Non Linear Writing: Undoing Doogie

The older and more brain-conscious I get, the more I feel that non-linear writing is helpful to my ADHD brain.  Trying to fit my writing process into boxes that someone else created finally ended when I learned to blog. I’ve learned to write my prose piecemeal and fit the parts together later, sort of a collage approach that I’ve been using in poetry for awhile. (Poets have the advantage of being able to work in smaller chunks at the outset.)

Good prose writers create “flow” on the page where one sentence and one idea leads naturally and inevitably to the next.  Having read on the order of 50,000 student papers in my career and churned out a few words of my own, I know that’s not an easy state to achieve.  “Flow” is one of those ideas about writing that is important hard to point to exactly in a piece of writing.

Novice writers usually know two things about flow; it’s good and they don’t have it.  They’ve been told a million times: improve flow.  Us writing teachers sometimes joke over beers about the things we write on papers when we get tired of grading papers:  awkward phrasing, use a stronger main idea, use more detail, use a more logical organization, improve the flow.  (That’s why I started grading papers during conferences; students rightly want to know how to do these things.)

Flow is an illusion, though, a parlor trick that good writers perform which inspires the Doogie Howser theory of writing process.  At the end of every episode of Doogie Howser, M.D., young Dr. Howser would sit at his computer and write in his journal accompanied by melancholy theme music.  He’d turn out perfectly pithy observations of that episode’s events without so much as a typo.  And because good writing seems as though it is produced that way when you are reading it, when it doesn’t happen, a novice writer gets frustrated. When perfectly crafted sentences do not immediately spring forth, they think something’s wrong.

The Doogie Howser theory of writing process is engendered when teachers present writing process in a simplistic way, in any way that suggests the paragraphs are written in the order that they will appear in the final version.

When students in my business and technical writing classes write workplace-style reports, they get hung up on the introduction.  The introduction contains statements of scope and limitations, among other things.  The thing is, you can’t write those statements until you’ve written the report.  You don’t know the precise scope of the report or until it’s at least in a fully rendered draft.

For most students, writing the introduction as a later assignment from the body of the report solves the issue.  But some students have a real hangup about writing any sort of narrative without an introduction. It runs so counter to their instincts and experience that it is nearly impossible.  (I tell them to write a placeholder introduction to delete later. Also a problem for some writers, though subject for another time.) The idea that you write the introduction last, even though it’s the first thing the reader reads, is utterly foreign.

The best advice I got in graduate school was “research is messy.”  Conducting and writing research is supposed to have false starts, backtracking, more material than you can use, etc. That’s not apparent if you only read finished research. I did not learn this lesson when I learned to do research writing in high school and college.

process writing

In high school, I learned to write research this way: we brainstormed a topic, gathered research, wrote a thesis statement, used note cards to organize our research, wrote an outline, then wrote a paper.  These are all things that make sense, but I experienced them in a lockstep fashion. There was no backtracking.

The fatal flaw with this method: the thesis statement is locked in before the research is done.  This is ass-backwards.  I am bemused by college writers who write research proposals for my class that offer the solution to the problem they are planning to research before they have done any actual research.  That kind of research is what political campaigns do.  It’s justification for existing positions.  It’s crap.

I just finished writing an essay (of the memoir variety) about an experience I had backpacking in 1994.  I went out on my first solo trip in Nordhouse Dunes on Lake Michigan and got swarmed with blackflies on the first day and nearly passed out racing back to my tent.  The incident is more of an anecdote, but I thought there was an essay there about expectation and reality.  I had considered becoming a nature writer before that trip, for example, and soon after abandoned that idea. (Though writing an essay about a bad encounter with nature is still technically nature writing, but I digress.)

I had been trying to write about this experience on and off since.  A few poem drafts and a couple of prose pieces have been lingering in my files for nearly twenty years now.  I have a reasonably good poem, I think, and I read it at a local event recently that got me to thinking about trying an essay again.

For the past couple years, I’ve used Scrivener to write. You can go look at it online to see all the features, but the key feature for me is that you can write in chunks and then manage those chunks easily.  In Scrivener, one main file is called a project. To that you add folders and documents and it has several choices for the interface of looking at your work.  It has loads of features for managing the work: tags, status labels, a research database, statistics, color coding, notes.  Far more features than I can use.

Scrivener makes it easy to work on a narrative in piecemeal fashion and then move the pieces around.  When I tried to write essays on the blackfly thing before, I got bogged down with chronology: I started the story at the beginning and worked my way up to the climax of the swarm incident and tried to end (unironically) with a Doogie Howser moment.

