I often ask my students to scribble down in class the reason they want to write, why they are in my class, what is propelling them to do this sometiems-excruciating, sometimes-boring work. And over and over, they say in effect, “I will not be silenced again.” They were good children, who often felt invisible and who saw some awful stuff. But at some point they stopped telling what they saw because when they did, they were punished. Now they want to look at their lives – at life – and they don’t want to be sent to their rooms for doing so.
“bird by bird” by Anne Lamott

I am currently updating my knowledge on writing, in part due to a presentation I did yesterday with the title “Oh, you white sheet of paper, inspire me … or rather not. Methods and Tools for Writing” [Oh, du weißes Blatt, inspirier’ mich … oder besser nicht! Methoden und Werkzeuge zum Schreiben]. I had a nice audience and gave a 1,5 hours overview of:

  • What makes writing so difficult?
  • Content Outlines
  • The Material
    • Topic and Adviser
    • Literature, Ideas and Data
    • Time and Task Management
  • The Text itself
  • Literature Recommendations

I am not sure whether it was that helpful. I think that I currently have too much material and too much to say to make what I say useful. I got some positive feedback, but I need to seriously cut down the content, make the core message much clearer and use the other information — no matter how important on its own — more sparingly.

What was the core message? I think I can sum it up as:

Writing, whether scientific or fictional, requires that you know what you want to say before you start writing. You need to know, e.g., what the data means and what the contribution is, or in general, how the story starts, develops and ends. So make sure you spend a long time on collecting the material — which means making literature notes, capturing ideas, and understanding the data. Use a content outline to gather the material, then, when you think you have enough material, sort the content outline and check whether you have a coherent story. Only if you have this content outline with all the necessary information finished should you start to write in earnest. While you can write some sentences down or explore thoughts in writing, it is best to leave the content as ‘information units’, like bullet points in a presentation, not as sentences. Sentences usually stick together (e.g., via “… . This means …”) and you don’t know in the beginning how the story will unfold. But once you have your content externalized and ordered, you can put it next to your writing software and writing will usually be fairly easy.
(This message is fleshed out by some tools to make it more easy or manageable at all, e.g. by using Circus Ponies Notebook and Scrivener.)

Or something like this. 😉

It’s mostly based on my experience in writing, goes back to the postings on Outlines. The nice thing is that I found a couple of people who recommend doing the same, so I am not the only one for whom this strategy works. And sure, it’s not the only way to write — there are people who start writing and re-write their drafts again and again until the story is clear(er). But while you will have to do some re-writing in any case, I highly doubt that this is the best way to write — at least for me. It seems so … wasteful. I rather have my story plotted out, whether in science or fiction (or both), and write a good first draft that does not require structural changes.

I can’t put the slides online yet, as I want to give a very similar presentation at the next MinD-Akademie, but I will probably write a short primer on the topic. Might be interesting to put the content outline online as well, so you can compare the bones of the text to the actual writing.

But that will likely take some time.

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  1. “Oh, du weißes Blatt, inspirier’ mich … oder besser nicht!” — Wissenschaftliches und fiktionales Schreiben ohne Inspiration (aber mit Inhalts-Outlines, Scrivener, u.v.m.) | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY

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