[Itech] Fwd: TP Msg. #1226 Optimizing Your Writing Process: Write Nonlinearly

Teresa Franklin franklit at ohio.edu
Mon Feb 4 21:53:56 EST 2013

Hi Graduates,

I know how difficult it can be to put words on paper as you write
dissertations and journal papers so I am sending this suggestion in the
hopes it will help you! :)

Please read below.

Dr. Franklin

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Rick Reis <reis at stanford.edu>
Date: Mon, Feb 4, 2013 at 6:43 PM
Subject: TP Msg. #1226 Optimizing Your Writing Process: Write Nonlinearly
To: tomorrows-professor <tomorrows-professor at lists.stanford.edu>

Viewing your work from the meager and terrifying prospect of a point at the
end of an endless string of words isn’t helpful. It’s far more productive
to view it as a landscape that you’re viewing from above, and whose
topographic features include hard parts, easy parts, exposition parts,
dialogue parts, parts involving Character A, parts involving Theme B, etc.
Viewed like this, your project resembles an illustrated map, or maybe one
of those miniature landscapes you see in museums, and it’s now accessible
to you in its totality.

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The posting below looks at a powerful way of approaching your writing tasks
that helps you avoid getting stuck moving forward.  It is from Section 5.4
Write Nonlinearly: Leverage Your Project’s Easy Parts, in Chapter 5,
Optimizing Your Writing Process, in the book, The Seven Secrets of the
Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination,
Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block, by Hillary Rettig. Copyright © 2011
Hillary Rettig. All rights reserved. hillaryrettig.com. Reprinted with


Rick Reis
reis at stanford.edu
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-----------------------------------------------  ---------- 1,452 words

Optimizing Your Writing Process: Write Nonlinearly

Perfectionists tend to see their projects as long strings of words—and
there’s a natural tendency, when you have that viewpoint, to want to start
at the beginning of a piece and write straight through till “The End".

Viewing your work from the meager and terrifying prospect of a point at the
end of an endless string of words isn’t helpful. It’s far more productive
to view it as a landscape that you’re viewing from above, and whose
topographic features include hard parts, easy parts, exposition parts,
dialogue parts, parts involving Character A, parts involving Theme B, etc.
Viewed like this, your project resembles an illustrated map, or maybe one
of those miniature landscapes you see in museums, and it’s now accessible
to you in its totality.

And now you can use a visualization tool I call the “writercopter,” a
mental helicopter that can transport you to any place in your piece. The
moment you feel you’ve taken a particular patch of writing as far as you
can, hop onto your copter and take it to another section that looks
enticing. Work there until you run dry, and then reboard and hop to another

What if no part looks appealing? Try writing about the piece, since your
alienation from it is probably rooted in the fact that you either need to
think it through more or are trying to force it in the wrong direction (see
Section 5.9). In the unlikely event that doesn’t help, set the piece aside
and let it marinate while you work on something else.

Writing might sometimes be difficult, but it should never be unpleasant; if
it is unpleasant—if you’re feeling frustrated, bored or stuck—that’s not an
indication of any deficiency on your part, but simply the signal to move to
another part of the project, or another project. While it’s okay to
practice “writing past the wall,” i.e., sticking with a difficult section a
bit longer than comfortable, don’t perfectionistically dig in your heels
and become an antagonist to yourself and your process.

The writercopter technique is similar to that used by the late, great, and
famously prolific author Isaac Asimov, who wrote or edited more than 500

“What if you get a writer’s block?” (That’s a favorite question.) I say, “I
don’t ever get one precisely because I switch from one task to another at
will. If I’m tired of one project, I just switch to something else which,
at the moment, interests me more.” [From his memoir, In Joy Still Felt.]

Note Asimov’s absolute sense of freedom and dominion (authority!) over his
work—expressed not in grandiose terms, but the simple ability to do
whatever he wants, whenever he wants. And, of course, the total lack of
blame, shame, compulsion, and perfectionism.

Nonlinear writing obviously goes hand in hand with freewriting; using the
techniques together should powerfully speed your writing. What’s more, the
process is accelerative, since the more easy parts of your project you
finish, the easier the hard parts will get. (By writing “around” the hard
parts, you’re illuminating them and solving problems related to them.)

