Most people who innocently come upon a great idea for a book, a post or an essay get stuck in the idea stage and never get around to getting words on paper. “Where do I begin?” they ask, helplessly.
While I know the answer (and am about to show you), I’ve been there, too. Yes, even though I know how to organize my ideas, I find myself staring off into space wondering how I’m going to begin that piece I have in mind.
That means that all the techniques in the world won’t solve the problem for you. You have to apply them. Developing the habit of pulling out a pen and paper or opening a fresh document and actually doing what I’m about to show you is the only way to overcome that initial hiccough of getting started.
Ready to learn a new skill? Then, read on!
Two Kinds of Writing Processes
The most helpful concept to remember is that there are two kinds of writing processes. One is brain dumping everything on paper so you get it where you can look at it. The other is creating a finished piece by organizing your ideas and deciding how to present them.
Getting started involves the first and absolutely does not have anything to do with the second! What stops us, though, is that we know we can’t make the finished-piece kinds of decisions, so we just don’t do anything.
The key here is to learn to get used to having no idea what you’re doing, how to do it, what comes first, second, third. And, accept that writing style, word choice, all that, is also not needed for the brain-dump stage of writing
Brain Dump, or Get ‘er Down
The simplest, easiest way to get your ideas down is to make a list of all the concepts, thoughts, questions, knowns and unknowns, haves and needs of your idea. Forget sentences, punctuation, making a case, being sure. Just get down the ideas. You might have questions about your topic. Include them.
If you’re not a list-maker, try using a mind map, where you draw circles to contain ideas and lines showing relatedness between ideas. Or, write each idea on a colored Post-it and place it on a whiteboard or the wall, rearranging as you begin to see relatedness.
Online resources for glorified lists, mind maps and schematics are Trello, Airtable, and even Evernote.
Start to Sort, But Don’t Worry
Here’s where the magic happens, because chances are good to great that if you followed step one with your idea (not just thought about it, but actually got the ideas down in some form), you already have started to see some of the natural relatedness of the ideas, some of the ways that they are alike or different from each other.
Play with sorting them, but don’t get attached or obsessive about it. Just see how things want to be organized for right now.
Look for Categories
So, you’ve got your ideas, and they’ve fallen together in certain ways, and now you can start to reverse engineer the categories they fall into. In a nonfiction piece, some common types of ideas are
For example, you may find that 5 of the things you wrote down are opinions about something, 1 is a recent quote or current event that’s related, and 2 are things you think people should do. These the 3 categories your ideas fall into.
Look for the Shape and the Holes
At this point, you should be able to see the shape of the piece. It’s a short how-to on a topic. It’s a longer exposition that includes some of your personal story that will make a point that’s relevant to your readers. It’s an in-depth analysis of something with suggestions that will be helpful to your clients.
As you see its shape start to form, you will naturally see what’s missing from the shape. You might see that you need to do more research for your how-to, or formulate a lesson that you learned so that your readers can benefit from your experience. You may have to clarify your thoughts on a topic, or review things you’ve written in the past.
For example, you have 5 opinions. How will you justify them? What relevance to they have for your readers? What needs to be added to complete those ideas? Are there more to-dos you can add? Do you have core message, call to action, conclusion or other unifying idea you want to convey? What else needs to be in there to make it complete?
Put It In a Tentative Order
Next, before you put the pencil down, try putting your ideas into a logical order. How will you talk about them? Which one first, second, third? This, too, is fluid. You may initially think that the perfect way to begin is to tell a certain story, and then change your mind and start by citing some statistics. Just try for an order that makes sense to you now.
Sit With It
The next step is to let it all settle. Digest your ideas. Digest the whole that emerged. Sit with the missing pieces and the possibilities that emerged during this process. You may have immediate ideas to complete the piece, or you may see that there’s a lot more work to be done. Either way, you now have something like an outline.
Really, Sit With It
I’m going to confess something: I believe that creating a preliminary outline as described above is magical. For me, the shape of my piece, the thing that tells me what it is, shimmers into view as I dutifully and trustfully put down my ideas and gently shuffle them against each other.
It’s only then that I begin to understand exactly what I’m about to say, exactly what I’m undertaking, and can commit to it. Or not.
And that’s why I say to sit with it. Writing a piece, whether it’s a biographical statement, a blog post, a book or a letter requires commitment. It’s difficult. The process is fluid. Which means your underpinnings can disappear as quickly as they appeared.
But here’s another piece of the magic: As surely as you begin to understand what it is you are impelled to write, the possibilities for what it can become start to form inside you, in the place where ideas form and words learn to ride them. And this feeling of possibility is, I believe, is what get us to finish the pieces we started.
So sit with it and see if possibility blooms. See if you are inspired to complete it. It’s okay to decline at this point. You’ll find it feels much stronger than meekly backing away because you were too intimidated to start.