I write nearly every day and I have the hypothesis that there are three writing mindsets. Put simply:
- Raw. When I wake up from a dream, or share a meal with someone interesting, I have a surplus of ideas in my head. Often they’re strange, sometimes they’re interesting, occasionally they’re brilliant. In all cases they are fragments of ideas: phrases, concepts, images, memories. They could be anything, ideas for books, or systems of government, or a new kind of terrible spray cheese product. I know I can’t predict what idea will lead to what other ideas, so I write down tons of the raw thoughts that cross my mind. I have many places for capturing the raw things that come out of my mind. I have a pad by my bed, a small notebook with me all the time and a digital journal.
- Run. When I’m developing a specific post, essay or chapter, this is the mindset that lets me build a narrative, find a theme, and run with it for as long as I can until it dies out. Sometimes I can run with a thread for pages. Sometimes I barely get through a paragraph. But unlike Raw, with Run I stick with the same idea for as long as I can and continue trying to make it work.
- Review. When nothing else works I review. I reread from the start. I fix things. I change the order of points. Sometimes I change bigger things like the order of paragraphs, pages or chapters. Sometimes I fix little things like spelling or grammar. This is editing, in that I’m primarily working with what’s already there. If I’m reviewing to avoid running, I try to review only long enough until I have an idea and the confidence to start running again (saving real editing for the big read).
Some writing sessions involve moving between these three mindsets frequently. I might decide to scrap an entire chapter or add a new one (Raw), or pick up a side path and make it the focus (Run). To do either of those tasks might require me to reread entire sections (Review) before I can hold enough of it in my mind to make a Run.
There are good days where I balance the three mindsets well. On other days I get lost on one particular run on something that in reality is a tangent, and I won’t know it until the next time I sit down to review the whole creation. Now and then I find myself obsessing about a detail (Review) far too early, when then entire piece isn’t developed enough to justify polishing.
Often I can control which one I want to use and it’s a choice. When I sit down each day I often know where I left off yesterday. I begin the writing session I already have in mind what the next session needs to do. Other times I have trouble continuing, and need to write freely in my journal just to get the exhaust out of my brain (Raw). But on some days I’m a slave to my mind, when it wants to Run, or wants to be Raw, even though the task at hand is to Review, I sometimes let it have its way.
I always have projects at different stages lying around. If I can’t concentrate on the mindset one project needs, I’ll at least go and review something, or continue a Run (e,g, a half-written blog post) I abandoned weeks ago, until I sort out what is distracting me from what i want to do. I try to never let myself do nothing: there’s always a way to use whatever state of mind I have to my advantage. At minimum I can do some research on the project (a kind of review, just of other people’s work). But I know on some days the escape from having any conscious mindset at all is what I need, and the solution is to go for a run, chase the dog, have a beer with a friend and see where my mind is the next day after my body has had its way.
[This post was 1% Raw, 74% Run, and 25% review: I wrote it in 25 minutes just now, while avoiding a much larger writing project]