You can combine nonlinear writing with Anee Lamott’s famous “one-inch
picture frame” technique from Bird by Bird to get through even the toughest
piece of writing. To combat overwhelm, Lamott reminds herself that:

All I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch
picture frame … All I’m going to do right now, for example, is write that
one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when
the trains were still running.

I myself have gotten through very tough patches of writing (meaning,
sections where I felt a lot of resistance to the writing—because the
patches themselves are neither easy nor hard, but just writing) by
switching back and forth between the difficult patch and an easier one,
doing “one-inch picture frame”-sized pieces of the tough section and longer
stretches of the easy one. The easy patches actually become a reward, in
this context, which is in itself a lovely development: writing not as
chore, but reward.

Take these techniques to their limit, as I assume Asimov did, and you
develop a very light touch around your work. You’re hopping everywhere in
the writercopter, not in a distracted way but in a focused, effective
way—and the writing is almost never a struggle, and the words just pile up.

The alternative is you struggle with grim determination to write the piece
linearly. And so you write a page or two and … wham! You’re at a hard part
and you stop dead. And because you don’t know what else to do, you just
keep throwing yourself against that wall—until procrastination steps in to
“save” you from your predicament.

Tales of Space and Time

Besides seeing projects as complex in space, the prolific also see them as
complex in time. While novice writers see writing as “just writing,” the
prolific see it as a process consisting of these or similar stages:

1.        Conceptualization (a.k.a. note-taking or “noodling around”)
2.        Planning and outlining (a little more structured than above)
3.        Research
4.        First Draft
5.        Revision(s)
6.        Final Draft
7.        Submission(s)
8.        Cash the Check (for freelance and other writers who get paid)

Note how the stage most people think comes first—First Draft—actually
appears halfway down. A major cause of unproductivity and blocks is that
the writer omits, or skimps on, the earlier stages—which means she is
trying to write something she doesn’t sufficiently comprehend.

Trying to write a first draft without first spending adequate time on
stages 1-3 is like planting a garden without preparing the soil, or
building a house atop a shaky foundation: a risky proposition at best.
Sure, once in a while a piece will just seem to write itself. But that’s
usually because we’ve either thought about it a lot or figured out a link
between it and other topics we’ve thought a lot about. So the early stages
were, in fact, done, only perhaps at a different time. (Also, the
confidence that comes from writing something familiar helps us resist

Obviously, the stages differ from project to project, and writer to writer.
Some projects demand extensive research, others only a little. Some writers
create detailed outlines, while others work from the seat of their pants
(the famous “plotters” versus “pantsers” divide). And some writers do the
stages mostly linearly, while others jazzily intermingle them. Whatever
system works for you, and the particular project you’re working on, is the
right one.

It’s helpful to remember that most of us enjoy working on some stages more
than others, and those are the stages we tend to get stuck on if we’re
prone to procrastination. That’s procrastination as a toxic mimic of
productive work (Section 1.8), and it happens especially with first draft,
research, and revision.

Conversely, many writers dislike, or are afraid of, certain stages and try
to avoid them. These are, typically, the first draft and submission, as
well as marketing and other business “chores.”

You probably know if you’re overworking or underworking a stage due to
procrastination, but if you’re unsure, ask your mentors. If the diagnosis
is, indeed, procrastination, use timed exercises (Section 2.14) to overcome
your fears.

Armed with the knowledge of the stages of a writing project, you can now
use your writercopter to move not just through space (the landscape of your
project), but time: more specifically, back to a prior stage whenever
you’re stuck. I recommend moving back to conceptualization, planning,
outlining, or drafting, but not research because it is a frequent vehicle
for procrastination.

Another important productivity technique is to identify the easiest parts
of your project so that, when all else fails, you can work on them. When,
during the writing of this book, I was severely distracted or demotivated,
I worked on the bibliography. Why not? It had to get done, and doing it
empowered me and helped me get re-motivated as soon as possible.

You can do this temporally, too. The earliest and latest drafts of a
project are usually the easiest, because the earliest ones tend to be free
and fun (if you don’t get perfectionist), and the later ones tend to have
most of their elements in place, so that what you’re doing is mainly line
edits. So if you’re working on multiple projects, or a project with
multiple sections, all in different phases of completion, do “earlies” and
“lates” when feeling distracted or otherwise unmotivated; save the tough
middle drafts, where you’re trying to make order out of chaos, for when
you’re feeling fresh and energetic.

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Dr. Teresa Franklin
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313D McCracken Hall*, *Dept. Educational Studies
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