Sneaking up on the first draft—part 1
This week I experimented with ways of getting ideas down on paper more quickly. The thought is that if I can’t (yet) see a way to get rid of the reflexive unpleasantness that continues well past the “just starting” stage, I can at least reduce its duration…by having something closer to a draft to work with, sooner.
Note for those of you about to helpfully suggest “Mindmapping! Freewriting!”—those tools are all well and good, I use them, I’ve taught them. But to really get a draft down that I can work with I need a sense of structure, which freewriting doesn’t provide, and I need a greater level of detail than mindmapping allows. Plus, I can’t freewrite a whole draft! Yikes! When I freewrite, I do it in chunks—by paragraph or section.
The Gigantic Outline
As I tried to outline a speech I was putting together for a new audience, I realized that one of my problems with working at a computer is that it doesn’t show me the whole project. I can only see a screen’s worth of ideas at a time.
Whatever I’m creating—a workshop, an article, a web page, any kind of project—I need to see the whole thing at once. How all the pieces fit together. The computer screen constricts me. So I freeze.
Outlining by hand, on a pad of paper, is a slight improvement, but I’m still limited by how many ideas fit on the page.
Solution: a gigantic outline, on flip chart paper. How is it that I never tried this before? I have pads of flip chart paper around—I take them to client sites when I’m leading workshops. But I hadn’t thought to use them for solo work.
You can buy flip chart paper (aka easel paper) at office supply stores. The sheets I use are 27×31 inches. If you find that size unwieldy, fold the paper in half lengthwise.
I’ve used butcher paper in the past, but the flip chart paper has more room (added benefit: it doesn’t keep rolling up on me). Now I can see all the main ideas in relation to each other at the same time. This lets me start with the big picture and then gradually get more detailed…an alternative to my usual approach, which is to strangle uncertainty by microfocusing. Instead of getting bogged down in details I’ll never use, now I can put placeholders there, because it’s easier to gauge the amount of detail I’ll need based on how each section relates to the whole. I have a better sense of how much will fit and where I can let things go.
The outline took shape quickly, leading pretty seamlessly into the next step (drafting my talking points). I can’t say this technique lowered the intensity of the anxiety-about-getting-started-and-staying-with-it, but it made it less of an impediment by giving me something concrete to work with, which is where I get my momentum.
Next up: The elaborated outline, via Robert Boice.