always enjoyed your writing!

    1. Maybe you should do a few posts on your writing process! Both note-taking on phones and outlines make me break out in hives, so you have my admiration. And yes, the point is to get started somehow. Blessings on you, your process, and your message!

  3. I'm loving this makes it sound do-able.☺ I thought I was wierd, and hopelessly outdated for being able to "think better on paper". Thanks for the affirmation that its ok, and even more productive for some people. ☺ Of course the downside is not being able to copy n paste, or insert words, sentences, or paragraphs very easily or not being able to make corrections very well. I love that wall with post-it notes, and could definitely see incorporating that idea into life. I did get amused at all those collage educated folks depending on something so basic, instead of connecting their laptops, etc. Solomon had it right..."there is nothing new under the sun" ☺

    1. So good to hear that this series makes it sound do-able, as that was the goal. I too found it amusing how my son and the others came back to post-it notes! I wish you the best in your writing.