Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
To write with intention, like we talked about in part one of this post, you need to get friendly with your muse. Figure him out and let him work for you.
My personal muse is an acronym, because I have a terrible memory. My M.U.S.E. reminds me to: Map, Unveil, Soak, and Edit. His advice keeps me honest — for my readers and myself.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The muse doesn’t come without being called.
MAP your course.
This is where you research, unload your ideas onto the page without slowing down to edit, then start to build a logical structure. I usually start this phase with rough notes, free writing my thoughts and blocking my inner editor whenever I notice it creeping in. By the end of the mapping phase, I’ve made a first editing pass and imposed some structure.
Start by considering your reader. With whom are you speaking and why? Think about real conversations you’ve had with people who might benefit from what you’re writing about. What does this person need to know and how are you uniquely qualified to help?
Do your research, then scale back your points. You’ve got some ideas percolating now. But how many different thoughts are you trying to communicate at once? Get them all on paper and see how they play together, then trim them to a few clear, solid points.
Next, build your logic. Think about what you really want to say. Think about the order — how each point can inform the next. Always come back to your reader and think about how you can surprise or delight her not only with ideas, but order and structure. Create a little suspense.
James Scott Bell
Structure is translation software for your imagination.
My best advice for this stage is to draw a mind map of your topic. It’s fun and easy to do, and helps you untangle your brain weeds from your fruit-bearing ideas.
Set aside time for your mapping. What you’re writing about will dictate how long it will take, and you may change course a few times before it feels right.
UNVEIL your path.
Once you have a clear idea of where you’re going, show your reader. Take me with you: as your reader, that’s what I want most. Engage my senses. Paint me a picture and tell me a story, always making sure I’m still along for the ride. You don’t have to hold my hand the whole time, but review your own text line by line to make sure I won’t get lost anywhere.
SOAK the “brain dishes.”
Maybe you’re the kind of person who does their dishes right after using them. If so, good for you! I don’t. I let my dishes soak while I’m digesting so the leftover bits of crud will loosen by the time I load the dishwasher.
The same concept helps me prepare for the editing process after I write: I like to turn my attention to other things so my subconscious can loosen the cruddy bits. Take a walk, play a game, whatever takes you away from it. Sleep on it, if you can.
By the time I return to the page for edits, I have some perspective and am ready to scrub. It’s a gross analogy, but it works for me.
EDIT like crazy.
Sloppy, lazy language causes problems. By failing to signal properly, you’ll cause mental traffic jams and your readers will just give up.
To write is human, to edit is divine.
Make sure you’ve used the active voice instead of the passive whenever possible. Use strong verbs instead of slippery adjectives and adverbs. Refer back to the main points you identified earlier: slash and burn whatever deviates from them, no matter how beautifully written. Or, restructure the whole thing if it will make more sense. Murder your darlings, as they say.
Then read it all aloud and listen to the cadence. And whenever possible, have someone else read it too.
Allot the time to write and edit properly. I’ve been guilty of rattling things off without solid edits more times than I’d like to admit. But when you see your words out in the wild and realize they are jumbled, or badly punctuated, or misspelled, it makes you feel pretty silly. Manage your deadlines and be proud of your prose.
And high-five that muse, while you’re at it.
Make Some Noise