This time, I told the story in the first couple paragraphs and then thought about different ways to think about the event.  In fact, the essay is more about different ways I’ve thought about the experience through time as I understand more about myself (or different ways of thinking about myself).

Composing it was fun.  I created a different Scrivener document for each idea I had and banged away. I then read through the results and moved the documents around until I had an order that worked for me. I compiled it and printed it out and then read through to think about transitions.  (Another great feature of Scrivener is that you can quickly export a bunch of its documents to a single Word document. [And no, I am not a paid endorser for Scrivener, but I am saying Scrivener a lot.  Scrivener, Scrivener, Scrivener.  What a a strange word.])

After a couple re-orders, I went back and smoothed out the jumps between my original sections.  Working on those transitions triggered a couple new ideas and made some other ideas seem irrelevant, so I added and deleted.  After a couple more times through with smoothing and changing and I had finally arrived at a good insight to end with, which made the whole piece cling together, so more work on ordering, transitions and refining happened.

The whole way through I was working on editing language and proofreading, but I did a couple more editing and proofreading passes and then submitted it to a literary journal for publication.  That last step is a breakthrough for me.  My very slow writing career in terms of actual publication is due to this lack of finishing projects.  (A recent change in my meds has made it much easier; the ADHD brain likes all the ideas and possibilities, but you need Mr. Executive Function in order to do anything productive with said ideas and possibilities.)

The end result is an essay about the blackfly thing that has a clear flow and builds up to a final statement.  You would never know that I didn’t set out to achieve the ending by reading it now. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Blogging is similar.  I have a Scrivener project for my blog and I keep a folder of drafts, and bang away here and there at this and that and move around ideas until something feels finished enough to edit and post.  But not always.  “The Umbrella Story” occurred to me as a nearly complete idea and I churned that out in an hour or so during lunch.

I have no idea if this is true, but once someone told me that the novelist Thomas Wolfe used to sit on top of his refrigerator and scrawl out his writing on legal pads and toss the pages onto the kitchen floor and his editor would pick up the pieces and make something out of it. Though I have no editor at present, a more controlled version of this process seems to work for me.  I’m both the refrigerator sitter and the cleaner-upper.

Doogie Howser, M.D.

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2 thoughts on “Non Linear Writing: Undoing Doogie

  1. As a professional researcher (it’s actually in my job title), I concur that “research is messy”. It’s one of those awful truths that non-researchers cannot grasp. I think the same is true of non-writers. My writing process is not much different from yours. I usually write in chunks (either in Word or using Evernote, which sounds a lot like Scrivener). Sometimes the chunks are small (a sentence or maybe a few sentences). Sometimes the chunks are larger. The trick is taking the chunks and gluing them together so that they read like a whole. That’s flow, and it’s the end of the process for me. It’s an illusion, a trick played on the reader.

    My one question, of technical writing guru, is how to avoid (or to what extent should I attempt to avoid) repetitive phrasing? Say I’m writing a report on the percentage of civil cases with more than five depositions taken by one or both sides. OK, I did that two weeks ago. But I must have used the phrase “civil cases with more than five depositions taken by one or both sides” and similar dozens of times in a 12-page report. Any thoughts? The problem is that many of the phrases that become repetitive are technical in nature, and are used for their precision.

    • Ohai, Emery!

      I like Evernote too. It does a better job with tagging than Scrivener, but Scrivener has the edge on composing for me. If I am working on research (rare these days) I do use Evernote. Zotero used to be good too, but I haven’t tried that in awhile.

      Repetition is not always bad. Sometimes you have to repeat. A good fiction writer has no problem saying “he said” or “she said” a thousand times in a novel. Novice fiction writers are always trying to come up with synonyms. You can use an acronym, a variable name, or pronouns to shorten things the case you describe, unless you can’t.

      Lots of students ask about repetition; they get the advice/criticism “vary word choice,” but that’s a half truth about writing. The whole truth is that it depends on the kind of words we’re talking about. No one says, “you really used the word ‘the’ too much here, try to avoid that.”

      Transitions, modifiers, and “metadiscourse” (50-cent word for throat clearing writing) especially stand out if you use the same ones over and over. I once heard a nervous guest speaker use “quite frankly” about fifty times in a half-hour discussion. Quite frankly, that got quite disturbing, to be frank.

      Noun phrases, especially when they are the main topic of a piece, do not get as wearisome to the ear. But it also depends on the usual practices of that context too, and how much weight you put on that, quite frankly.

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