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.


  1. Janet – this is sheer brilliance. For those of us (me) who must not only be able to *see* it all, but be able to move and manipulate it, nothing but a big ol’ sheet of paper will do.

    I like to unroll wrapping paper (putting the decorative side in) and tape it to the wall. I reuse it later for presents, too. 🙂

    As you said, having “something concrete to work with” is the primary thing that gets me unblocked and creative again. At the moment, I have all the pieces of book on stickies, which are stuck to my wall. It’s messy, but it works!

    Thanks for the blogging brilliance!

    🙂 Jen

  2. Janet Bailey says:

    @Jen – Yes, big paper plus sticky notes! I use stickies to fill in the details when I can’t decide where they should go. Yay stickies!

  3. Waverly says:


    love the idea of the butcher paper but I thought I’d share another tip I learned from my writing teacher, the fabulous Priscilla Long of Seattle. when we’re working on essays, she has us write ten topic sentences, one for each important thing we want to say in the essay. I know topic sentences sound boring but these are meant to be little reminders of what we plan to cover, not tantalizing hints. They’re just placeholders. And they’re not in order. You get to figure that out later. And then you just use freewriting to write the stuff underneath each topic sentence. I love this way of writing because it really frees me up. Of course, ten is arbitrary. Some topics have twelve, others six.

    Re stickies: I had the opportunity of being a resident at the amazing women’s writing retreat, Hedgebrook, on Whidbey Island this March and the only thing I really, really missed that I didn’t bring from home was sticky notes. Didn’t realize how dependent I was on them. Had to make a trip to town to get some.

  4. Janet Bailey says:

    @Waverly – Sounds like a great method. But I’d definitely need to call them something other than topic sentences. GAH! Funny about needing the sticky note fix.

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