- Thinking about too many things at once
- Creating an outline that’s too complex
- Facing a blank page (or screen)
None of those things are necessary or even helpful. Consider the following alternatives.
OUTLINE BEFORE WRITING
In an excellent post, Bob Pozen notes that writing forces you to:
(1) organize your ideas into a coherent structure, (2) translate your ideas into words and sentences, and (3) re-evaluate whether each new sentence conforms to what you’ve already written. If you try to do all three steps at the same time, you’ll get stuck.
Exactly. You get stuck. The solution is to turn these three tasks into separate steps.
Before you write, then, organize your ideas. This is the purpose of outlining. However, remember that your outline doesn’t have to look the ones you did in school. Just write a headline and list of subheadings, as Brian Clark explains here.
KEEP THE OUTLINE FLAT
Traditional outlines mandate you to arrange your ideas in a deep hierarchy and label the various levels with Roman numerals, letters, and numbers. Forget that! As Cal Newport notes, this format is too rigid. Trying to keep track of all those levels will eventually make you feel like your hair is on fire.
Instead, write a headline that announces the main topic of your article or chapter. Then list subheadings that capture your main points about that topic. A headline and one level of subheadings is all you need—and all that readers can handle.
DON’T “WRITE”—JUST REWRITE YOUR NOTES
Cal offers another great suggestion in his post: When you research, gather quotes from your sources. Then dump those quotes underneath the appropriate subheading. Writing then becomes a process of extracting the best ideas from those quotes, putting them in your own words, and adding your own ideas.
The magic of this method is that you never have to face a blank page. You don’t form paragraphs in empty space; you just transform your notes (quotes).
The Web is awash in writing advice. Please forgive me for offering more. These three ideas have shaped my work at a deep level and saved my pointed little head from needless suffering. May they do the same for you.