Are you a linear or circular writer?
Some writers feel comfortable and can be productive following the sage advice of the King in Alice in Wonderland to the White Rabbit: “Begin at the beginning . . . and go on till you come to the end.” Other writers, though, wail internally or aloud, “But I don’t know where/how to begin!” Trying to follow that command only increases their angst and intensifies 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, a heretic in the King’s court, I’ve got sound reasons. In the first chapter of a dissertation or introduction in an article, the writer must present a thorough and concise overview of the problem investigated or reported on. This presentation requires (a) great familiarity with the breadth of the topic and (b) greater familiarity with previous studies of the 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 a traditional dissertation describes the methods of the study. The style should be straightforward, with precise descriptions of the steps the student will take to conduct the study and reach conclusions.
Like a cookbook recipe:
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 great advantages. They can break into the work with at least a minimum of apprehension and 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. Even though I’ve started (and finished) many pieces, I’m often anxious, scared, nervous when I begin 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. Maybe the idea appears when I’m sitting outside with my morning coffee, or when I write 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. Don’t force it. What pulled you into the topic in the first place? Relight that spark. Freethink. And soon you will be moved to freewrite—about any aspect of the work. I’ve written whole sections and chapters this way, not knowing until much later where or how they’ll fit. But eventually they do.
Linearity versus Circularity?
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 starched sheaf of outline and notes and maintain they can’t work otherwise. Plenty of bestselling authors have used and use outlines, sometimes of staggering complexity and even artistry—William Faulkner, Joseph Heller, Sylvia Plath. Did you ever see J. K. Rowling’s outlines (Plocher, 2013)? See too the fascinating article by Waters (2014) on Rowling’s and other authors’ (incredibly complex) handwritten outlines.
On the other hand, or page, some authors all but gag at the thought of outlining. In an interview, Margaret Atwood was asked if she uses outlines. “I did that once,” she replied. “It was a terrible mistake” (Godsey, 2010, p. 487).
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 keyboard, I have to feel along where to go from there. My notes often dribble into an entire section, but it lives like the Earth hanging in space in an astronaut’s photos. I usually don’t know where the scribbled passage will fit into an article, story, or novel, but I obey the compulsion to just get it down.
The writing leads you. Donald Barthelme (1999) made an often-reprinted observation:
A writer is someone who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do . . . .The not-knowing is crucial to art, it is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.
You may know too of E. L. Doctorow’s (Plimpton, 1986) simile: Writing is “like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way” (p. 101). Both of these masters knew the writing leads you and were cheering for the circular approach.
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 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, I jot down the ideas in a frenzied almost-legible outline. Then my head clears and I go back to the main writing, secure that those other ideas aren’t lost and I’ll come back to 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.” 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 usually supplied—chapter titles, subsections of chapters, article subheadings. 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 (Buzan, 2018). It’s kind of a hybrid between outlining and freeflowing. 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 gets your brain’s bombardment out, better than my frenetic scribbling. Mind mapping also stimulates your creativity—one balloon leads to the next.
In our fiction and certainly nonfiction writing, especially for long works that may span decades, generations, or myriad considerations, an outline or mind map can be a lifeline. Doctorow notwithstanding, these tools can function somewhat like a road map. And get you started.
When I do use an outline, though, I’ve had to remind myself of two essentials. First, the outline can always be changed, adjusted, refocused. In my book for doctoral candidates, I changed the original focus to a broader one. Then I kept reordering the outline to mirror (hopefully) students’ sequences of procedures and worries.
Second, make room for new ideas. When I outlined and produced segments, I allowed room for the next ideas, thoughts, ramifications, pertinent subtopics, even digressions.
As you work on your draft, and (maybe) 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.
Through many drafts in my dissertation book, and starting in many places, I learned to trust the process and with much circularity eventually got there. The act of writing begets writing. Thinking begets ideas.
Listen to yourself for where you really want to begin, what you really want to write in today’s session. Open to your creativity. Trust your own process—linear outline, inline, midline, or circular line, no line—and you too will get there and complete your work.
Barthelme, D. (1999). Not-knowing: The essays and interviews of Donald Barthelme. Vintage.
Buzan, T. (2018). Mind map mastery: The complete guide to learning and using the most powerful thinking tool in the universe. Watkins Publishing.
Godsey, K. D. (2010). Unlocking the door: Margaret Atwood. In Editors of Writers Digest (Eds.), The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, 2nd ed., pp. 483-488).
Plimpton, G. (1986). E. L. Doctorow: The art of fiction. Paris Review, no. 94, 101. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2718/the-art-of-fiction-no-94-e-l-doctorow)
Plocher, C. S. (2013). How Rowling turned a story idea into a best-selling series (Rowling’s outline and the book architecture method, pt I). https://thefriendlyeditor.com/2013/10/08/rowling-outline-series-part-one/
Waters, M. B. (2014, January 4). Handwritten outlines of famous authors. http://michelleboydwaters.com/handwritten-outlines-of-famous-authors/
© 2020 Noelle Sterne
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 600 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her second novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com